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Posted by on December 22, 2013

When I was in the army I sometimes drew miniature depictions of the battlefield in the sand to help explain the plan to my soldiers. These were called “sand tables.” If I knew the General was coming by we sometimes made really fancy sand tables with models and colorful materials, but most of the time I just used a stick to scratch out what folks were supposed to do. If the General popped in unexpectedly it was OK to use the simpler method, but it was always a plus to be ready with the fancier one if you could pull it off.

The dinner table is a lot like a sand table.

Proper etiquette at the table is a learned art, and it takes careful instruction over time to perfect. This requires planning and attention to detail. We tend to relax our guard a little when it’s just our family around the table, but we still hope to introduce enough decorum on a regular basis that we won’t be embarrassed when we’re eventually joined by guests. Or when our kids go over to other people’s houses without us!

We usually enforced the standard rules, like not putting your elbows on the table, as more of a game than anything else. If you forgot once, someone (usually a brother) was sure to call out “Mabel, Mabel. If you’re able, get your elbows off the table!” This was ultimately shortened to “Mabel! Mabel!” to speed delivery, but the effect was the same. A second offense during the same sitting usually got a warning from mom or dad. Third offenses normally resulted in pushups.

For a while we were having trouble getting one son or another to sit correctly in his chair. It was largely a practical rather than an aesthetic concern; crossing one’s legs on a dining room chair placed the mouth a perilous distance from the plate and spills were almost inevitable. Having been corrected once, if the offending party forgot and resumed an unauthorized position, they frequently lost the use of their chair for the rest of the meal. Hams that they were, this was usually as entertaining for the one left standing as it was for the rest of us. Occasionally chair privileges could be earned back by doing a series of penalty pushups, but this option wasn’t guaranteed.

We did have some rules that were absolute. Taking overlarge bites or talking while chewing in a way that exposed the food to public view was not tolerated. Violators often ate the remainder of their dinner isolated in the kitchen. Certain topics of conversation were also considered to be inappropriate for the dinner table. After one memorable exchange, Tucker was sent packing to his room to write an essay about proper dinner-time conversation. This was the result:

“Every night, across the world, many families sit down and eat supper at their homes. While they eat this meal, a variety of topics of conversation come up. However, some of these topics are inappropriate for dinner conversations. Although, especially guys, like to talk about subjects such as killing, puss oozing out of pores, and who has the best belch, unfortunately these are not dinner conversations for families.
“A factor that could help you judge if a topic was okay to talk with your family at the dinner table about, would be to ask yourself if you could have this same conversation with your girlfriend or your mother. Unfortunately, I have made some poor choices on some of the topics I brought up in front of my family.
“Topics are not the only thing that you can choose poorly about at the dinner table. Dinner manners are a BIGGIE! For instance, if you cannot stop giggling at the table, you keep smacking, or you talk with your mouth full, then you need to work on your manners. Some better/more appropriate table topics are things like, ‘So how was your day?’ and ‘What was your favorite thing that happened to you today?’ You may even want to comment on something that one of your family members has done that lifted up and encouraged someone else today. Whatever you do, DO NOT talk about stabbing, gaping wounds, or that plastic surgery show that you saw on the Discovery Channel. This may all seem cruel, but it is just a common courtesy to others around you. Now when you are out at your roommate’s dorm with other college guy-friends, and you have belching contests and who-can-shove-the most-chicken-breasts-in-their-mouth-at-once contests, then that is okay.
“If you use my advice, I can guarantee that dinner will flow a lot smoother.”

Preparing our kids for life in the larger world is a little like preparing soldiers for battle. You do the best you can to get them ready, but ultimately the time comes when they have to take whatever they’ve learned and strike out on their own. They may not follow the plan you laid out for them precisely, but you hope that they’ll end up planting their flag on the correct hilltop.

The Bible tells us that if we teach our children the way they’re supposed to go, they’ll continue along the right path when they’re older.

Hopefully that applies to table manners too.

originally published 10/27/11| next post Loaded Omelet Biscuits

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