- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2000

It is difficult to learn table manners while eating on the floor in front of the television, in the car en route to soccer practice or by the glow of the 40-watt refrigerator bulb.

Yet more and more, those places and other equally casual locales are where America's children eat. Is it any wonder that we are becoming a nation of people who don't know the proper direction to pass the peas? (Counterclockwise.) The demise of the family dinner has led to the fall of table manners, say Miss Manners and other purveyors of etiquette.

The subject of manners comes to the table every year at this time, when holidays portend gatherings with family and friends. Those gatherings almost always include meals, which almost always mean tensions of one sort or another. Can your sixth-grader refrain from shrieking "Gross me out" when the cranberry sauce passes his way? Will Dad touch every roll before proclaiming one worthy? How can we stop Mom from making a big scene over the inevitable water spill?

And who cares?

People who want to have an enjoyable experience around the dinner table, that's who.

"Etiquette is being kind and courteous and considerate," says Sidney Bayne of Smarter Image, a Clearwater, Fla., company that helps civilize the manners-impaired. "It's really about making other people feel comfortable."

The bad news is that adults are often as badly behaved as the children they complain about. The good news is that Thanksgiving and the December holidays are a couple of months away, and that's time enough to begin teaching your brood courteousness. At the same time, take stock of your own graciousness.

"The biggest thing parents can do is set a good example, and that's the hardest thing they can do because we're all eating food on the go," says Anne Anderson, director of the Southern Pinellas Chapters of the National League of Junior Cotillions. "Kids watch you, they observe you, they imitate what you do at the dinner table."

Mrs. Anderson encourages families to eat together, at the dining room table with the television off, at least two or three times a week.

"The meal doesn't have to be elaborate, just as long as you are using a fork and knife," she says.

That time together provides the opportunity to talk about how to hold utensils properly, how to act when someone spills something or even the best way to respond when the dreaded broccoli comes your way. (Take a small portion and try it. No whining, please.)

Children should be taught small doses of manners from the time they are able to sit at the table, but a parent can expect more from a fourth-grader than from a preschool child, steadfast in his belief that the world revolves around him.

Mrs. Anderson, the mother of three sons ages 11, 14 and 16, has taught hundreds of children how to be better dining companions in her cotillion classes. A seven-course meal at the end of the program helps the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders hone their skills.

For most of her students, she says, much of the etiquette information is new. They are eager to learn, especially as they step into the arena of socializing with the opposite sex.

"The biggest thing I tell the kids is that if you are at a dinner function and you've forgotten everything, just watch the hostess or the oldest lady at the table," she says.

And keep your fingers crossed that she knows what she's doing.

Children who haven't gone to cotillion sometimes called charm or finishing school and who never mastered manners at home often end up in the hands of Sidney Bayne later on in life. For 20 years, Miss Bayne has been teaching adults to act like grown-ups. She does individual counseling and is hired by businesses to train employees.

At the business level, knowing how to act at the table means more than a pleasant experience. It can be the difference between getting a job and continuing the hunt.

"A lot of interviews and business deals are made at mealtime. Many times people don't get past that opportunity because of inappropriate manners," Miss Bayne says.

Don't think that etiquette stops at the formal dining table. There are rules for eating at barbecues, potlucks, buffets and even fast-food joints, Miss Bayne says. You probably thought wolfing down a fast-food burger was the embodiment of anti-establishment dining where anything goes. Miss Bayne would disagree, and she has the rules to back her up.

"You need to be ready to order when it's your turn, and you need to clean up your mess afterward. Don't slurp through your straw."

It is not just guests who have guidelines to follow. The burden of a good time also falls on the shoulders of the host.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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