Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Failing Table Rules in our House! What Do You Do to Make Mealtime Special?

Wisdom of the Ages has been weaving through our home school studies in the subject areas of leadership, world history, American history and science. I have been amazed that, while aspects of day to day life have changed dramatically over the centuries, the basic philosophies pertaining to human nature are remarkably consistent across continents, cultures, and civilizations. Sometimes, I believe we have lost all connection with and respect for the wisdom our predecessors. Either that, or the rules of modern culture are changing so quickly that we often put aside basic decency and forget how to treat each other. I know this is true in my house and now that I have become more conscious of it, we will work on bringing back some good old fashioned values—beginning with table manners.

Today, we were reading aloud a poem entitled "Table Rules for Little Folks" from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. I asked my daughter to read it aloud and watching the look on her face as she uncovered the error of her mealtime ways was just priceless. But, the transgressions at dinner time in our home do not solely exist with my daughter. Our whole family has put my mother to shame when it comes to adhering to acceptable table rules. And I should know better, because my mother was a master of protecting the sacred ritual of the family meal!

The poem goes like this…

In silence I must take my seat,
And give God thanks before I eat;
Must for my food in patience wait,
Till I am asked to hand my plate;

I reflected on the fact that our family has meal time is riddled with ADHD-like behavior and members rarely enjoy the food over which I have slaved. As I often sit alone in wait, I begin picking at, and then inhaling my food, rationalizing that at least one of us should enjoy it while it’s hot. By the time everyone has staggered in, the act of “giving thanks” has gone by the wayside. I am not proud. I have seen the error of my ways, and meal time is going to take on a much different tone around my house beginning this evening.

I must not scold, nor whine, nor pout,
Nor move my chair or plate about.

My daughter, head still down, peeked through her bangs with a priceless expression of guilt. She suddenly recognized that game of musical chairs that usually ends in ferocious “negotiations” and sometimes tears, left much room for improvement in our house.

With knife, or fork, or napkin ring,
I must not play, nor must I sing.
I must not speak a useless word,
For children should be seen, not heard:

This elicited a sarcastic side comment from my son directed at my daughter who is notorious for dancing and singing her way through life, often to the extreme annoyance of my son.

I must not talk about my food,
Nor fret if I don’t think it good.
I must not say, “the bread is old,”
“The tea is hot,” “The coffee’s cold”;
My mouth with food I must not crowd,
Nor while I’m eating, speak aloud;

She jumped on this cue, for it was readily available opportunity to retaliate against my son who is notorious for “food whining” and “speaking with crowded mouth.”

Must turn my head to cough or sneeze,
And when I ask, say “If you please”’;
The tablecloth I must not spoil,
Nor with my food my fingers soil.

Another volley from son to daughter, for my daughter is often called by her middle name –“Viking girl”, when she bypasses the utensils and opts for her fingers during our mealtimes.

Must keep my seat when I have done,
Nor round the table sport or run;

Game, set, match and Mom wins! There was an audible silence from both of them as they reflected upon their personal contribution to this problem.

When told to rise, then I must put
My chair away with noiseless foot’
And lift my heart to God above,
In praise for all his wondrous love.

The power of the family meal has been somewhat lost in our chaotic, overscheduled culture. I was embarrassed that it took a children’s poem to remind me that I needed to raise my standards in this area. Togetherness at mealtime, even one meal a day, is an opportune time to take a step back and focus on how fortunate we are and to connect to our family members over a lovingly prepared meal. I believe our predecessors had it right—and good manners are simply an acknowledgment of the importance of the ritual. If the quality of your mealtime experience has been diminished, don’t settle anymore as I have been doing. Reclaim and enjoy it!

How does your family do at mealtime? Please share some of your mealtime traditions and rules with those of us who still need help!


  1. I got my eye-opening revelation about table manners (that I had thought were age appropriate at the time) when we went on vacation with my family and so embarrassed them that we ate in the rest of the week. We've been working on it since then. I recently bought a cloth table cloth and placemats (we used to just do the table or a plastic cover) and that has helped it feel more elegant. Also, we eat my candlelight; the softer light seems to calm everyone down and make it feel more elegant. The kids really respond to that. In addition, we just gently correct them about sitting, using quiet voices, etc. I'm not about do the "seen and not heard" bit, but I would like it to be conversation about our day, our lessons, etc. instead of bickering or singing loudly. I was so proud of Princess last night when she started out by asking Daddy how his day had gone! There is a manners book I had as a child that I had my aunt dig out for me and we are looking it over now: Soup Should Be Seen and Not Heard. Great post ... going to pull up that poem soon and go over it.

  2. Hi Lisa,
    The poem is in William Bennett's book of Virtues on page 42. I am finding it's a great book in home shcool for our read aloud time. There's always a great message, and the stories and poems are age appropriate classics. It's a must have.

    I love your comments about the candlelight as a calming device. I have found that my daughter loves to set the table so that it looks nice, so I am involving her more in that.

    Your princess seems to be doing really well recognizing the importance of asking Dad about his day. Way to go mama! Will try some of your tips. Thanks so much for reading.