When I think about the idea of civilizing children, I shudder at the enormity of the task. But when I was the mother of small children, I could not see it as a part of the larger societal requirement, but only as taming the wild in the everyday life of our family. One of the ways to accomplish this is to assume that the children want to be civilized. In my experience they really do.
We would often decorate butcher paper to make a fun table runner or place mats. Besides drawing on them with personal decorations, writing our names, and other fun things, we would draw the plates and the utensils. That was the way that my children learned how to set the table. When they went to a restaurant, they were not flummoxed by the salad fork or the soup spoon. Sometimes we would make fancy looking napkin folds or roll the napkins into special napkin rings that we had made. We were even known to write our names on paper napkins.
Of course we didn’t do all of these activities every day. But we always tried to make the table fun. I had two boys, so often we decorated the table with their dinosaur toys or Star Wars action figures. There were very few flowers. But that really didn’t matter. We had a vegetable meal and decorated with herbivore dinosaurs.
And the boys loved to serve things that they had made. Often it was salad, since it didn’t involve actual cooking. We made pasta dishes – sometimes with ziti instead of spaghetti, so that the boys could handle it easily. They loved to drink their water or milk from a wine glass. We accommodated their desires to be grown-up and sophisticated, and usually it resulted in a semblance of civilization. It even worked with their friends. And all of this was before cell phones at the table. I worry about parents today having to deal with tableside technology. I had to turn off the television and close books. That was all.
As we become more prone to eating out, learning how to behave in a restaurant is becoming more important. If families go out to eat on a regular basis, the children will have to behave at the table at all but the most casual of places. Learning at home is the safest and really the most satisfying way.