Table manners come more easily when practicing them becomes a game

Amazon: Richard Scarry's Best First Book Ever! There are several levels of brilliance in Jenny's table manners hack:

I have searched, and nagged, and complained at my children to have good manners at the table.  But it usually turned into a burping-tickling-kicking-falling off the chair-frenzy in which very little food made it into their mouths.  

Then I visited my sister and brother in law who have children about the same age as mine.  At mealtime all the children asked — begged, almost — to practice their manners. Baffled, I watched as the following events unfolded:

In front of each child, three small candies were placed on the table.  If the child made it through the whole meal with good manners he got all three candies. Everyone sitting around the table got to try to "catch"  the others practicing bad manners.

While everyone ate their mother read the story of the Good and Bad Manners from Richard Scarry's Best First Book Ever.  The story describes the cat family's excellent manners.  "Lowly sits up straight in his chair like a good worm." As soon as the kids around the table heard about Lowly, they immediately sat up straight…and it went on from there.

My son — the oldest, who had been most resistant to learning manners — lost 2 out of 3 M&M's during the course of his lunch.  Since then, it has been amazing to see how his manners have changed.

Table manners poster

I was so impressed that we created a "Good Manners" poster for my home daycare. The great thing about this is you can taylor it to your own family. Decide which manners are the most important and work on those first. Start with as many candies as you like. And have FUN. But watch out: adults have to play, and you just might lose your M&M's too!  Kids love "catching " their parents!

Who else feels like standing up and applauding? Three things about this hack jump out at me, because I've seen them work in my own family:

  1. Learning is always easier and faster when there's a game involved.
  2. Fun, friendly competition is motivating, and is a learning process in itself. Think: personal accountability, reward/recognition, etc.
  3. Specific instruction is key (instead of "have good manners," "sit up straight in your chair").

As long as the tone is always light, fun, and supportive, you could use this model as a template for learning all sorts of skills: chores, room cleaning, homework…

How do you teach your kids to practice table manners?

Related: Basic manners: why have they changed so drastically? Talk amongst yourselves.


  1. Ladotyk says

    I see this as being really effective as long as the kids don’t get too focused on trying to catch other’s bad manners and turn a game into a witch hunt. (I did a double take, however, when I read: “While everyone ate their mother…”)

  2. Lisa says

    Do you think 3 years old is too young to start this? Specifically we’ve been trying to get my daughter to use her fork consistently and I thought this might be a good method.

  3. chris says

    Our big issues are not the general manners (yet) but pushing food around the plate instead of eating is a problem. I dont’ push eating on anybody and am a firm believer in only eating if you’re hungry. So if you’re not hungry enough to eat (ie don’t like what was served), you need to ask to be excused and go do something else.

    I”m also one of those mean mommies who don’t keep candy around and my weird kids think multi-grain cheerios are what everybody snacks on at the movies.

    So each person has a “thing” left at the table in front of their plate. We have a Thomas train, a miniature ceramic monkey, a plastic penguin, and lip gloss. These are treasures individually chosen by each. The thing goes on the table by your plate, just like the m&m’s trick. If you play with your food, you get a warning. Second offense, you lose your “thing” for the night. Last offense, you are asked to leave with no food until next meal. Everybody lost everything on day one and went to bed somewhat hungry even though rules were clearly laid out in advance. Next several days some things were lost, sometimes kept. Now, it is a very rare occasion that I have to say a peep. I just look and it stops right away. Kids are ages 2-8.

  4. says

    I agree these reward/withdrawl of reward techniques can be very effective but I’m mindful not to overdo it ~ motivation can become extrinsic (focussed on external reward) rather than intrinsic, the same thing happens with too much praise, the kids are then always looking for approval. Sometimes it’s better to bring in an exercise like Chris’, and then dicontinue when the kids are consistently doing the right thing (can always bring it back if need be), rather than build a family culture of getting sweets for what should eventually happen independently.

  5. Christina says

    I would encourage the game to be more about “catching” good table manners versus “catching” bad. It seems a bit vindictive to me to have our children looking for bad behavior rather than good.

  6. Jenny says

    I think 3 years old is a great age! Have fun with it! I have used it with kids age 2-6 at daycare! Although they are “weaned” off their M&Ms now the manners stick… for the most part. We will probably revisit them when the school year starts!

  7. says

    Love this idea, and tried it last night. Just a warning – 3 might be a little too young for it. My 3-yr-old FLIPPED THE HECK OUT when I took away her first M&M… and then flipped out again when I took one away from her Daddy! (“Because I love him!” she sobbed.)

    So. Maybe 4 or 5. ;)