Why is it so difficult to teach children table manners? My kids are quick learners. My oldest only needs to hear a Weird Al song once and he’s got the lyrics memorized. His little brother can recite the specs for every fighter plane ever built. So why can’t they master the trick of getting their napkins on their laps?
Manner matters are complicated because we’re Americans living in Japan. That means my kids have to learn two different etiquettes with very little overlap. Sometimes the rules conflict. For example, my kids know it’s OK to slurp some Japanese foods but never Western dishes. The problem is that they don’t always know what they’re eating. “You mean corn soup is Western?” my younger one said, genuinely baffled, when I scolded him for raising a racket.
Nevertheless, you’d think they could have learned the basics by now. If I had 100 yen for every time I’ve said, “Elbows off the table,” we’d be living in a six-bedroom castle in Denenchofu.
Thus I was happy when my third-grader came home with a handout on table manners. It occurred to me that Japanese elementary schools, like the one he attends, are great places to teach manners. His school serves a hot lunch every day, and the students eat in the classroom with the teacher, pushing their desks together in groups of four to form something like a family table. And while my son doesn’t pay much attention to what I say, I hoped he might be more receptive at school.
My son did seem interested because he showed me the handout as soon as he came home. It was the school lunch menu, and at the bottom was a self-test on manners. “I got a really good score!” my son announced proudly. To say I was skeptical is putting it mildly, but I sat down to watch as he took the test again:
Mark the statements that apply to you:
* I forget to wash my hands before eating.
* I don’t say itadakimasu before eating or gochisosama when I’m done.
* I sit hunched over my food.
* I race with my friends to see who can eat the fastest.
* I play with my hair while eating.
* I horse around and make a lot of noise during mealtime.
* I eat with my elbows on the table.
* I talk with my mouth full.
* I get out of my seat and walk around while eating.
* I clank my spoon against the dishes and make a lot of noise.
“See? I only marked one!” my son crowed. “That means I’ve got really good table manners!” I elbowed him aside to see the scoring table for myself.
If seven to 10 of these statements apply to you: Watch out! You are out of bounds when it comes to manners!
If you marked two to six items: You need to try harder.
If you marked one or none: You are an Advanced Manner Person! Keep up the good work!
Believe me, my son is no Advanced Manner Person. This is, after all, the child who at dinner the other night inverted the lid of his miso shiru bowl and poured water into it. “What are you doing?” I asked, so astonished I didn’t even think to yell. “My food is too hot,” he said. Then he picked up a piece of dinner and swirled it in the water. “I’m giving it a little swim to cool off,” he explained calmly.
My son’s score convinced me the test is flawed. So I’ve rewritten it, based on my true-life experience as a Mother of Boys. Here’s the Gordenker New Revised Manners Check List:
* I poke at unfamiliar foods and say, “Eew! What is this slime?”
* I eat curry rice with my hands.
* At the table, I make farting noises with my armpit.
* I dump rice in my miso soup.
* I make girls laugh when they have milk in their mouths.
* I eat with my feet on my chair.
* I use my spoon as a catapult to launch peas across the room.
* When asked if I’d like seconds, I say, “Whatever.”
* I smoosh bread into nasty little balls and try to toss them in my mouth.
* I insert a chopstick up each nostril and do walrus impersonations.
I took my list when I went to school for a parents’ meeting, thinking I might run into the nutritionist. She was so happy to hear my son had showed me the manners test that I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was a dud. Instead, I listened politely as she explained why the local school nutritionists’ group decided to put more effort into teaching manners.
“We’ve all noticed a decline in table manners, and felt we needed to step in,” she told me. “Children today are less likely than ever to take their meals sitting down with adults. Many students eat dinner alone because Mom and Dad are still at work and their grandparents live elsewhere. Or kids attend cram school in the evening, and only eat on the run.”
She explained that the school nutritionists in our ward developed monthly slogans such as “Sit up straight when you’re eating.” They post the slogans on school bulletin boards and have them included in the announcements made during lunch.
I was curious to see what other schools are doing, and poked around on the Internet. I discovered that a lot of schools in Japan are putting more emphasis on manners. A school nutritionist in Saitama Prefecture, for example, prints up table cards with a daily message on etiquette. Another school puts on a special seminar for sixth-graders to teach them how to comport themselves in restaurants and how to use silverware properly.
These are all nice ideas, and I’m grateful for any help the school can provide. But I recently calculated that my son puts away 1,095 meals a year, only 190 of which he eats at school. The rest are at home. Which means, I’m afraid, that I’m the one who has to teach my son manners.
Judging from progress so far, it’s going to be a long road to Advanced Manner Person.
Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children. One attends a Japanese elementary school; the other attends an international middle school.