How Simple Fixes For Bolstering Your Child’s Dining Skills Deliver Much More Than ‘Manners’

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

The holidays are on the horizon, filled with opportunities for social gatherings and family dinners. Yet many children today are falling short when it comes to everything from using a knife and fork to holding up their end of a conversation at the table.

The reasons are clear, experts say: technology, busy schedules, and helicopter parenting. And the effects of this decline in skills reach far beyond simple manners, old-fashioned etiquette, and potential parental embarrassment.

“[Earlier generations] had 10 times the amount of social interaction,” notes Faye de Muyshondt, a 1997 Boston College graduate whose Manhattan-based socialsklz:-) program, featured on The Today Show, will soon be offered in Massachusetts. “We were forced to have face-to-face social interaction. Kids today, much of that interaction is done via a mobile device, social media.”

Interpersonal or “soft” skills, such as introducing yourself, asking a question, and even maintaining eye contact when you’re speaking to another, are all abilities bolstered by practice, and opportunities for children today are fewer than ever before.

“If you look back 20, 30 years ago, one of the things that’s changed: We protect our kids a whole lot more than we used to,” notes Keith Rollag, associate professor and chair of the Management Division at Babson College. “As a result, they find themselves in far fewer situations where they are interacting by themselves with adults. It used to be you send your kid down to the grocery store for something and that would force them to have to interact with the grocer, ask some questions, and figure out what they needed to do. They engaged in conversation with other people and as a result gained that confidence. These days, outside of interacting with their peers, there’s far fewer opportunities to interact with adults and others. It adds to the lack of development and it adds to the lack of confidence.”

And the impact of the infamous helicopter parenting of Millennials is being felt everywhere from dinner tables  to colleges and the business world.

David Deming, associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University, recently published a study, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market.” In it, he notes that despite the trend of jobs lost to technology and automation, since 1980 “jobs with high social skill requirements have experienced greater relative growth.” In addition, “employment and wage growth has been strongest in jobs that require high levels of both cognitive skill and social skill,” he wrote.

  “When I was teaching at New York University, I was seeing the immediate results of what happens when a child has everything done for him or her — when a child has a parent who calls me, their professor, to talk about their kids’ grades,” de Muyshondt says. “When a child doesn’t make any of his or her own decisions, I was seeing the product of that very often in my classroom. I understand the desire as a parent to want to do everything for your child. When you do that, you have a tremendous effect on their self confidence and self esteem and the feeling of not being able to do things for themselves.”

  “Soft skills are critical in almost anything one does in business, certainly as you move up into leadership positions those soft skills become even more critical,” adds Rollag, author of the recently released book, What To Do When You’re New:How To Be Comfortable, Confident, and Successful in New Situations. “I see it with my students here. They’re graduating, going out there looking for jobs, and many of them are afraid of going to those networking events. As a result, they often talk themselves out of it and not go, and it often comes down to their lack of confidence in those general skills: introducing yourself, asking questions, the give and take of conversations.”

  Today’s busy family schedules also mean many families fail to regularly gather around the dinner table as often as they did in years past. This can translate into pressure on parents — and kids — at the holidays, as the uptick in traditional dinners sets the stage for children to exhibit skills they may not have been taught and rarely practice, all under the watchful eye of older generations.

  “Most parents, if you ask them, have not taught their kids how to dine properly. It’s a lesson that needs to be taught. And for some reasons, with these skills — and I’m guilty also — we just assume they’re going to pick them up along the way,” de Muyshondt says. “And they don’t.” 

  De Muyshondt emphasizes she’s not talking about old-school, shrimp fork, calling-card etiquette, but rather practical, everyday tools that she says will give children self-confidence at the Thanksgiving table today and at a business dinner in the future. How to make a good first impression, use a knife and fork, participate in dinner conversation, and be a gracious guest at a restaurant, a friend’s house or grandma’s holiday meal — all of these will give children an edge amongst their peers and a large amount of self-confidence and self-esteem, she adds.

  “The concept of making eye contact, smiling, and using good body language — many adults don’t realize the impact those three little things have in your life,” she says. “It’s whether you hear more yesses than no’s when you ask for things.”

  While that may sound dire, and you may feel guilty about your child’s lack of dining and social skills, de Muyshondt says have no fear, the fix is simple: teach them what to do and have occasional fancy dinner nights in your home before the holiday then continue to practice them throughout the year.

  “As a parent during the holidays, all of a sudden you’re in front of a lot of family. Your job as a parent is suddenly put on the stage and all it’s based on is their ‘manners’ really,” says de Muyshondt, who has also authored the book socialsklz:-) For Success: How To Give Children The Skills They Need To Thrive In The Modern World. “How did that kid eat at the table? Did that kid say hi? Did that kid make eye contact? Did that kid walk away after I started a conversation with him or her? I say to parents: for the holidays, more than ever, because your parenting is going to be really judged more than ever by your family members, teach the lessons!”

  And “the lessons” are as simple as, “Hey, guys, let’s have a dining lessons tonight before we have dinner.” Your curriculum: basic skills such as how to set a table, use a knife and fork properly, eat neatly, and more. 

  “Don’t expect these skills to be used every night at the dinner table,” she notes. “Have casual dinners, let them enjoy their food in a relaxed atmosphere. But once a week: have a fancy dinner night at your home. Set the table properly, ask your kids to use their table skills. And then go out in public and, yes, then you can expect those skills to be used. It’s like anything else: How do you get better at soccer? How do you get better at piano? First you take the lessons and repeat. But the problem with these skills is that they’re never taught. You can’t expect a kid to practice and repeat skills they were never taught.”

  One critical note, de Muyshondt says, is to do your instructing at home, not elsewhere: “Parents think they’ve taught their kids when they correct them in public and it’s really mortifying and humiliating for a child to be corrected in public. Those are not teaching moments.”

  De Muyshondt and Juanita Allen Kingsley, who will be teaching the socialsklz:-) program in Massachusetts via Century Health Systems in Natick, offer these tips for your child’s holiday dining and social success:

1. Make sure your child feels comfortable with utensils. Gauge your kids’ comfort level with using utensils and cutting food with a knife. “Give children an opportunity to learn how to really use a knife and fork by Thanksgiving,” she advises.

  Kingsley says she has noted today’s children can be uncomfortable using utensils for two basic reasons: “We eat on the run so much, we eat finger food so much. And we don’t usually eat things day-in, day-out at a table with a knife and a fork.” In addition, many times when children eat out, the restaurant may supply plastic, disposable utensils. “To hold the weight of metal flatware is not something that most children do every day,” she adds, encouraging families to practice at home.

2. Encourage children to help in any way possible. “At the end of dinner, whether it’s a family dinner, extended family dinner, anywhere, if you can say, ‘How can I help you? May I help you clear the table? Can I bring in dishes for you?’ this is such a huge deal. You’re empathizing with the host: How can I help? And oftentimes it’s a ton of fun,” she says.

3. Have children bring something they can show and share with older relatives.

  Kingsley encourages children to bring a prop to use as an easy way to engage relatives in conversation.

  “Print up a picture from fall — a soccer team or fall fair,” she advises. “‘This is a picture of my best friend and me at the pumpkin fair at school. Who was your best friend in fourth grade? What did you do when you had free time?’ Our children in many ways live in a child-centric world that revolves around them. [This is a way] for them to get away from themselves and actually learn that those grandparents, great-grandparents, that they were fourth graders, too and they had as interesting a life as you did. Everybody wins there. The grandparents get to reminisce, the kids get to learn something about them, and it teaches that conversation skill of back and forth and back and forth.”

4.  It takes 3-5 seconds to make a first impression. Review eye contact, facial gestures and body language and ensure it corresponds with how your child would like to come across when he/she walks into a room.

5. What’s the greeting for entering a party or gathering?  Teach your child how to shake hands properly and then review how to introduce oneself (First + Last Name) or how to greet someone he or she already knows, “Hello (Name), thank you for having me!”  

6. Teach what to say upon departure. “Thank you for having me, (Name)” and whether a hug, cheek kiss, or handshake is appropriate.