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Emily Post (1873–1960). Etiquette. 1922.

Chapter XXXV

The Kindergarten of Etiquette

IN the houses of the well-to-do where the nursery is in charge of a woman of refinement who is competent to teach little children proper behavior, they are never allowed to come to table in the dining-room until they have learned at least the elements of good manners. But whether in a big house of this description, or in a small house where perhaps the mother alone must be the teacher, children can scarcely be too young to be taught the rudiments of etiquette, nor can the teaching be too patiently or too conscientiously carried out.   1
  Training a child is exactly like training a puppy; a little heedless inattention and it is out of hand immediately; the great thing is not to let it acquire bad habits that must afterward be broken. Any child can be taught to be beautifully behaved with no effort greater than quiet patience and perseverance, whereas to break bad habits once they are acquired is a Herculean task.   2

  Since a very little child can not hold a spoon properly, and as neatness is the first requisite in table-manners, it should be allowed to hold its spoon as it might take hold of a bar in front of it, back of the hand up, thumb closed over fist. The pusher (a small flat piece of silver at right angles to a handle) is held in the same way, in the left hand. Also in the first eating lessons, a baby must be allowed to put a spoon in its mouth, pointed end foremost. Its first lessons must be to take small mouthfuls, to eat very slowly, to spill nothing, to keep the mouth shut while chewing and not smear its face over. In drinking, a child should use both hands to hold a mug or glass until its hand is big enough so it can easily hold a glass in one. When it can eat without spilling anything or smearing its lips, and drink without making grease “moons” on its mug or tumbler (by always wiping its mouth before drinking), it may be allowed to come to table in the dining-room as a treat, for Sunday lunch or breakfast. Or if it has been taught by its mother at table, she can relax her attention somewhat from its progress. Girls are usually daintier and more easily taught than boys, but most children will behave badly at table if left to their own devices. Even though they may commit no serious offenses, such as making a mess of their food or themselves, or talking with their mouths full, all children love to crumb bread, flop this way and that in their chairs, knock spoons and forks together, dawdle over their food, feed animals—if any are allowed in the room—or become restless and noisy.
  Once graduated to the dining-room, any reversion to such tactics must be firmly reprehended, and the child should understand that continued offense means a return to the nursery. But before company it is best to say as little as possible, since too much nagging in the presence of strangers lessens a child’s incentive to good behavior before them. If it refuses to behave nicely, much the best thing to do is to say nothing, but get up and quietly lead it from the table back to the nursery. It is not only bad for the child but annoying to a guest to continue instructions before “company,” and the child learns much more quickly to be well-behaved if it understands that good behavior is the price of admission to grown-up society. A word or two such as, “Don’t lean on the table, darling,” or “pay attention to what you are doing, dear,” should suffice. But a child that is noisy, that reaches out to help itself to candy or cake, that interrupts the conversation, that eats untidily has been allowed to leave the nursery before it has been properly graduated.   4
  Table manners must, of course, proceed slowly in exactly the same way that any other lessons proceed in school. Having learned when a baby to use the nursery implements of spoon and pusher, the child, when it is a little older, discards them for the fork, spoon and knife.   5

  As soon, therefore, as his hand is dexterous enough, the child must be taught to hold his fork, no longer gripped baby-fashion in his fist, but much as a pencil is held in writing; only the fingers are placed nearer the “top” than the “point,” the thumb and two first fingers are closed around the handle two-thirds of the way up the shank, and the food is taken up shovel-wise on the turned-up prongs. At first his little fingers will hold his fork stiffly, but as he grows older his fingers will become more flexible just as they will in holding his pencil. If he finds it hard work to shovel his food, he can, for a while, continue to use his nursery pusher. By and by the pusher is changed for a small piece of bread, which is held in his left hand and between thumb and first two fingers, and against which the fork shovels up such elusive articles as corn, peas, poached egg, etc.

  In using the spoon, he holds it in his right hand like the fork. In eating cereal or dessert, he may be allowed to dip the bowl of the spoon toward him and eat from the end, but in eating soup he must dip his spoon away from him—turning the outer rim of the bowl down as he does so—fill the bowl not more than three-quarters full and sip it, without noise, out of the side (not the end) of the bowl. The reason why the bowl must not be filled full is because it is impossible to lift a brimming spoonful of liquid to his mouth without spilling some, or in the case of porridge without filling his mouth too full. While still very young he may be taught never to leave the spoon in a cup while drinking out of it, but after stirring the cocoa, or whatever it is, to lay the spoon in the saucer.
  A very ugly table habit, which seems to be an impulse among all children, is to pile a great quantity of food on a fork and then lick or bite it off piecemeal. This must on no account be permitted. It is perfectly correct, however, to sip a little at a time, of hot liquid from a spoon. In taking any liquid either from a spoon or drinking vessel, no noise must ever be made.   8

  In being taught to use his knife, the child should at first cut only something very easy, such as a slice of chicken; he should not attempt anything with bones or gristle, or anything that is tough. In his left hand is put his fork with the prongs downward, held near the top of the handle. His index finger is placed on the shank so that it points to the prongs, and is supported at the side by his thumb. His other fingers close underneath and hold the handle tight. He must never be allowed to hold his fork emigrant fashion, perpendicularly clutched in the clenched fist, and to saw across the food at its base with his knife.

  The knife is held in his right hand exactly as the fork is held in his left, firmly and at the end of the handle, with the index finger pointing down the back of the blade. In cutting he should learn not to scrape the back of the fork prongs with the cutting edge of the knife. Having cut off a mouthful, he thrusts the fork through it, with prongs pointed downward and conveys it to his mouth with his left hand. He must learn to cut off and eat one mouthful at a time.
  It is unnecessary to add that the knife must never be put in his mouth; nor is it good form to use the knife unnecessarily. Soft foods, like croquettes, hash on toast, all eggs and vegetables, should be cut or merely broken apart with the edge of the fork held like the knife, after which the fork is turned in the hand to first (or shovel) position. The knife must never be used to scoop baked potato out of the skin, or to butter potato. A fork must be used for all manipulations of vegetables; butter for baked potatoes taken on the tip of the fork shovel fashion, laid on the potato, and then pressed down and mixed with the prongs held points curved up.  11
  When no knife is being used, the fork is held in the right hand, whether used “prongs down” to impale the meat or “prongs up” to lift vegetables.  12
  To pile mashed potato and other vegetables on the convex side of the fork on top of the meat for two or more inches of its length, is a disgusting habit dear to school boys, and one that is more easily prevented than corrected. In fact, taking a big mouthful (next to smearing his face and chewing with mouth open) is the worst offense at table.  13
  When he has finished eating, he should lay his knife and fork close together, side by side, with handles toward the right side of his plate, the handles projecting an inch or two beyond the rim of the plate. They must be placed far enough on the plate so that there is no danger of their over-balancing on to the table or floor when removed at the end of the course.  14

  The distance from the table at which it is best to sit, is a matter of personal comfort. A child should not be allowed to be so close that his elbows are bent like a grasshopper’s, nor so far back that food is apt to be spilled in transit from plate to mouth. Children like to drink very long and rapidly, all in one breath, until they are pink around the eyes, and are literally gasping. They also love to put their whole hands in their finger-bowls and wiggle their fingers.
  A baby of two, or at least by the time he is three, should be taught to dip the tips of his fingers in the fingerbowl, without playing, draw the fingers of the right hand across his mouth, and then wipe his lips and fingers on the apron of his bib.  16
  No small child can be expected to use a napkin instead of a bib. No matter how nicely behaved he may be, there is always danger of his spilling something, some time. Soft boiled egg is hideously difficult to eat without ever getting a drop of it down the front, and it is much easier to supply him with a clean bib for the next meal than to change his dress for the next moment.  17
  Very little children usually have “hot water plates” that are specially made like a double plate with hot water space between, on which the meat is cut up and the vegetables “fixed” in the pantry, and brought to the children before other people at the table are served. Not only because it is hard for them to be made to wait, and have their attention attracted by food not for them, but because they take so long to eat. As soon as they are old enough to eat everything on the table, they are served, not last, but in the regular rotation at table in which they come.  18

  To sit up straight and keep their hands in their laps when not occupied with eating, is very hard for a child, but should be insisted upon in order to prevent a careless attitude that all too readily degenerates into flopping this way and that, and into fingering whatever is in reach. He must not be allowed to warm his hands on his plate, or drum on the table, or screw his napkin into a rope or make marks on the table-cloth. If he shows talent as an artist, give him pencils or modeling wax in his playroom, but do not let him bite his slice of bread into the silhouette of an animal, or model figures in soft bread at the table. And do not allow him to construct a tent out of two forks, or an automobile chassis out of tumblers and knives. Food and table implements are not playthings, nor is the dining-room a playground.

  When older people are present at table and a child wants to say something, he must be taught to stop eating momentarily and look at his mother, who at the first pause in the conversation will say, “What is it, dear?” And the child then has his say. If he wants merely to launch forth on a long subject of his own conversation, his mother says, “Not now, darling, we will talk about that by and by,” or “Don’t you see that mother is talking to Aunt Mary?”
  When children are at table alone with their mother, they should not only be allowed to talk but unconsciously trained in table conversation as well as in table manners. Children are all more or less little monkeys in that they imitate everything they see. If their mother treats them exactly as she does her visitors they in turn play “visitor” to perfection. Nothing hurts the feelings of children more than not being allowed to behave like grown persons when they think they are able. To be helped, to be fed, to have their food cut up, all have a stultifying effect upon their development as soon as they have become expert enough to attempt these services for themselves.  21
  Children should be taught from the time they are little not to talk about what they like and don’t like. A child who is not allowed to say anything but “No, thank you,” at home, will not mortify his mother in public by screaming, “I hate steak, I won’t eat potato, I want ice cream!”  22

  Older children should not be allowed to jerk out their chairs, to flop down sideways, to flick their napkins by one corner, to reach out for something, or begin to eat nuts, fruit or other table decorations. A child as well as a grown person should sit down quietly in the center of his chair and draw it up to the table (if there is no one to push it in for him) by holding the seat in either hand while momentarily lifting himself on his feet. He must not “jump” or “rock” his chair into place at the table. In getting up from the table, again he must push his chair back quietly, using his hands on either side of the chair seat, and not by holding on to the table edge and giving himself, chair and all, a sudden shove! There should never be a sound made by the pushing in or out of chairs at table.

  The bad manners of American children, which unfortunately are supposed by foreigners to be typical, are nearly always the result of their being given “star” parts by over-fond but equally over-foolish mothers. It is only necessary to bring to mind the most irritating and objectionable child one knows, and the chances are that its mother continually throws the spotlight on it by talking to it, and about it, and by calling attention to its looks or its cunning ways or even, possibly, its naughtiness.
  It is humanly natural to make a fuss over little children, particularly if they are pretty, and it takes quite superhuman control for a young mother not to “show off” her treasure, but to say instead, “Please do not pay any attention to her.” Some children, who are especially free from self-consciousness, stand “stardom” better than others who are more readily spoiled; but in nine cases out of ten, the old-fashioned method that assigned children to inconspicuous places in the background and decreed they might be seen but not heard, produced men and women of far greater charm than the modern method of encouraging public self-expression from infancy upward.  25

  No young human being, any more than a young dog, has the least claim to attractiveness unless it is trained to manners and obedience. The child that whines, interrupts, fusses, fidgets, and does nothing that it is told to do, has not the least power of attraction for any one, even though it may have the features of an angel and be dressed like a picture. Another that may have no claim to beauty whatever, but that is sweet and nicely behaved, exerts charm over every one.
  When possible, a child should be taken away the instant it becomes disobedient. It soon learns that it can not “stay with mother” unless it is well-behaved. This means that it learns self-control in babyhood. Not only must children obey, but they must never be allowed to “show off” or become pert, or to contradict or to answer back; and after having been told “no,” they must never be allowed by persistent nagging to win “yes.”  27
  A child that loses its temper, that teases, that is petulant and disobedient, and a nuisance to everybody, is merely a victim, poor little thing, of parents who have been too incompetent or negligent to train it to obedience. Moreover, that same child when grown will be the first to resent and blame the mother’s mistaken “spoiling” and lack of good sense.  28

  Nothing appeals to children more than justice, and they should be taught in the nursery to “play fair” in games, to respect each other’s property and rights, to give credit to others, and not to take too much credit to themselves. Every child must be taught never to draw attention to the meagre possessions of another child whose parents are not as well off as her own. A purse-proud, overbearing child who says to a playmate, “My clothes were all made in Paris, and my doll is ever so much handsomer than yours,” or “Is that real lace on your collar?” is not impressing her young friend with her grandeur and discrimination but with her disagreeableness and rudeness. A boy who brags about what he has, and boasts of what he can do, is only less objectionable because other boys are sure to “take it out of him” promptly and thoroughly! Nor should a bright, observing child be encouraged to pick out other people’s failings, or to tell her mother how inferior other children are compared with herself. If she wins a race or a medal or is praised, she naturally tells her mother, and her mother naturally rejoices with her, and it is proper that she should; but a wise mother directs her child’s mental attitude to appreciate the fact that arrogance, selfishness and conceit can win no place worth having in the world.

  A custom in many fashionable houses is to allow children as soon as they are old enough, to come into the drawing-room or library at tea-time, as nothing gives them a better opportunity to learn how to behave in company. Little boys are always taught to bow to visitors; little girls to curtsy. Small boys are taught to place the individual tables, hand plates and tea, and pass sandwiches and cakes. If there are no boys, girls perform this office; very often they both do. When everybody has been helped, the children are perhaps allowed a piece of cake, which they put on a tea-plate, and sit down, and eat nicely. But as the tea-hour is very near their supper time, they are often allowed nothing, and after making themselves useful, go out of the room again. If many people are present and the children are not spoken to, they leave the room unobtrusively and quietly. If only one or two are present, especially those whom the children know well, they shake hands, and say “Good-by,” and walk (not run) out of the room.
  This is one of the ways in which well-bred people become used from childhood to instinctive good manners. Unless they are spoken to, they would not think of speaking or making themselves noticed in any way. Very little children who have not reached the age of “discretion,” which may be placed at about five, possibly not until six, usually go in the drawing-room at tea-time only when near relatives or intimate friends of the family are there. Needless to say that they are always washed and dressed. Some children wear special afternoon clothes, but usually the clean clothes put on at tea-time go on again the next morning, except the thin socks and house slippers which are reserved for the “evening hour” of their day.  31

  A small girl (or boy) giving a party should receive with her mother at the door and greet all her friends as they come in. If it is her birthday and other children bring her gifts, she must say “Thank you” politely. On no account must she be allowed to tell a child “I hate dolls,” if a friend has brought her one. She must learn at an early age that as hostess she must think of her guests rather than herself, and not want the best toys in the grab-bag or scream because another child gets the prize that is offered in a contest. If beaten in a game, a little girl, no less than her brothers, must never cry, or complain that the contest is “not fair” when she loses. She must try to help her guests have a good time, and not insist on playing the game she likes instead of those which the other children suggest.
  When she herself goes to a party, she must say, “How do you do,” when she enters the room, and curtsy to the lady who receives. A boy makes a bow. They should have equally good manners as when at home, and not try to grab more than their share of favors or toys. When it is time to go home, they must say, “Good-by, I had a very good time,” or, “Good-by, thank you ever so much.”  33

  If the hostess says, “Good-by, give my love to your mother!” the child answers, “Yes, Mrs. Smith.”
  In all monosyllabic replies a child must not say “Yes” or “No” or “What?” A boy in answering a gentleman still uses the old-fashioned “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” “I think so, sir,” but ma’am has gone out of style. Both boys and girls must therefore answer, “No, Mrs. Smith,” “Yes, Miss Jones.” A girl says “Yes, Mr. Smith,” rather than “sir.” All children should say, “What did you say, mother?” “No, father,” “Thank you, Aunt Kate,” “Yes, Uncle Fred,” etc.  35
  They need not insert a name in a long sentence nor with “please,” or “thank you.” “Yes, please,” or “No, thank you,” is quite sufficient. Or in answering, “I just saw Mary down in the garden,” it is not necessary to add “Mrs. Smith” at the end.  36

  Etiquette for grown children is precisely the same as for grown persons, excepting that in many ways the manners exacted of young people should be more “alert” and punctilious. Young girls (and boys of course) should have the manners of a gentleman rather than those of a lady; in that a gentleman always rises, relinquishes the best seat and walks last into a room, whereas these courtesies are shown to, and not observed by ladies (except to other ladies older than themselves).
  In giving parties, young girls send out their invitations as their mothers do, and their deportment is the same as that of their débutante sister. Boys behave as their fathers do, and are equally punctilious in following the code of honor of all gentlemen. The only details, therefore, not likely to be described in other chapters of this book, are a few admonitions on table manners, that are somewhat above “kindergarten” grade.  38

  A young person may be supposed to have graduated from the school of table etiquette when she, or he, would be able to sit at a formal lunch or dinner table and find no difficulty in eating properly any of the comestibles which are supposed to be “hurdles” to the inexpert.

  Corn on the cob could be eliminated so far as ever having to eat it in formal company is concerned, since it is never served at a luncheon or a dinner; but, if you insist on eating it at home or in a restaurant, to attack it with as little ferocity as possible, is perhaps the only direction to be given, since at best it is an ungraceful performance and to eat it greedily a horrible sight!

  Although asparagus may be taken in the fingers, don’t take a long drooping stalk, hold it up in the air and catch the end of it in your mouth like a fish. When the stalks are thin, it is best to cut them in half with the fork, eating the tips like all fork food; the ends may then be taken in the fingers and eaten without a dropping fountain effect! Don’t squeeze the stalks, or hold your hand below the end and let the juice run down your arm.

  Artichokes are always eaten with the fingers; a leaf at a time is pulled off and the edible end dipped in the sauce, and then bitten off.

  Bread should always be broken into small pieces with the fingers before being eaten. If it is to be buttered (at lunch, breakfast or supper, but not at dinner) a piece is held on the edge of the bread and butter plate, or the place plate, and enough butter spread on it for a mouthful or two at a time, with a small silver “butter knife.” Bread must never be held flat on the palm of the hand and buttered in the air. If the regular steel knife is used, care must be taken not to smear food from the knife’s side on the butter. Any food that is smeared about is loathsome. People who have beautiful table manners always keep their places at table neat. People with disgusting manners get everything in a horrible mess.

  Terrapin bones, fish bones and grape seed must be eaten quite bare and clean in the mouth, and removed one at a time between finger and thumb. All spitting out of bones and pits into the plate is disgusting.
  If food is too hot, quickly take a swallow of water. On no account spit it out! If food has been taken into your mouth, no matter how you hate it, you have got to swallow it. It is unforgivable to take anything out of your mouth that has been put in it, except dry bones, and stones. To spit anything whatever into the corner of your napkin, is too nauseating to comment on. It is horrid to see any one spit skins or pits on a fork or into the plate. The only way to take anything out of your mouth is between first-finger and thumb. Dry grape seeds or cherry pits can be dropped from the lips into the cupped hand. Peaches or other very juicy fruits are peeled and then eaten with knife and fork, but dry fruits, such as apples, may be cut and then eaten in the fingers. Never wipe hands that have fruit juice on them on a napkin without first using a finger bowl, because fruit juices make indelible stains.  45

  Birds are not eaten with the fingers in company! You cut off as much of the meat as you can, and leave the rest on your plate.

  All juicy or “gooey” fruits or cakes are best eaten with a fork, but in most cases it is a matter of dexterity. If you are able to eat a peach in your fingers and not smear your face, let juice run down, or make a sucking noise, you are the one in a thousand who may, and with utmost propriety, continue the feat. If you can eat a napoleon or a cream puff and not let the cream ooze out on the far side, you need not use a fork, but if you can not eat something—no matter what it is—without getting it all over your fingers, you must use a fork, and if necessary, a knife also!
  All rules of table manners are made to avoid ugliness; to let any one see what you have in your mouth is repulsive; to make a noise is to suggest an animal; to make a mess is disgusting. On the other hand, there are a number of trifling decrees of etiquette that are merely finical, unreasonable, and silly. Why one should not cut one’s salad in small pieces if one wants to, makes little sense, unless one wants to cut up a whole plateful and make the plate messy! A steel knife must not be used for salad or fruit, because it turns black. To condemn the American custom of eating a soft-boiled egg in a glass, or cup, because it happens to be the English fashion to scoop it through the ragged edge of the shell, is about as reasonable as though we were to proclaim English manners bad because they tag a breakfast dish, called a “savory” of fish-roe or something equally inappropriate, after the dessert at dinner.  48
  Many other arbitrary rules for eating food with fork, spoon or fingers, are also stumbling-blocks rather than aids to smoothness. As said above, one eats with a fork or spoon “finger-foods” that are messy and sticky; one eats with the finger those which are dry. It is true that one should not eat French fried potatoes or Saratoga chips in fingers, but that is because they belong to the meat course. Separate vegetable saucers are never put on a fashionable table, neither is butter allowed at dinner. Therefore both must be avoided in company, because “company” is formal, and etiquette is first aid always to formality. But if a man in his own house likes butter with his dinner or a saucer for his tomatoes, he is breaking the rule of fashion to have them, but he is scarcely committing an offense! In the same way, if he likes to eat a chicken wing or a squab leg in his fingers he can ask for a finger-bowl. The real objection to eating with the fingers is getting them greasy or sticky, and to suck them or smear one’s napkin is equally unsightly.  49

  Although elbows on the table are seen constantly in highest fashionable circles, a whole table’s length of elbows planted like clothes-line poles and hands waving glasses or forks about in between, is neither an attractive nor (fortunately) an accurate picture of a fashionable dinner table. As a matter of fact, the tolerated elbow-on-table is used only on occasion and for a reason, and should neither be permitted to children nor practised in their presence.
  Elbows are universally seen on tables in restaurants, especially when people are lunching or dining at a small table of two or four, and it is impossible to make oneself heard above the music by one’s table companions, and at the same time not be heard at other tables nearby, without leaning far forward. And in leaning forward, a woman’s figure makes a more graceful outline supported on her elbows than doubled forward over her hands in her lap as though in pain! At home, when there is no reason for leaning across the table, there is no reason for elbows. And at a dinner of ceremony, elbows on the table are rarely seen, except at the ends of the table, where again one has to lean forward in order to talk to a companion at a distance across the table corner.  51
  Elbows are never put on the table while one is eating. To sit with the left elbow propped on the table while eating with the right hand (unless one is alone and ill), or to prop the right one on the table while lifting the fork or glass to the mouth, must be avoided.  52