Dear Helena,

The other night we had a couple and their five-year-old son to dinner. We sat down to eat, and everything went fine, until their kid flicked a pea at my son. His parents laughed, but I was kind of dismayed, because my parents always taught me not to play with your food at the table. But then I started thinking, “Maybe I’m being too anal.” What are the need-to-know table manners for kids these days, anyway? —Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned Mom,

According to the parents and child-care experts I talked to, here are the three key things that children need to learn but often don’t. They apply to eating at home or eating out.

1. When you eat dinner, eat dinner. Your kid shouldn’t fight pea wars, jump up to get his Game Boy, or slither onto the floor. When you’re sharing a meal with others, you shouldn’t do anything other than eat and make conversation. Teach your child this now, or he might turn into the kind of adult who answers his cell phone during dinner.

Sitting still is particularly important in a restaurant, says Lindy Fishburne, a management consultant in San Francisco. “If the kids don’t keep their rumps in their seats, they could loom over the people in the booth behind [you] and get ketchup on their shoulders.”

2. Don’t scream, “I hate broccoli!” Children don’t have to accept foods they dislike just to be polite (that’s a skill they’ll have to master later). But a simple “No thank you” is the appropriate response when offered a hated item. If the food is put on their plates without asking, it’s good to get them to learn to take three bites before deciding they don’t like it, says Barbara Klein, president of White House Nannies, a child-care placement agency in Washington DC. These days, according to Klein, kids aren’t expected to clean their plates (in part because of the problem of childhood obesity). But if the child doesn’t like something, he should just leave it, versus, as Fishburne puts it, “screaming, ‘I don’t want that, get it out of here!’ and acting like it’s going to crawl all over him.”

3. Don’t order like you’re at a drive-through. Kids sometimes bark out commands. They may bang their cups on the table and yell, “Milk! Milk!” Their frustration is understandable. Imagine how angry you might get if someone else controlled everything you ate. How should you correct them? Don’t simply tell them what to say. Fishburne explains: “If I tell [my son] to ask, ‘Please could I have some milk?’ he just parrots it back. He has to learn to think of it. So instead I tell him, ‘I need to hear it with good manners.’” Make sure your child learns to say it every time. Otherwise, when he grows up and goes to restaurants, the server may spit in his food.

Once your youngster has mastered these three skills, you can find more advanced lessons on table manners here:
Bread-plate etiquette
Elbows on the table
Blowing your nose
Eating with your fingers

But don’t overdo it. At age six, your kid doesn’t need to know how to pick out a hostess gift, or which fork to use at a diplomatic banquet. Go too far, and you’ll turn him into one of those Little Lord Fauntleroy types who sport a bow tie and pass out hors d’oeuvres. That would be creepy.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.

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