Table Manners: How We Raise Free-Range Kids

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Growing up, my family’s dining room table was a place for dad to store his work documents or a month’s worth of mail. I am the youngest of five, and before my time the older siblings had assigned seating and routinely had sit-down meals together enhancing their table manners for an inevitable trip dining out. I, however, grew up racing from sports practice to practice, and whatever other activities I was signed up for.

Sit-down dining, table manners, fancy dinner parties, and high-end restaurants definitely did not routinely exist in my world.

I didn’t even know why anyone would bother with table manners and proper etiquette!  Apparently, these skills would come in handy when I was an adult?!? Who knew?! Even now, table manners and etiquette are not my comfort zone so I tend to shy away from any kind of event that requires them. I prefer comfort and no one can take that away from me.

So, what does this have to do with my free-range kids?

Table manners at a free range house.
The free-range kids’ table.

We don’t have a dining room, a dining room table, or really a solid permanent place to eat in our house- ergo my kids have no practice with table manners.

If you’re anything like me, you have a large kitchen/entry “space” that isn’t big enough to divide. You know, the space where your shoes pile up and spill over in front of your kitchen cabinets, and where your coats spill over in front of the kitchen trash can? No? Lucky you!

We are slowly transforming our kitchen to make a beautiful kitchen island. When I say slowly, I mean years of DIY projects, driven mostly by our limited budget. We are so close to finishing the kitchen/entry space, finally. For the time being though, we still don’t have a table or an island for the kids to eat at- or any such location where our kids can practice their table manners.

What table manners? Toddler eats directly from plate with his mouth.
Free-range kid with no table manners.

When my oldest was born, I fully believed in snacking instead of standard meal times.

I saw somewhere once that smaller and more frequent snacks were actually healthier for you than large meals. I have no idea if that is true, but I have snackers for kids. Also, have you ever tried to get a toddler to sit still at a table and eat their food longer than a bite??

My kids prefer to eat whatever is on my plate anyway. Even if they have the EXACT same food on their own plates. I call my children “free-range kids” because they would play then visit my plate whenever they wanted a bite. At the time, I was still working, so this scenario really only played out during dinners. And it worked, perfectly.

Lap table manners of a free range kid.
Free-range kid eating from my plate on my lap.

Fast forward to my transition to being a stay-at-home-mom.

Snacks and meal times were not feasible without a table. Again, we do not have a dining room table. So, we brought home my sister’s folding Mickey Mouse table she used with our kids at her daycare. We thought that something comforting would help the kids ease their transition from daycare to full-time home care. You know what? The table was amazing and perfect for the kids!

My kids love “helping” set the table, getting chairs out, getting breakfast ready, preparing snacks, and putting dishes away. Having the table has really helped motivate them to assist at mealtimes. However, if I don’t sit at that tiny table, the kids tend to gravitate back towards stealing my food off of my plate! Let me tell you, it’s no longer cute.

I bet you’re wondering how the kids do out in public at restaurants?

Well, it’s a pandemic, after all, so dining out doesn’t exactly happen often. When it does, the kids do great! I mean, as far as toddlers in restaurants go. I typically bring my homemade to-go games that keep them busy for a little while, throw in some coloring, chocolate milk, or juice, and if we keep our meal to under 45 minutes- it’s a pretty successful trip! Honestly, it mainly comes down to lowering those old societal table manner standards, which, fortunately, never really took with me.

We don’t bring our kids to non-kid-friendly restaurants. We don’t set expectations for them to sit still and be quiet for extended periods of time. We want to set the kids up for success because it gives us a stress-free outing. Sure, there are the occasional bouts of crying and meltdowns, but they’re usually hunger or sleep-related. Do you think about your table manners when you’re starving and waiting for food? I sure don’t.

At the end of the day, I don’t have the patience, stamina, or willpower to force my kids to sit down and eat quietly. There’s a give and take somewhere. To some, this may seem irresponsible. To me, it’s about functionality. I’m still dreaming of when we can sit down at the beautiful new kitchen island as a family and eat dinner together, and maybe practice some table manners.

Until then, I’ll pull up my seat to the kids’ table and enjoy the time I have with my kids. Before all those extracurricular activities pull us in opposite directions with opposite meal times.

Table Manners: How We Raise Free Range Kids

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A born and raised Vermonter, Kelli got her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Vermont, then joined the Vermont Air National Guard, where she met her husband. After that, she got her Master’s Degree in Digital Forensic Science from Champlain College. She and her husband and bought a house in the woods with 30+ acres of land to raise their two kids (4 and 2), three dogs, two cats, six chickens, and three guinea hens. Kelli stays home with her kids and pets while running her own wood crafting business, Tabor Ridge Designs, during nap-times. Kelli occasionally writes for her own mom blog, Calm Collected Mom, because we can all dream. She doesn't always think of herself as a writer, but she often has conversations with people over similar life frustrations and wants everyone to know that they're not alone. Life is full of irritations and annoyances, but Kelli thinks that we’ll get through it with a great story to tell afterward!

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