By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

This article is adapted from “Feeding: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

Families under stress today need the rituals of mealtimes more than ever to bring them together.

For many, these important opportunities for family members to relax and enjoy each other may have fallen by the wayside long ago. With more stay-at-home parents trying to re-enter the work force, and others taking on second and third jobs in these times of economic insecurity, mealtimes together may be more difficult than ever to protect and uphold.

Yet they can help the whole family pull together, reconnect and adjust to the increasing demands on parents’ time. When there is less on the table for everyone, families must learn to share what they have. They may draw closer still if they decide together to save some small part of what remains for others who have even less.

But for mealtimes to be family times, children must be taught the table manners that they will need to make these times together rewarding for everyone. Table manners become an important element of the ritual of mealtimes.

They won’t come all at once. Patience, practice, encouragement and repetition will be needed For her to master them. If you expect too much and get irritated, you will make manners into a bother or a burden instead of a way for a child to show respect, learn her place and others’ in the world, and win people over.

Table manners are learned in the 4th and 5th year. Still, parents should plan on modeling – right from the start – the manners they’d like their children to imitate. A parent who says, “Thank you,” when handed half a soggy cookie is already encouraging the child to see that such a response is an expectation.

However, when asked to say “thank you,” a 2-year-old cannot be expected to respond except in imitation. A 3-year-old may try out “thank you,” “hello grandma,” or using a spoon or fork at the table, but she’s just as likely to tease you by dropping them. She may say “thank you” one time, but “ugh” the next.

By age 4, a child is aware of her effect on others. She measures herself against the world around her, and she wants to be like the adults she admires. When a child this age identifies with adults and imitates them, she is ready to begin learning about table manners.

But she’ll also need you to model those manners!

Watch for the effect of this modeling on a child’s mealtime behaviors. She begins to hold a fork like her father or spears a slippery vegetable like her mother. She sits up to the table like one of her parents. She may even begin to eat vegetables. She even tries to cut her meat.

But none of this is easy. The meat slips off her plate. “Oops! Mommy, can you cut it for me?” The cost of failure makes her regress. Then she teases. She spills her milk. She pushes her vegetables off her plate. She falls apart. But she has tried to live up to her parents.

Commend her for her efforts. Rather than picking on what she doesn’t do, try emphasizing what she does do. Don’t expect your child to be consistent. Patient repetition is the key.

Next time, she’ll get even further in identifying with her parents. Or she’ll find another way.

An older sibling can become a model. If an older brother plays at the table, so will she. If siblings want a second helping, so will she. If a brother or sister eats green and yellow vegetables, she may too. If they display even a semblance of table manners, so will she.

She begins to try them out. She uses her napkin on rare occasions. She tries to cut food with her knife. She uses her fork, although maybe only once her fingers have become sticky, or because it is more fun to spear a carrot than to spoon it.

Manners are on their way. By age 6 and over, it is time to expect manners. Repetition and patience will still be needed, though. You may even let your child know what you expect ahead of time. For example, “When we’re all having dinner with our friends, you’ll need to remember to ask to be excused before you leave the table.”

But pressure can take away the incentive your child may have to become socially successful on her own.

When a child learns good manners without undue pressure from parents, she is proud of the skills she has mastered. Rather than an artificial structure imposed by adults, her manners spring from within. She has control over them and they are hers.

Most of all, she will feel empowered in her sense that manners and the help they give her in winning the esteem and affection of others will always be available to her. Once a child has mastered table manners, and has found her own motivation for sticking to them, the whole family can look forward to mealtimes as special times for reconnecting and staying close, for years to come, no matter what surprises the future brings.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.