Thanksgiving Table Manners

Hartley Steiner

I hate eating with my kids. Really, I do. Our meal times usually push me to the edge of sanity. And with Thanksgiving just weeks away, I am reminded that I will be eating with my kids in a formal setting with other people. Perhaps the turkey is less nervous than I am. Why? It isn’t for the reasons you may think.

I have long ago gotten past the worries about what food my kids will eat, or whether they can stay seated at the table, or their inability to be hungry at meal time, preferring to graze all day. What I haven’t gotten over is their utter lack of table manners.

Yes, table manners.

I hear you — you think I shouldn’t worry about table manners, that perhaps I have bigger fish to fry. But bad table manners is a pet peeve I just can’t let go. Somewhere in my mind I have attributed the presence of good table manners with a gold star on my Mommy Chart. I try to let it go, really, but the holidays bring my worries back in full force, my own personal race against time to get my kids to “brush up” before anyone else witnesses the horror.

My oldest son Gabriel is the worst. He actually has set the bar so low that it is hard for me to concentrate on the bad table manners of my other two. Gabriel knows our dinner rules; he can recite what the table manners are in nauseating detail, answer a table manners quiz, and remind his brothers (and me) to mind our table manners should we falter — but, he cannot follow those rules.

And it drives me to the point of madness.

Dinner rules are simple at my house. I don’t feel like I am asking for too much:

  • Wear clothing at the table.

  • No feet on the table.
  • Use your utensils.

  • Keep your hands off your plate as best you can.

I don’t think those rules are too complicated for my sons. Nowhere do they say “You must eat what I am eating” or “You must stay in your seat,” because I am trying to have realistic expectations. Even on Thanksgiving, the rules are the same. They can have chicken nuggets or peanut butter sandwiches, I’m easy. So long as they have a reasonable manners.

How does Gabe challenge my OCD-like need for good manners? He eats at the speed of light, shoving his food into his mouth with fork and hands, in an awkward partnership that is as unnatural as David Hasselhoff on Dancing with the Stars — all careless abandon and no points for accuracy. The result is my child with food all over him, the floor, the table, his chair, his clothes, his hair. Whoever sits next to him gets covered in the overspray.

Yes, my 9 year old eats like a toddler.

I know this is a complex sensory issue. I even know the role each of his senses each plays in this eating-catastrophe:

  • Need to eat fast/always hungry (Introceoption)

  • Lack of awareness of where his mouth is (Proprioception/Vestibular)

  • Inability to feel food all over him (Tactile)

  • Seeking oral input (Taste)

I also know that eating is one of the few multisensory activities which requires coordination between all eight of his senses*. I understand that his sensory issues make it harder for him to coordinate the incredibly complex motor planning and movements associated with eating.

My challenge is not intellectual, not at all. My challeng is emotional, and it is based on my own expectations of what dinner should be, and how my child should eat. And, to be completely frank, the social stigma of having a nine-year-old who eats like a 2 year old. Especially in public. Or worse yet, in front of guests at Thanksgiving dinner.

For some reason Thanksgiving brings out folks’ need (and my specific need) to create a Martha Stewart-perfect dinner. I try to cook the perfect turkey, bake the perfect pies, set the perfect table, make everyone’s favorite side dishes, have a perfectly clean house, and of course be showered, dressed, and wearing pearls before serving the food. It’s not realistic.

Neither is my desire for Gabriel to have perfect table manners. Even on Thanksgiving. And you know what? It will be OK. Because Thanksgiving will be a perfect just the way it is. And so is Gabe.

So this year, when our family takes turns going around the table saying what we are thankful for, I may  get choked up listing all the things from this past year — but one of them won’t be my son’s table manners. Which I think is perfectly OK.


*Definitions for the eight senses

  • Introceoption: The internal sense responsible for knowing you are hungry, feel sick, or have to use the restroom.

  • Proprioception: In your joints and muscles, responsible for pressure in and out — like throwing a ball, receiving a hug, and using a pencil.

  • Vestibular:  our sense of balance, of where your body is positioned in space — like lying down, turning upside down, jumping and climbing high off the ground.

  • Taste: Your sense taste in your mouth, responsible for recognizing flavor, intensity, and texture.

  • Touch: Your sense of feeling, all over your skin; responsible for how your clothes feel, knowing there is food on your face, and having your hair combed or cut.

  • Smell: Your sense of what things smell like, from freshly baked cookies, to perfumes, , skunks.
Sight: How you see things, responsible for picking out one object in many, recognizing facial expressions, and adjusting your eyes to lighting conditions.

  • Hearing: How things sound, responsible for knowing who to listen to in a crowded room, organizing directions for a task, and taking in the sound of an alarm or siren.