My niece Olivia, an education major, pointed her Facebook friends to a post on Yahoo the other day titled 25 Manners Every Kid Should Know By Age 9. She asked, “Would it be inappropriate to send this home in the "first day packet" when I start teaching?”

As I read through the list of manners, it occurred to me how many of these are learned, modeled and reinforced at the table during family meals.

Numbers one and two on the list are saying “please” and “thank you.” Between “Pass the potatoes, please,” and “Thanks for dinner. May I please be excused?”, there are dozens of opportunities for please and thank you during a sit-down meal.

I find number three interesting. It says not to interrupt grown-ups when they are speaking except in an emergency. While I teach my children this when they are not part of the conversation, mealtime offers the opportunity to learn when it is OK to interrupt a grown-up. When a child is part of a lively conversation and has something to interject, he needs to learn how to do that without bulldozing over everyone else. It’s a difficult thing to learn when to be quiet because you need to be polite and when to chime in because it’s the appropriate time. What better place than at a family meal?

Obvious table manners like using utensils correctly and wiping mouths with napkins made the list. But there are some manners on the list that you might not think are learned at the table, but I think the table is the right place to start. “Do not comment on other people's physical characteristics unless, of course, it's to compliment them, which is always welcome” and “Do not make fun of anyone for any reason. Teasing shows others you are weak, and ganging up on someone else is cruel” are two examples.

When you’re eating a meal with your children, chances are a disparaging comment about someone else’s appearance (quite often a sibling’s) or other unkind words will come out of their mouths. Family mealtime is the perfect time to make clear that you don’t want your children doing these things and why they shouldn’t do them. 

I’m adding manners to my ever-growing list of why parents need to make regular family meals a priority in their home. Family mealtime naturally reinforces manners, as long as the adults at the table are modeling good behavior and expecting manners from their children. I read through some of the more than 3,000 comments on the list of 25 manners, and this one from someone who identified herself as Gramma B stuck out: “Manners, dear ones, are caught as well as taught.”

If we aren’t spending enough undistracted time with our children, they are not going to have the opportunity to “catch” our manners. Regular family meals, when the TV is turned off and MP3 players, gaming systems and cellphones are left in another room, are the perfect opportunity to spread good manners.

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Using family meals to naturally reinforce manners
Time at the table with give children the opportunity to catch manners from adults.