A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

The Social Significance of Manners

How social science supports the importance of manners.

One aspect of meals that is almost as important to me as what my children eat is how they eat. And by "how" I don't mean whether they make healthy choices or eat appropriate portions. I mean how the food gets from plate to mouth: I'm talking about table manners. And as we head into the homestretch of the Dining Season between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, and your children's eating habits are likely to be exposed to scrutiny by an audience larger than your nuclear family, it seems like an excellent time to assess exactly why manners matter.

I am aware I'm probably in a small, cranky minority among my cohort of parents in caring about table manners, but I confess that I genuinely do care about them. And I feel I'm fighting a losing battle. How many of you had parents or—as in my case—grandparents who rode you hard about your table manners? Laying your napkin in your lap (this is the one habit Americans generally observe far more faithfully than Europeans, I've noticed); crossing your knife and fork face-down on the plate between bites; neither talking nor drinking with your mouth full of food; lifting your glass to your mouth rather than vice versa; no elbows on the table. Even now I still have regular flashbacks to my grandmother's instructions on comporting myself suitably at the table, as many of you might with your own grandparents. Though I'd wager none of the rest of you had this reason drummed into you about why table manners are important: "What if you were asked to dine with the Queen?"

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So while I never have dined with the Queen—or any royalty—yet,  I have given some thought to why I routinely ruin my own mealtime experience by transforming into a horrible, nagging shrew. My children, left to their own devices, will treat spaghetti as finger food, lick food directly from their plates, and belch freely at the table. Wouldn't it be so much easier to take the path of least resistance and just ignore their terrible table manners? I definitely do not enjoy listening to my own increasingly furious and desperate imprecations. And they just laugh when I say I feel like I'm living in a pig sty.

But I recently got confirmation from an unlikely source about why manners really are important. Aside from the obvious reason—having tolerable manners may help our children become people with whom others may actually want to dine—it turns out that table manners and similar social rules have larger benefits. In his flawed but nevertheless intriguing stab at social science, The Social Animal, David Brooks writes about the undervalued and misunderstood role of the unconscious and emotions in human development. Essentially, he's seeking to reprioritize these mental processes and also to explore how and why they contribute to a successful life.

It turns out that manners and other socially enforced rules of politeness not only help train us, unconsciously, to be better members of society and its institutions, but also "rewire and strengthen networks in the brain." It definitely does make me feel better to think of table manners as "habits and practices that help us reinforce our best intuitions and inculcate moral habits." Instead of merely being unbearably picky, it turns out that I am chastising my children to help them thrive within institutions—a key difference Brooks notes between poor and wealthy children. It turns out that though poorer children actually may have happier, more carefree childhoods than their wealthier peers who are dragged from one adult-supervised activity to another, it's the latter group that knows how to succeed within the institutions they'll inevitably encounter. They know how to speak to adults, how to behave appropriately in varied settings, and how to navigate their way to a successful life. The children whose parents didn't nag them constantly about their social behavior, in other words, are more likely to flounder when faced with unfamiliar settings and expectations.

So if you're tempted, as I am on a nearly daily basis, to give up the table manners fight as one small, unimportant battle, perhaps it will give you renewed strength to rebrand manners as important "habits of mind"  instead, and to understand that they are critical bahaviors you're inculcating into your children to help them thrive and succeed once you're no longer around to nag them.

What I cooked this week (and last):

 

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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