There was a time when seeing an uncooked joint on the table would make every parent wince. That elbows were banished neatly to diners’ sides was pretty much the most basic rule of mealtime etiquette – and one easily established before mums and dads began calling out more tricky transgressions, involving snatching, slurping and sliding whole meals on to the floor or into the dog.
But take a look around the next family-friendly restaurant you visit and it’s as though the great war on table manners has never been fought. Children may be far more at ease eating out than their parents were 30 years ago – which is refreshing – but at times every table can look like the proverbial chimps’ tea party. Food flies, phones rule, and cutlery and conversation seem, at best, optional.
While any parent who has ever had their children’s friends over for tea will either be horrified at their own offspring’s eating habits compared with those of others, or vice versa. So are table manners a thing of the past as far as children are concerned – or something we should still encourage?
Blogger and style expert Kate Beavis believes that manners still matter. “Table manners are important for everyone,” she says. “It shows respect for the others sitting there. It is important that children learn these, and adults need to lead by example.”
However, Kate, 45, who lives with her husband, Adam (44, and a carpenter), and their children Herbie, nine, and Kitty, seven, in Cranfield, Bedfordshire, where she runs the Magpie Wedding Show, admits that it seems to be getting more difficult for parents to establish good behaviour at the dinner table.
“It seems to be a dying thing,” she says. “Children are always on the go (as are parents), school dinners are rushed and often without monitoring, evening meals have to be eaten fast as we dash off to clubs and activities, which can mean that table manners go out of the window. Then there is the trend for meals on the sofa, and eating with fingers (particularly takeaway food and pizza). Many kids don’t even eat at a table at all.”
Manners matter immensely because they are part of our social skills. How well we interact with others is key to our future success.
Heather Cavanagh, head of Burgess Hill Girls Junior School
She adds: “Interestingly, different cultures have different thoughts on table manners – elbows on the table, for example, is very British. Some countries think burping after a meal is a sign that it was lush. So while I think it is important to have good manners, it is actually more important to keep up the tradition of eating at the table as a family, with conversations and no mobile phones.”
Perhaps part of the problem is a lack of understanding of the value of good manners. Heather Cavanagh, head of Burgess Hill Girls Junior School, explains: “Manners matter immensely because they are part of our social skills. How well we interact with others is key to our future success.”
Paul Russell, director of Luxury Academy London, agrees: “There is a quote from Clarence Thomas [a US Supreme Court justice] that sums this up: ‘Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.’ Few will want an ill-mannered person in their workplace, home or social sphere, and this is as relevant today as it was hundreds of years ago.”
When it comes to table manners, Paul thinks the problem is not our children, but us: “Manners begin in the home as children learn from what they see and experience. If their parents use good table manners, their children will, too. Where table manners, and manners generally, are non-existent, children will have no example to learn from.”
In her experience, Heather does not think parents are getting more lax on the issue, but notes that there is a more relaxed approach to mealtimes in general. “Children are less exposed to formal dinners than they were,” she points out. As a result, the most common offence, she says, is “potential full use of your knife and fork”. The behaviour she likes least is when a child “stabs a piece of food on their fork and eats it like a lollipop”.
That would ring a bell with Kate, whose own list of cardinal sins includes her son “not cutting his food up but putting a whole sausage in his mouth, so as to not have to cut it”. She also cites “speaking with your mouth full and leaving the table without asking – I feel we should all stay until the end and finish it together. And then help to clear up together.”
Paul admits his list is even longer. “Parents may excuse their children, saying that they are just expressing themselves, or that they will grow out of it, but children are perfectly able to demonstrate good manners and express themselves politely. What may appear cute in a two-year-old certainly isn’t cute in a teenager. I’ve witnessed many who are dismissive or rude to waiting staff, who cannot even manage basic courtesy when dining – the type of person that you would go out of your way to avoid. Good manners need to start early.”
Heather believes in modelling good behaviour. “At our school, we sit with the children at mealtimes and eat with them – not just supervising but demonstrating. The first child to the table pours water for everyone, not just themselves.”
But we can’t just leave it to school. So what if you are nervous of tackling the subject at home? “Parents can have a fear of confrontation,” agrees Paul. “They can be scared to reprimand their child as they want to be seen as a friend rather than a parent. I hear ‘I don’t want them to hate me’ a lot when it comes to a lack of manners in children. The best thing that parents can do is to demonstrate the type of behaviour that they want to instil, utilise good manners at home and at mealtimes and get the basics right. It is perfectly fine to initiate a conversation on table manners and what they mean. I would thoroughly recommend it.”
But surely some of the prissier elements of table manners could be given the elbow, so to speak?
“Elbows on the table probably aren’t that bad, when you think about it,” agrees Kate.