When it came to table manners, I grew up in a very strict home. I mean, really strict. My brothers and I were constantly corrected about which fork to pick up, how to hold the flatware, where to put the napkin, how to chew and so forth. It was a constant battle for my parents with four rowdy boys who thought the height of hilarity was flinging a roll across the table when one said, “Please pass…” Or that peas or lima beans (ick) could be effective weapons when catapulted with a spoon. Still, mom and dad were tireless, saying we’d thank them later.
Mom was also fond of quoting a poem by Gelett Burgess. First published in 1900, “The Goops” caused a sensation, and by the time we were in primary school, we could all recite together:
“The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth —
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I Am not a Goop — Are you?
The Goops are gluttonous and rude,
They gug and gumble with their food;
They throw their crumbs upon the floor,
And at dessert they tease for more.
They will not eat their soup and bread
But like to gobble sweets, instead,
And this is why I oft decline,
When I am asked to stay and dine!”
We were also particularly fond of a verse that is pitched right at the humor level of 8-year-olds and went as follows:
I eat my peas with honey.
I’ve done it all my life.
It does taste rather funny,
But it keeps them on the knife.
With a combination of good humor and unrelenting persistence, the folks trained us to know what to do in any kind of social situation.
The other thing they did was forbid any kind of games or TV while at the table. There are plenty of studies that show that family meal times help communication skills, family bonding and more.
But here’s a new wrinkle: Teaching your kids good manners may be as important to their careers as the education they get.
A couple of weeks ago, I was on a plane with the head of HR for a major corporation. He was returning home after flying all over the country interviewing new college graduates for positions in his company. We got into a conversation because he commented on the fact that I had thanked the flight attendant for a soda. I’m not kidding. He remarked that it always surprised him that so many people were either rude or totally ignored people who helped them out, and started bemoaning the loss of basic courtesy or manners.
Now, this is something older generations have always done as they look at “those kids.” But in this case, it was worth paying attention. My seatmate said that after interviewing dozens of candidates with good skills, he wouldn’t hire anyone for a management track position with whom he had not had a meal.
His logic was that if someone is going to be in social business situations with clients, upper management and so forth, good manners could be a determining factor, and told a lot about a person’s character. Whether that is right or wrong is irrelevant, but his was his point of view, and he was handing out the jobs. He added that several candidates were eliminated on lack of table manners alone. Could he tell them? No. Employment laws are pretty strict, but there are always reasons that one candidate is chosen for one job over another. The most he could do was suggest that the rejected candidates need “a little more polish.” Or that they should “work on their presentation skills.” (When I said I wanted to write about this, he asked that neither he nor his company be identified.)
Today, so much emphasis is placed on kids being “well rounded,” on their having a long resume of skills and activities which can be developed through skill games, and I won’t argue with that. But humans are also social animals with fairly elaborate social conventions. A well-rounded kid needs these skills as well, and it’s no harder than a little bit of work at the dinner table—where they’re going to be anyway.
Parents do so much to help prepare and teach their kids to be successful. Don’t forget what seems like smaller stuff. Sometimes that can make all the difference.