Saturday, September 15, 2012

Miss Manners visits our Table.

In early June, I was frustrated:  my kids' table manners were pretty appalling.  Since the little kids came home last year, I'd pretty much let such things go, knowing that there were many other more important things to focus on. That was a good decision for that time.

But by our one-year-home mark, I was quite tired of some of the manners that the kids were displaying.  One child demonstrated a strong inclination to chew with his mouth wide open (and felt free to talk - and spit - at the same time), stretch his body halfway across the table while he shovelled food into his mouth (preferably with his fists), and was generally hard to watch eat.  Another child was prone to hopping up from the table every freaking five seconds - I'm sure that half of my mealtime words consisted of "Matthew, sit down...Matthew, sit down."  Oops, I forgot that I wasn't mentioning names.  And the other little blessing of mine loved sitting with her elbows spread wide on the table, talking and laughing continuously with her mouth wide open, and kicking whoever happened to be sitting beside her with her feet hanging over the sides of the chair...usually I was the recipient of those kicks.

All in all, I found it kinda disgusting, more than a little frustrating...and a wee bit embarrassing.

I'm not much of a reward-oriented parent on the whole, but I decided that this was the kind of stuff that, because it wasn't critical to their well-being or development or general discipline matters, might fall within a category that warranted use of the bribery system.

I developed and implemented a plan.  My goal was to focus on the worst, most annoying and most pervasive of the manner offences.  My further goal was to work on them for a long enough period of time so that good manners would (hopefully) become a little habitual.

I wrote down the most annoying and most commonly-violated manner rules down one side of a page and the kids' names across the top.  The kids helped me come up with the rules, which was brilliant because I never once had to remind them what the rules were.

I explained that each time they violated one of the stated rules, they would earn one tally mark.  If they received no tally marks during a meal, I would erase one of their existing tally marks from their record.  The goal was to have as few a number of tally marks as possible.

(Note:  The kids loved the experience of being able to erase a tally mark after a meal when s/he did not add any to his/her total; it was a huge motivator, especially for my goal-oriented Seth.)

The end reward, I promised, was dressing up a little and going for High Tea at a little tea house - an occasion that warranted decent manners.  For those who know my children, they love their food and the promise of delectable little sandwiches followed by dainty desserts was almost overwhelming for their senses.

So in love with the promise of the reward were they that even the prospect of working on their manners for one hundred days (yes, you read that right: 100 days) didn't daunt them.  Mid-September was the deadline.  I told them that they would not know how many tally marks would be acceptable to me in order for them to earn the High Tea reward so they would need to work consistently at their manners.  In fact, I told them that as far as I was concerned, only I was guaranteed to go to High Tea - although I would be very happy to take one, two or three children with me if they earned the privilege.  This would not be an occasion where, if two kids earned their way the third would simply go along and enjoy the reward with the rest; they each had to work their way towards the goal if they wanted the end prize.

There have been a few little adjustments along the way.  One particularly important addition near the beginning was the addition of a rule about not tattling on siblings.  I told them that if they turned one of their siblings in for a rule violation, they would receive the tally mark rather than their sibling.  Then, in order to foster a bit of teamwork, I told them that they were welcome to help their siblings; so if one saw another put elbows on the table, a quick "psst" was issued by the observer and I would casually lower my gaze in a pretence of not seeing the manners violation.  It worked beautifully.

Here's a picture I took of the list early on, just to give you the idea.
The list of rules wasn't very extensive - they were designed to cover the basics rather than get into too much detail.  But we did have a blank row at the bottom of the page so that if a child was doing something that was really not appropriate for table manners (but not listed), I would give them a warning and then give them a tally mark if it happened again that meal.

Wednesday this week was the 100-day mark.

The kids have worked surprisingly hard and consistently at their manners.   Perhaps the most pleasing for me has been the development of some habits.  Really and truly, it's rare now that any of the kids have their elbows on the table and the boys almost never jump up from their seats now.  We'll see how long it lasts but for the time being they're pretty pleasant to have at the table.

I am delighted to say that all three kids earned their way to High Tea.  Matthew and Lizzie had a final result of zero tally marks, and Seth had a mere two.  My private (and firm) threshold for their attendance at High Tea was that they had no more than four tally marks each.  They all made it with flying colours.

Thursday was our reward day:  High Tea.  The four of us drove to a little town about an hour outside the city, to a little tea shop where I had arranged with the owner a few weeks ago a special service of High Tea.  I didn't tell the kids until that morning that this was the day, so when I pulled out some dressier clothes for them to put on and told them we were going to High Tea together, I thought they might pee their pants with excitement.

We had a great time!

Matthew wasn't wild about the food and whispered that he would have preferred homemade food but I think that was because the fancy little sandwiches were mostly egg salad and salmon, his least favourite sandwich types.  I should have thought ahead to ask for some peanut butter sandwiches to be thrown into the mix.  But the other kids liked the food and between the three of us, we managed to consume a respectable amount of sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and a few of the dainty little desserts.

The highlight for all three of them, I think, was receiving their own little pots of looseleaf bubblegum tea (with actual bubblegum in it to flavour it) and learning how to pour their tea through the tiny sieve into their china cups.  None of the kids really knew how to drink from a pretty china cup (they were funny to watch as they grabbed it with their fists), but I taught them how and it didn't take long before they were holding the dainty china beautifully.  I don't know how many cups of tea Seth actually drank, but he had his teapot filled with hot water three times and drained all of them!

The owner of the restaurant approached us at one point near the end of our tea time and said that she was very impressed by how well behaved the kids were; she noted that they all sat nicely in their chairs and that there was no screaming or whining or even raised voices during our whole time there.  She said that she's had a lot of kids coming through her restaurant and that these kids were definitely amongst the best behaved!

Well, didn't that just feel lovely to hear.  They have come a long way.  What I'm most proud of, though, isn't the end result, but the effort that all three of them put in over a long period of time in order to earn the reward.

All in all, I'd say it was a resounding success!

Just outside of the tea room, ready to enjoy our High Tea.

After we left the tea room, Matthew had the great idea of going for a walk and we spent the next 90 minutes or so just wandering around the nearby harbour area.  The kids had a great time throwing rocks into the water, chasing gulls, climbing rocks, and running flat out around the park.  The weather was perfect, we were all in high spirits, and we had the luxury of time for the afternoon.

I love this picture.  It is an absolutely classic Lizzie look when she's disgruntled, or when she runs for about twenty steps and decides that running requires too much effort.  She ought to be in drama class, this girl.  Note the boys looking on!  Love it.




Heading back to the car, we all agreed that our day had been a huge success.  It really was a lovely afternoon!


  1. Your children are spectacular! A delight to have in my home, and sooooooo beautiful. Amazing that at their ages they were able to forego short-term gain for a long-term goal!

  2. What a huge accomplishment! They really worked hard to learn and grow! And, what a fun reward. Allison

  3. What fun, and what a huge accomplishment for your kids. We are in need of Miss Manners to visit our house (specifically for my 3 soon to be 4 year old who can not sit on a chair), I may copy your idea!
    I love the picture of Lizzie looking disgruntled. The hanging head and arms is EXACLTY what Kaitlyn does when I dare to ask her to walk farther than 10 feet! It made me laugh out loud- what a character!

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