Children And How They Should Behave At The Table
THE parents who bring their children up well and carefully, who furnish them with an adequate physical, mental and moral training, truly deserve the gratitude of the State, as well as that of their offspring.
In the mad struggle for wealth which now pervades all classes of society, this homely, old-fashioned truth is quite lost sight of. Men strain every nerve to amass great fortunes for themselves and their children, and forget that the wealth of Midas himself would not long benefit the man who had not been taught to use it aright. We all know what becomes of a beggar who is set on horseback; and most of us have seen the ill consequences that too often ensue when a great amount of money is suddenly put into the hands of some gilded and foolish youth, college-bred perhaps, but wanting in all practical training and discipline, nevertheless.
Golden armor is a great help; but to fight the battle of life successfully one needs above all to be a skilful soldier.
Great attention is certainly given at the present time to education in certain forms, education in schools and colleges; but even here there is a constant effort to make everything easy and pleasant, to do away with or conceal discipline as far as is possible. All the rough corners are carefully smoothed away, and " the royal road to learning " is the philosopher's stone for which we of the twentieth century search with constant and unabating ardor.
But how about the home training which should supplement all these outside aids to education and har- monious development? It is too often neglected; our children are left to imbibe from chance the sound principles and gentle manners which our forefathers so zealously and faithfully inculcated in the hearts and minds of their offspring. We have a pleasant theory that our young people will go right of themselves, and that they will pick up good-breeding somehow or other as they grow older!
The morals of our defaulting bank cashiers and of our great army of embezzlers in general show what are the results of the want of proper moral training; while the thoughtlessness, selfishness and rudeness of too many young men and women attest the folly of supposing that true good manners will form them-selves.
Of morals it is not the province of this work to treat, except as they are connected with manners. Suffice it to say that before one can rear a fair and comely superstructure of good manners, one must lay deep in the heart their necessary foundation, namely, kindness and good-will toward others, and due consideration for their feelings. Just as Latin and Greek are the roots from which spring most of the modern languages of Europe, so are these sentiments of kindliness and thoughtfulness the substantial basis on which rests the good-breeding of the civilized world.
Hence even from a worldly and superficial point of view the importance cannot be over-estimated, of early impressing on the plastic minds of children the right principles which shall govern their minds and manners through life.
The unfortunate Catharine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII., is one of the saddest instances furnished by history of the results of parental neglect. We are told that she was left to the care of servants, who so corrupted her morals from her girlhood, that when the royal Bluebeard sought a pretext for cutting off her young and beautiful head, the immorality of her past life readily afforded him one.
The natural savage is visibly present in most children, and nowhere more than at the table. They dislike extremely the necessary restraints that are imposed on them there, as well as the ablutions and general tidying processes which precede their meals. It is usually wiser, however, for their parents to endure the inconveniences entailed by their presence at the table, except in families where competent nursery governesses are kept, who can and will train the children properly.
Some people allow the little ones to take a short recess while the table is being cleared off for dessert; this is a much better way than keeping them so long at table that they become restless and wriggle in a very trying manner.
Do not allow your children to sit sideways, or on the edge of the chair, or to lean back in it, or to put their elbows on the table. Neither should they be permitted to crumble up and play with their bread, or to make playthings of the stray silver or napkin rings that may be on the table. Bread should always be broken, and not cut, in eating it; but it need not be pulverized into crumbs, in the favorite fashion of childhood.
Caution your children, too, always to wipe their mouths both before and after drinking, and not to drink until they have swallowed what they may be eating. Do not let them turn up their glasses or mugs on their noses while drinking, or look at people either through the glass or over the top of it.
They must be taught how to break a potato with a fork (since it is considered ill-bred to touch that vegetable with a knife), and how, to use a bread fork as a necessary accompaniment to the silver fork, and not to pack the food on the back of it with the help of the knife, which is an ugly and awkward fashion. The fork should always be carried to the mouth with the tines curving inward, like a bowl; that is, in just the reverse fashion from that employed when carving. A little silver implement called a " pusher" and a child's spoon, made with a short and easily grasped handle, are very helpful to little people.
Teach them to take their soup quietly from the side of the spoon, and not to thrust this instrument into their mouths, pointed end foremost, as if they were making an attack with it! Dessert-spoons should be substituted for full-sized table-spoons for little children to eat soup with, as the latter are uncomfortably large for them to manage.
Watch your children, and see that they do not lean over the table too far in eating, or put their spoons and forks farther into their mouths than is necessary, or leave them there too long.
One unpleasant childish trick is to fill the fork full along its whole length, and then to eat off part at a time, instead of putting just enough on the end of the fork to make a proper-sized mouthful; another trick is to double up a large slice of meat into a comparatively small compass and then bolt it; still another is td tip the plate to get the last drop of soup, or to polish it in a most surprising manner by scraping up the last possible remnant of pudding or sweetmeats instead of leaving a little " for manners."
Little separate plates " sauce-plates " for different vegetables are not allowable except at a boarding-house table; do not therefore accustom your children to the use of them. And I trust it will be superfluous to add that neither they, nor any one else, should ever see toothpicks placed on any private table, or used anywhere save in the solitude of one's own apartment.
Children sometimes have a depraved tendency to put the skins of baked potatoes, bits of fat, or pieces of eggshell on the tablecloth; and if you cannot induce them to place these reliquie on the side of the plat, let them have a saucer in which to lay these.
They should be taught, as soon as they are old enough, to eat an egg from the shell, instead of taking it out into a cup or glass, since this is a point of good breeding which many people insist upon very strongly.
They should be told, also, not. to dip cake or bread into a glass of water, and by all means never to put their knives in their mouths, nor to help themselves to any dish with their own knives, forks or spoons, nor to reach and stretch across the table after some distant goal of their ambition and appetite, nor to reach in front of another person.
I know one little girl three years of age who is so well trained that she will not help 'herself from any dish passed to her by the servant unless it is handed secundum artem, on the left side! Indeed, very little children, after they have once been trained to hold the spoon and fork properly, etc., commit fewer breaches of etiquette than their older brethren and sisters; hence the importance of watching them carefully at the table, and checking any bad tendencies as fast as these may arise.
Picking out the largest piece of cake or the under slice of toast, or taking first one biscuit from the plate and then putting that back to exchange it for another, are familiar instances of childish bad manners.
Poor little souls! What a long indictment I have made out against them, and of how many terrific misdemeanors do they stand charged!
Far be it from me to say anything that shall make the lot of any little one harsh or uncomfortable! If children stand in need of constant correction, we their parents need also a constant lesson of patience lest we hurt their feelings by querulous fault-finding, or wound their pride by setting them right when there is company present.
But if children see their parents and elders always careful to observe the rules of good manners, and if their little careless or greedy tricks are checked in the very beginning, the task of setting them right will be a comparatively easy one.
Children are extremely imitative; and if they see others hand the dishes politely, instead of shoving these along the table, and lay the knives and forks properly on the plate side by side, with the handles together, instead of sprawled about, so that the servant will be apt to drop them when she removes the dishes in clearing off the table, why the children will be very apt to pay attention to these little points themselves.
Do not use expressions at table which are now thought extremely inelegant, whatever their former status may have been, in the constantly varying language of polite society. Thus, never ask any one to " dish out " the food. " Will you be kind enough," or " Will you please help to the berries? " is the proper phrase.
The old rule was to help the children after the grown people, and the youngest child last; but a more modern and humane way is to help little children first, if they are present at table. Girls should be helped before boys, just as ladies should invariably be served before gentlemen. Thus all the ladies of the house should be helped before any of the gentlemen are served, even if among the latter there may be some distinguished guest.
While children should be accustomed to great punctuality at meals, they should not be allowed to hurry and annoy their elders by their own impatience and desire to get through. Children who are of this impatient turn of mind sometimes make every one else uncomfortable through an entire meal, constantly complaining that they will be late to school, or that they will have no time left for play, etc. They tip . their chairs, jump up and down on their seats, brandish their napkins, and lament the time that is lost in re-moving the crumbs, all to the great annoyance of every one else at table.
It is certainly a breach of etiquette to ask what kind of dessert there is to be, before it appears on the table; but it is one that is often forgiven to children, as it is hard for them to sit for a long time and then see some dish appear that they especially dislike.
While children should be brought up for the most part on plain, substantial food, they ought also to be taught as they grow older to eat different kinds of food, and to overcome the prejudices of extreme youth against tomatoes and other vegetables, oysters, etc. It is a small misfortune in this life not to be able to eat what other people do; not only does it make the fastidious person uncomfortable, but it grieves or mortifies his hosts to find that they have provided nothing that he can eat.
Of course a thoroughly well-bred person will make no complaints under these circumstances, nor allude in any way to his dislike of the food before him; he will be content with something else that is on the table, or console himself with the next course.
Children should be especially cautioned, when they are about to dine away from home, not to ask for what is not upon the table, like the Southern children who cried out in amazement, " Where is the rice? " a dish to which they had always been accustomed at home; or like those other very exact infants who asked, " Is this home-made sponge-cake, or baker's, because we are not allowed to eat baker's? " etc. of course a considerate hostess who entertains children will inquire carefully about their tastes, and what they are allowed to eat at home.
Children are usually extremely fond of fruit, and they should be taught how to prepare and eat the different kinds, and above all, never to spit the seeds and stones out, but to remove them quietly and carefully with the thumb and fingers, or with the fork. Oranges are very difficult for young people to manage, and it is well to have some older person peel them and divide them into pegs, which is the best way for children to eat them. Or they may be cut in two and eaten with a spoon, if the child is sufficiently skilful to do this nicely. Grown people who are skilful have various pretty ways of cutting up this very juicy fruit. For breakfast oranges are usually served cut in half. Or they may be peeled beforehand and a whole one, impaled upon a fork, set at each place. This method of eating them requires skill and practice.
A steel knife should never be used with fruit of any sort, for the very good reason that the acid in the juice stains the steel, giving it an unpleasant appearance, as well as imparting an unpleasant taste to the fruit.
All fruit requires great nicety of management in order that the person eating it may not make himself disagreeable to his neighbors. Thus, one who is delicate in his way of eating may very properly eat apples or pears with his fingers after he has nicely peeled and quartered them. But for many people it is safer to eat these fruits with a fork, especially in the case of a juicy pear.
The first rule at the table is not to do anything that is unpleasant. Hence it is better to use a fork, even if it may seem affected to do so, rather than to use the fingers and be disagreeable. With very juicy fruits a fork is necessary in order that the fingers may not become soiled. Thus a pineapple requires a knife and fork both, unless cut up or shredded beforehand. Bananas should be peeled and sliced with a knife and eaten with a fork: Finger-bowls should always be provided with the fruit course.
Children should be taught the use of the finger-bowl; that is, to dip the tips of their fingers in it nicely, and to pass the fingers thus moistened across the mouth, then wiping both the mouth and fingers delicately oh the napkin.
One childish trick I had nearly forgotten to enumerate, that of eating or drinking from one hand while passing a dish or plate with the other. This should never be done; the child should put down its glass or fork, or whatever it holds in its hand, and stop eating, before attempting to pass anything. Indeed, where the servants who wait are efficient, there is little need of the handing of dishes by those who are sitting at table.
Children must not be allowed to dip bread in any sauce that may be on their plates, nor to drain off a goblet at a single draught. This is a favorite expression in romance, but is not considered to be in good form at the present day. Children like to do it, and then gasp for breath a natural but unpleasant result afterward. Some of them, also, need to be cautioned against speaking when their mouths are full, keeping their mouths open when they are eating, bolting their food, etc.
Many of them like to read at table; but this is a most unsocial habit, and is also bad for the digestion, in the opinion of some doctors. If there is any reading at all at a meal, it should be reading aloud, - a custom at the table of that noble and learned man, Sir Thomas More.
But our Sybaritic age does not favor any form of instruction at meals, unless of the mild and doubtful kind which is shed upon us in after-dinner speeches. The elder Pliny not only read at his meals, but when he was walking in the street; indeed, reading would appear to have been his normal condition when he was awake.
A pitcher should be handed with the handle toward the person to whom it is passed. Spoons and forks should be held by the middle, and knives by the lower part of the shaft, the handles always turned toward the recipient.
Should children be allowed to talk at the table?
Yes, and no. It is cruel to follow the rules of our ancestors and expect the little ones to preserve perfect silence through a long meal. On the other hand, children's tongues are dangerous gear to set in motion, and should never be allowed to gain full headway at the table, especially if any guests are present. Children should never be allowed to appear at a dinner-party, unless the occasion is a very friendly and informal one. Even then it is better to place them at a side-table.
If they are allowed to talk at all they must be cautioned not to do so while they are eating, not to interrupt other people, not to make personal remarks about any one at the table, and not to argue or find fault.
It seems to me that the theme, or main and initiative part of the conversation, should be left to the " grown-ups; " while the younger members of the family may strike in occasionally with a " piano " accompaniment, or some variations of moderate length only.
( Originally Published 1911 )
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