Q&A: teaching table manners to toddlers

Here's an emotionally-neutral (I hope) question for today. Anna writes:

"I would love to hear suggestions on how to begin teaching table mannersto toddlers.  I've followed my mother's advice to let my son (now 18-months) enjoy his food -- it's flavors, textures, smells, etc. -- which has worked well in developing a wonderfully adventurous (for now) little eater.  He'll try everything from snow peas to curries and certainly does have fun at meal times.

Lately, however, I've noticed his younger playmates seem more adept with utensils and family and friends are starting to expect better table manners from him when it comes to cleanliness and eating without his hands.  He can use fork and spoon but he usually casts them aside quickly and dives into his pasta, yogurt, whatever, with both hands!

How to I start to teach him how to use utensils consistently without making meal times a drag?"

First of all, I think your mom is a super-genius for encouraging you to let him experience foods with all of his senses. I'm betting that probably has a lot to do with your not getting some of the eating pushback that a lot of other toddlers start giving around the 16-20-month mark. Since he's able to explore, he's not trying to exert control by refusing to eat.

With that in mind, I'll suggest that you make table manners a fun game. Some kind of Simon Says thing, or follow the leader, in which you use a spoon and he follows by using a spoon. Or singing a special song for each utensil while he's using it (similar to the "clean up, clean up" songs every preschool in the world uses to signal to kids that it's time to clean up). Or contrast "monster eating" (if he watches Cookie Monster) with "people eating" and let him take turns doing both.

In other words, if you can make it a fun new thing that becomes part of the experience instead of something that's taking the place of the way he's been eating, he'll take to it with more enthusiasm. Eventually, he'll figure out that forks are more efficient than hands (sometimes). And he'll be positively rewarded for using utensils and staying cleaner, so he'll just migrate that way in his behavior.

Also, try not to just him completely against other kids. Bear in mind that some of them have probably never been allowed to feed themselves (how many times have you seen parents holding a toddler's face and shoveling in the food so the toddler can't control it?) so they don't even know that food has more dimensions, and for them using a spoon is wacky rebellion.

It'll all come eventually. But probably not until he's at least 3. So think of it as more fun and more learning about being a person in society, and not enforcement with a pass/fail rate.

Anyone else have anecdotes or tips or comments?