I read about a most unusual seminar last month at the prestigious Harvard Club of Boston: Holiday Table Etiquette & Dining Skills for Children Ages 6-12 years, taught by Rosanne Thomas, President of Protocol Advisers, Inc. It piqued my interest. I always wonder if today’s grandkids really know their manners? My kids and I do our best with my grandkids, but, as all parents and grandparents know, proper behavior doesn't always sink in. I decided to try an experiment: I set the dining room table, cooked a full Thanksgiving dinner, and invited five grandchildren plus one their friends, ages 5 to 9 to put on their party clothes, enjoy a meal, and maybe learn a few things from Ms. Thomas. The kids were psyched!
Ms. Thomas began the evening with a very short "What is wrong with this picture?” slide show, which the kids loved and which got them all talking.
"Do we ever say, ‘Ew!’ we don’t like something even if we don’t like it?” Ms. Thomas asked. They knew the answer to this. "No!” all six chimed.
At dinner, they ate and they learned. Ms. Thomas explained that you never call adults by their first name. Then and, the kids loved this, that there are two styles of eating—the American way, which means you start with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right, then after cutting, put the knife down and switch the fork to the right hand to eat. And the European way, which is the same as the American way to start, but instead of switching hands, you eat with you fork in your left hand, tines down.
"Tines,” they echoed.
Other facts they walked away with?
- The boy pulls out the chair for the girl. Then he helps push it back, and then he sits down.
- The host is the leader. When he takes his napkin and puts it on his lap, guests follow. When he picks up his fork, this means guests can pick up their fork, too.
- You never start eating until everyone has been served.
- Your bread and butter plate is on the left side And you don’t cut your bread. You tear off a bite size piece and then you butter that piece.
- When you’re passing food around, you always pass to the right.
- When you aren’t eating, you place your knife and fork in a resting position, "See how it’s like an inverted V. Like a tee-pee. That lets people know you are not finished eating.”
- You don’t cut up all your food at once. You cut one or two pieces at a time.
- When a glass has a stem, you want to hold the glass by the stem.
- When you finish your meal, you put your fork and knife on the plate resting side by side, It's called the 10 o’clock - 4 o’clock position. "Like on an old fashion clock?” Adam, 8, asked.
- We don’t correct people. "Even though you know the right thing to do, you don’t correct other people and you don’t correct your parents. Parents can correct their kids because that’s their job. And someday when you’re parents you can correct your kids. But no one else.”
At the meal’s end, each child received a certificate of achievement. They stood to accept it. They smiled. They looked Ms. Thomas in the eye. They said thank you. And every one of them asked her, "Will you please come back again?
Give Your Own Etiquette Quiz
Here’s a little quiz you can give your grandchildren if you’ve been wanting to broach the subject of manners but also want to keep it light. The kids will laugh, but there will be some teachable moments.
Question 1. When you are a guest at someone’s house, should you:
- a.) Walk in and head straight for the TV.
- b.) Walk in and say, "I’m starving. When are we going to eat?”
- c.) Walk in and ask, "What’s for dinner? I hope it’s not fish.”
- d.) Walk in and shake hands and look your host in the eye and say something nice, like, "Thanks for inviting me.”
(Correct answer: You already know the answer!)
Question 2. If you want mashed potatoes, but they are at the far end of the table, should you:
- a.) Walk around the table to get them.
- b.) Stand up and reach across the table.
- c.) Ask a person who can reach the potatoes to please pass them.
- d.) Eat whatever is near instead.
(Correct answer: c or d are both acceptable.)
Question 3. You just took a bite of turkey, and someone asks you a question. Should you:
- a.) Talk with your mouth full.
- b.) Spit out the turkey.
- c.) Ignore the person.
- d.) Look at the person and put you index finger to your lip.
(Correct answer: Again, you know it, but kids might not--or at least they'll laugh as you ask!)
Question 4. Your uncle says, "May I please have a roll? ” Should you:
- a.) Pick up a roll and pass it to him.
- b.) Pick up a roll and toss it to him.
- c.) Pick up the bread basket, take a roll for yourself, then pass it to him.
- d.) Pick up the bread basket and pass it to him.
(correct answer: Kids might think c, but it's d. They should always pass to the person who asked.)
Question 5. If you want to impress your family at Thanksgiving, should you:
- a.) Comb your hair at the dinner table so you’ll look nice.
- b.) Lick your fingers between courses so you won’t dirty the napkin.
- c.) Slouch and slurp and smack your lips to show you like the food.
- d.) Sit up straight, use your napkin, and say please and thank you a lot.
(Correct answer: d—always!)
Beverly Beckham is the author of "A Gift of Time,” a collection of personal essays, "Back Then,” a memoir of childhood, is a contributor to the "Chicken Soup for the Soul” book series, is on the Board of Directors for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress and writes a weekly column for The Boston Globe. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Bruce, and has three children and seven grandchildren.