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Kids can brush up on holiday table manners

Along with the joy of holiday gatherings comes a fear of your child doing something egregious at the table: chewing with his mouth open, burping the first half of the alphabet, constructing a volcano with her mashed potatoes.

Some parents might be squeamish about having relatives over for a holiday dinner or taking the kids' table act on the road. But local and national etiquette experts say it's never too late to brush up on the basics so that everyone in the family puts his best utensil forward during big family meals.

The key is to make the expectations appropriate for your child's age and to show kids how manners are relevant to them, the experts say. Then they will be more motivated to learn the specifics of napkin-and-utensil use or the rule that you should always pass to the right when serving food at the beginning of the meal.

"I like to tell kids ages 6 to 8 that I see manners doing two things for them," said Cindy Post Senning, director of the Emily Post Institute and co-author of "The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent's Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children," (HarperResource, 2002). "First, they let them know what to do so they don't embarrass themselves. And the other is that table manners are ... intended to let us know what is expected."

Parents often wonder how long they should expect their child to be able to sit at a table, said Jennifer Ricciardi, director of the Lifestyle Finishing School in Burke, Va. Her advice: Multiply the child's age by three to set the standard. A 3-year-old might only be able to tolerate nine minutes of holiday dining, but an 8-year-old's threshold would be closer to 25 minutes.

To get ready for the holidays, the experts suggest trying to have a few family meals each week — it doesn't have to be dinner — to brush up on the basics. Then have a couple of dry runs of a more formal meal to practice the manners that are most important in your family. "Kids need to practice," said Janis Brown, founder of the Etiquette School of Greater Washington, D.C. "A lot of kids have food put on their plates and then they are put in front of the TV. Who's watching how they eat? It's too bad, because it's a wonderful time for families to be together and to talk."

Parents need to remember that disruptions in routine and schedule can be overwhelming for little ones. Plan ahead to make sure they get the rest and nourishment they need while the family is traveling or playing host. This will help them succeed when the pressure's on.

"You really need to build in some times for natural rest," Senning said. "It's unfair to ask kids to be crisp and with it when they're exhausted."