I would like to start this post by saying that my parents definitely taught my brothers and I table manners. Use your utensils, chew with your mouth closed, keep your elbows off the table and so on, we were always well versed in european manners. From the time we could sit on our parents laps for a meal we were taught table etiquette. When I was around the age of about 5 I suspect my parents just gave up on harping on us and worried about life in general instead. We all knew what kind of behavior was and was not acceptable at our families table. We felt confident that we could join anyone elses table without the fear of embarrassing ourselves. As time went by our family, like most families, sort of drifted apart. The type of thing where the kids had better things to do than commit to family time and the parents worked late and life just carried us all away. As I continued to grow up I never realized the erosion that my table manners went through, a slow sapping etiquette, a small reversal in evolution! Many times we didn’t eat at the same time. Sometimes we even ate the same meal but all in different rooms!
It wasn’t until I joined my boyfriends parents at their table with all the extensions of family around us that I realized I had jumped into the ocean without a life-preserver! I was young, I was cocky, I knew everything…but had forgotten all my table manners without even realizing it! Suddenly I had one foot tucked under me, my elbow on the table, talked with my mouth full, forgot to wash my hands before the meal, ate with my fingers, slurped my soup, interrupted others conversations…all things that my parents trained me better in. I basically had to relearn all the rules.
One of the biggest ideals that differed from when I was growing up to when I sat at my in-laws table was the act of remaining seated until all at the table were finished their meals. I have to admit that in the beginning I just didn’t get it. I remember sitting down at my mother in laws table to eat a snack or maybe it was a late meal all by myself. I was comfortable do so, but she respectfully sat down across from me to keep me company, she had no plate in front of her. Initially I felt very awkward, almost as though I was in trouble for something, continuing to chatter incessantly rather than eat, confused about why she was there, staring at me while I ate! lol It took me years to understand that she noticed that I was sitting alone and, even in the beginning of our relationship, cared enough about me to pause her day, to keep me company and to listen to me chattering, patiently waiting for me to finish my meal. It was an act of love and respect.
Now that I have children of my own and am in need of teaching them table manners I am glad I had to retake all my manners as an adult! In saying that it just means that I know what table manners are, not that I practise them on a regular basis!
My children are now 3 and 4 years old and I recently realized that I have not done a very good job by them. Every meal they beg to sit in front of the tv to eat. They don’t have set eating times, try to leave the table as soon as their mouths are packed with their last parentally negotiated bite. They have elbows on the table and food falls from their loaded mouths as they try to tell me about their day. Utensils are rarely used, napkins become confetti instead of lap protectors, there is food all over the floor, the kids take way more than they can eat, there is dancing and singing at our table, food crumbs all over the house, popsicle sticks in the bathroom, people leaving while some are just beginning…need I go on?!
My my daughter, son and myself were sitting at the table for supper one night. I was finished, my daughter was packing her mouth with her last bite and my son still had half a plate of food that I wasnt sure was going to make into his body. My daughter got up from the table and walked away…huh? I asked her where she was going, “I am done, I am going to go play now, see ya!” and she was gone.
This moment sent me back in time to being a 3,4,5,6,7-year-old and how as people finished their meals they left the table. My brothers to their rooms, my father to the tv or back to work, my mother to the dishwasher or the laundry room. That left me, sitting there, slowly pushing my food around the plate, not eating or even really seeing the food. I could have sat there for hours, just day dreaming and pushing my food around on my plate.
I can’t tell you why, if I could I would be able to unlock the secret to my own children. I can empathize with my parents now. If it were up to my children we would sit at that table for an hour for each meal, maybe even 2 hours.
When it comes to meal time I understand how, as an adult, there are so many things on my list to accomplish in my day and how the thought of sitting at a table watching a toddler eat can slowly drive me to drink. How a parents’ leg can slowly start to shake and then their toes start to tap. They check their watch, they tap their fork or finger on the table, refuse to acknowledge their chatting child. Glare at their child, releasing exasperated sighs of frustration. I have felt the violence inside myself, wanting nothing more than to rip the fork from their fingers and shove the food into their mouths each time they open it to talk. To yell at them, punish them, ridicule them and berate them for not eating to my standards…instead, to avoid this unacceptable behavior I leave the table, I have better things to do with my time.
As a child I often remember everyone being too busy for me, watching my family “abandon” me each night added to me developing this deep sense of loneliness. I remember sitting in front of my grade 4 teachers desk after school for hours spinning tales and talking incessantly because I felt she was actually listening to me. I would enthrall anyone who would stop, for even a moment, with stories that couldn’t possibly be true. I am sure that many adults saw me as a little liar and warned their children about me, but I saw myself as a wonderful teller of stories.
In the past I have tried to tell myself that it is okay to leave my children behind because I am just in the next room, the child can still see and hear me, the child is safe and they know it, I am still there, they know I love them…but in reality, I am not present, I am not available, I am not providing that child with security and knowledge that they are an important part of our family. I am not showing that child that they are loved, respected and appreciated. With my impatient body language I am showing them that they are not good enough, not fast enough, not doing it right. That they are failing to meet my standards.
Something I often struggle with is trying to make decisions that are best for my children. With all the people in this world who know how to raise my children better than I can it often feels as though, as a parent, I am wandering around in a mine field with a blindfold on. I never know when someone will inform me that I am doing it all wrong and that I am going to be scarring my child for life.
I will always try to make the right choices, but at the end of the day there will aways be the need to sit down with my adult child and ask them if there is baggage they need help to unload in order for them to move forward into a balanced adult life.
In the mean time, I plan to take a page from my mother in laws book and no longer leave my child behind.