Adapted from a recent online discussion.
My 13-year-old nephew eats with his hands, spills food all over the place, chews with his mouth open, etc. My brother is a single father and has just never taught him proper table manners.
Both my brother and nephew act offended if I say anything.
He’s a sweet, intelligent young man, but I really worry that this will hold him back in life. Who wants to go on a dinner date or to a business lunch with someone who spills food all over himself? Is there anything I can say or do to help my nephew here?
The defensiveness will hold him back more than his manners do.
If you’re in the position to do this, emotionally and geographically, then start taking him out to lunches or dinners one-on-one. Tell your brother you’re doing it because he’s getting older and you want to get to know him as the adult he’s becoming.
Great cause, right?
Then, at strategic times during these meals, take on the table manners — maybe not on the first or even second one, but when it’s an established thing and you have a rapport going. Don’t be coy; that’s often more insulting than being direct: “Okay, we need to teach you to use a fork.”
If he looks hurt — okay, when he gets defensive — then assure him that it’s not personal, and that most kids need a lesson or two in not showing their chewed food to people three tables away. As needed, point out that taking all constructive criticism as an attack may close him off to learning from others — and that no one on Earth has everything all figured out.
You can also use these gatherings to learn his strengths. Even if you think better of bringing up his manners, you can establish yourself as someone he can trust by asking questions and learning from him. Genuine curiosity tends not to be patronizing.
Again, this applies if you are close enough to do so. If you aren’t, then you need to accept that not everyone can fix everything about everyone. Manners are serious when you lose a prospective job or relationship over them, yes, but they’re not serious in an immediate or life-threatening kind of way. That means this is a problem you can turn over to the Village, since there are bound to be villagers in his future with better standing to help him out.
My kid had awful table manners for a while there, too, and not because I didn’t teach her better. It was like bathroom humor among kids of a certain age. Her group just seemed to think it was really funny to offend adults, and each other, with this obnoxious and disgusting behavior. My kid was not the compliant sort, and I was fighting a lot of battles.
In the end, I decided to let puberty take care of this one (although we did refuse to take the offender out to eat until the behavior went away). Sure enough, as soon as she started really liking boys, she realized the gross-out humor needed to go.
Right-o about the “just seemed to think it was really funny to offend.” I’m living it, wall-to-wall. Thanks.