So. The dinner table. Two granddaughters, 5-year-old Maggie and seven-year-old Ryan, a pair of picky eaters if ever there was one, unless you are serving Popsicles for dinner, which their mother doesn't allow.
Not the best dinner party guests, unless you like dinner guests who go berserk if they get the dinosaur plate instead of the giraffe plate, or slip under the table in a sulk if the green beans are touching the chicken.
They don't so much sit down as interact with their chairs by kneeling on them (Ryan) or pushing and pulling them up to Bobbie's chair (Maggie). I am Bobbie, I should add.
Oh, and utensils. The girls have two approaches to these — to pitch fits over them if they don't get the green plastic-handled one, and to ignore them while actually eating, as if we had laid them alongside the plate for decorative purposes, like sprigs of parsley.
Naturally, their Pepe (my husband, Bill) and I frequently make suggestions meant to help turn these distracted wigglers into something resembling civilized dining partners. And, naturally, they ignore us, as would any other dinner guests we harangued throughout the meal ("Mother, sit up straight!" "Uncle Jack, eat at least one mouthful of your nice corn!").
We needed a different approach to the issue of table manners. I remembered a game Bill and I played once, when we pretended to be Maggie and Ryan and screamed at each other ("That's my dress!" "No! It's too small for you!"). Maggie and Ryan, of course, played Bobbie and Pepe, which is how Pepe and I ended up with time-outs.
One recent evening, Bill made hamburgers and peas, with salad on the side, and the four of us sat at the kitchen table to eat. Then the game began. Each of us took a turn to demonstrate something that one should not do at the dinner table.
Bill began by jumping out of his chair, falling to his knees at my side, and screaming, "Bobbie! Bobbie! Bobbie! Bobbie, come to the playroom! There's something I have to show you!"
The kids howled. Then it was Maggie's turn. She crawled across the table to get the butter dish, and crawled back.
Ryan, giggling, ate her peas with her hands.
My turn. I took a tenth of a bite of my hamburger, declared I had eaten my dinner, and begged to be allowed to go watch a show.
Later we took turns acting out good manners.
I turned to Ryan. "Might I trouble you for the salt?" I said.
"It's no trouble at all," Ryan said, handing it to me with a fake smile.
Maggie's turn. "This pea is delicious," she said to her Pepe, making rather exaggerated eye contact. "Thank you for making it."
They used their napkins. They sat up straight. They located their forks and used them to ostentatiously spear their peas, one at a time. They conversed. ("Did you have a nice day, Pepe? Was it nice weather at work?") They took their plates to the sink — Maggie would have removed the tablecloth for us, too, had she not noticed at the last second that most of the dinner was still on it. (I caught the butter dish just before it fell.)
I'm surprised I didn't do this kind of thing when my own kids were small. That's one of the perks of being a parent once-removed — freed of the responsibility of actually raising the kids, you get your sense of humor back. And if there's one thing every kid has, it's a sense of humor.
How can your grandkids learn to do things the right way?
Adair Lara is the author of The Granny Diaries (Chronicle Books), a satiric guide to grandparenting. She is a former San Francisco Chronicle columnist, and lives in San Francisco with her husband, three blocks from the grandchildren.
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