How to Get Kids to Stay at the Dinner Table

Happy family smiling at camera at lunch

Kids getting up and down from the dinner table is such a common complaint. For the parents who are in the thick of this behavior, it’s exhausting. Here are lots of ideas for keeping them at the table.

Continue the high chair or booster seat – I would keep the highchair with a strap as long as you reasonably can and then the booster seat with a strap following that. If they are buckled in everyday, likely less of a battle as it’s just expected. If you intermittently use the strap or give it up for a while, I’d give it up all together.

Place cards to pick seats – In the ‘every little bit counts’ category, let kids decorate place cards (folded over construction paper works) and pick where they sit.

Fun place settings and place mats – Right now, Frozen place settings can go a long way.

Serve food in fun ways – Not all the time, but occasionally, serve food on sticks or use toothpicks as utensils. It may be fun to serve small cut up fruit in ice cube trays, or use tv dinner style trays. Once in a while, have a picnic or play restaurant and have children take orders. I will admit to having more patience for these things at lunch time.

Conversation – Make a list of questions and conversation starters that would be interesting for your children and slowly work your way through. If you’d like conversation ideas, try Melissa and Doug’s Family Dinner Box of Questions or several versions by Table Topics and Chat Packs.

Small toys – While I don’t want the whole train track at the table, I think it’s fine to bring one train. Talk about how it’s nice for Thomas to keep him company.

Small activities– Again, not a whole craft project but it’s fine to have two crayons and a small notebook. This can be particularly helpful if your child typically finishes early, and you want him to stay at the table to wait for others.

Games – You might play word games like Grandma’s Trunk Alphabet game or a group story telling game when each person adds a sentence to the story. We played Spin the Knife (butter knife) and the person who spins it gets to ask any question of the person it points to, very interesting. Eye Spy, Would You Rather and 20 Questions are other favorites.

Just once – This is the flexible parent who is tolerant of each child getting up just once after they’ve sat down for dinner. The just once rule really needs to be respected as just once, or it falls to pieces. Other families give kids one or two tickets, the child can get up once per ticket and when the tickets are gone the child must stay at the table. It tends to work.

Box them in – Depending on your table and your kitchen, maybe push the table against the wall on one side and have children sit between the wall and a parent. My friends growing up had a booth in their kitchen and parents sat on the outsides.

Choices – Choices go a long way towards encouraging behavior. This may be giving a child a choice about where to sit or what to eat first.

Challenge – You might set a timer and see if each night children can sit one minute longer than the night before. Once they finish eating, you might ask them to tell you five interesting things about their day.

Contribution – Get kids busy folding napkins, buttering rolls, serving green beans and stacking plates to carry to the sink. Children who are busy at the table, stay at the table.

Read (avoid screens) – It’s fine to read aloud during dinner. Many preschool teachers read aloud through snack time. Screens, however, are an unhealthy habit during meals and can lead to mindless eating.

Start where you are and gradually increase the time – If your kids typically sit for eight minutes at dinner, start there. Have a goal of 10 minutes a week later, and 12 a week after that.

Plan dinner when kids are hungry – Children are more likely to sit and eat when they are hungry. They may be able to meet expectations to sit at the table earlier, rather than much later in the evening.

Dinner is done – Families with older children may start the rule, “when you get up from the table, your dinner is done.” Again, follow through is what becomes important for this to curb behaviors. Families should also have a clear plan for what happens after, meaning having a healthy snack much later, having dinner food available once others finish or having the child not eat once the kitchen is closed. As a reminder, natural consequences don’t become fair game until closer to four years old.

Other consequences – Again, as children are older, this could be, “if you are up from the table, you’ll have to sit at the counter.” or, “if you are up from the table, you can eat when we are done.” Consequences are meant as an end point, not a starting point. If you start here, there’s no where left to go.

Tips for Teaching Manners

A Mother And Daughter Setting The Table Together

  • There are a few games for teaching manners like for “Mother May I” we add “Mother May I Please.” The exchange before moving is, “mother, may I please take two steps?” “yes, you may,” “thank you,” “your welcome.” After each four phrase exchange, the child moves and the next player asks.
  • Start a ‘manners jar.’ First, talk with your children for a week about manners such as saying “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me” and “I’m sorry.” Discuss table manners each night at dinner. Teach how to introduce themselves to others and how to answer and speak on the phone. Read a storybook about manners each night at bedtime. Then, starting the second week, see how often you can catch other family members remembering their manners. Each time someon is polite, put a pom-pom or a marble in your ‘manners jar.’ See if you can fill it in a week, or measure your progress by seeing if you can earn more the second week than the first. If you want to tie something to filling the jar, be sure to make it manners related (to stay a positive logical consequence). This could be saying, “we’ll go to a fancy restaurant for dessert and practice our newly learned table manners.”
  • Have a tea party to practice table manners.
  • Require thank-you notes for gifts at an early age. It’s fine to start with thank-you drawings.
  • Start a ‘manners journal.’ Each night at dinner, talk about something someone in the family did that day that was polite or an instance where someone practiced good manners. Write it down in the journal with their name at the top of the page.
  • Play board games that teach manners such as The Picnic Basket Manners Game by Noodleboro, The Blunders game of Manners by Successful Kids or Don’t Pick Your Nose by Bambini.
  • Read children’s books about manners:
  1. Do Unto Otters by Keller
  2. Manners by Aliki
  3. Dude, That’s Rude! by Espeland (older)
  4. Manners Can by Fun by Leaf
  5. Manners at School and Manners in Public by Finn
  6. Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners by Berenstain
  7. Richard Scarry’s Please and Thank You Book by Scarry
  8. A Smart Girl’s Guide to Manners by Holyoke (older)
  9. Soup Should be Seen, Not Heard by Brainard

Join me for a workshop on Honesty, Manners, Respect and Responsibility, on July 24, 7:00-9:00pm. We will spend about 30 minutes on ways to encourage each topic.  For more information and to register, please visit

Teaching a Child to Greet Others

Dear Dr. Rene

My child is almost two years old, and she doesn’t always greet people she knows when she sees them. Sometimes she looks the other way as if they are not there, or she shows that she doesnt want to greet them. I dont want to stress on that, but I would like to somehow enforce positive social behavior nicely. I dont know why she does that.

Also, every time I pick her up from the nursery, she comes out, doesn’t greet me, doesn’t answer me and just goes out. Its as if she wants to tell me not to think that I am doing her a favor by sending her there on the contrary.

She is also very jealous when I give my attention to other people, or when I am working on my laptop. She often shuts it, tells me to put barney on or holds my head so that I look at her. I am scared that I might be doing something wrong. For example, I was at my mothers, and she has a french bulldog who was sleeping on my lap. When it woke up, I found her coming over trying to sleep in the exact same spot that it was sleeping in.

Thank you, Mitchell

Hi Mitchell,

The best way to teach her to greet people and encourage the behavior to happen more often is to model it yourself. When she is with you, greet people warmly, smile big and model language you would want her to use. This teaches her without pressure. Also, greet her directly often. Greet her with a smile and “hello” whenever you enter the room.  When you do suggest she greet someone else, give her choices about how to do this. You might offer that she smiles, waves, says “hello,” shakes hands or high-fives. When she does greet someone nicely, provide descriptive praise. This is along the lines of, “that was nice to say ‘hi’ to them!” or, “you waved, that made Grandma happy!”

As long as she’s not very unhappy at your nursery pick-up, try to let this one go. Often parents will get warm greetings the first few days or weeks of being at school. Once children have settled in to the habit of school, the need for big greetings can subside.  This means they have created positive relationships with teachers, and, while they are happy to see parents, it’s not the big relief that came before they were comfortable with such a separation. This is normal. If she is very unhappy at pick-up, write again with those details and I will answer.

That she seems jealous when you share your attention with others means she loves you and enjoys your attention herself. When she tells you to shut the laptop or holds your head, at least validate her wants with your words. You might say, “I know you want to spend time together,” and then either do spend time or follow with, “I love you too and I have to finish my work right now.”

I hope this helps.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene



Teaching Children Thankfulness

There are so many great ways to teach children thankfulness.

  • Say “Thank you” as often as you can – Model manners. If you expect them to say “please” and “thank you” often, you’ll need to model it yourself. It can be helpful to include a bit about why you are saying “thank you.” Meaning say, “thank you for holding the door,” or, “thank you for speaking nicely to your sister.”
  • Discuss things you appreciate and are thankful for each day – This is more general, but it is voicing appreciation. This may be, “I really enjoy the orange and red leaves in our neighborhood in the fall,” or ,”I appreciate how much you helped your brother picking up his room this morning.”
  • Encourage children to voice one good thing that happened each day – Maybe at the dinner table or during tuck-in, encourage children to find one good thing that happened each day. Occasionally, I will throw in a one bad, crazy or surprising thing, but most days it’s good.
  • Plan a weekly thankfulness conversation at dinner – Many of us save this conversation for the Thanksgiving dinner. The idea is to have this conversation weekly. Encourage each person at the table to state one thing they are thankful for.
  • Give opportunity for children to do nice and helpful things for others – This may be helping a neighbor sweep their sidewalk or sharing a toy with a child who is playing alone at the playground. Discuss with your child after how good it can feel to think of others and how they would be thankful if someone helped them that way.
  • Encourage generosity – Encourage your children to help sort through their clothes and toys to donate. Talk about how this helps other people who may be in need. Discuss how you are thankful for the things you have and thankful you are able to share.
  • Write and help them to write Thank You notes – While this may seem a lost art, it is helpful for children to regularly write thank you notes. For sure after birthdays and holidays, but also other times as it seems fit. Maybe they write a thank you note to their teacher at the end of the school year.

Benefits of Eating as a Family

Here are a few reasons to make eating as a family a priority:

  • Children learn valuable life skills – There is benefit in children learning how to prepare and cook food, as well as how to clean the table. This sounds crazy, but I have fond memories of washing and drying dishes after meals at my grandparents’ house. Maybe these are fond memories because we had a dishwasher at home.
  • It’s a chance to reconnect socially – Eating together regularly gives families an opportunity to check in with each other, share their day and laugh together. As a basic, this is time to teach children how to carry conversations and how to ask and answer questions.
  • Build and share family traditions – While this may be a small piece, it’s a chance to pass along blessings and prayers. In some families, this can be a time to share recipes.
  • You can model healthy eating habits – Parents tend to provide children a wider range of foods when families sit and eat together. Modeling healthy eating habits is a nice, low key way to encourage them to eat.
  • You can teach and practice manners – Table manners are a learned skill that’s best taught over time with lots of repetition. Try to make this fun with related storybooks and games.
  • It’s related to better long term childhood outcomes – Children who regularly eat at least five meals a week with their families show higher academic scores, lower rates of later behavior problems and lower rates of obesity.

To learn more about these ideas and ways to avoid picky eating habits and mealtime battles join me for my workshop on Managing Mealtimes & Picky Eaters, September 5 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. For more information and to register, please visit

Mantras in Our Family

  •  Avoid Creating Work for Other People – Maybe this comes from waiting tables through college, or from how hectic our careers feel now, but I’m reminding the girls often to not create work for other people. In little ways, this means checking under the table at restaurants to be sure we’ve not left a mess. In big ways, it means being prompt with letting people know where you are and what’s your plan, so they are not left to work or worry around you. It’s being responsible for your own stuff.
  •  Different Families Do Different Things – I have answered so many questions and started so many conversations with my children by saying, “different families do different things…” This has ranged from other families living in bigger houses and other children not having a set bedtime, to other sets of siblings slinging horrible names at each other going unchecked and a mom friend who slapped her then 4 year old during a playdate at our house. This works in both directions. Sometimes it’s nice to be in our family, sometimes they are wishing they could stay up nightly til they just conk out. In either direction, it brings them back to the focus on home and who we are.
  • Grow Up Slowly – While I understand they can’t really know this til they know it, I want my children to recognize that it goes by fast. That there’s no need to be in a hurry to be on top of the ticking clock. I want them to hold on to being a kid for as long as they can. We’ve made a great effort to enjoy things with them and talk about how even daddy’s not too old to enjoy an afternoon spent on mastering the Slip’n’slide. He notes The Wiggles as one of the best concerts he’s seen, and he’s seen many big acts in the last 30 years. We’ve put effort into putting off getting ears pierced, wearing make-up or having cells phones until they are following their friends rather than leading the charge.
  •  Enjoy Where You Are – I am still learning this one myself, so the mantra brings me back as much as them. For my 14-year-old, this is actually turning off her phone when we are at lunch with Grandma and Grandpa, so she can be fully engaged in the conversation. For me, it’s watching an entire gymnastics practice rather than taking the time to get caught up with work.
  • Move Forward in Peace – Okay, this is just mine.

Teaching Patience

In class, we encourage people to listen to others, to take turns speaking and to wait until a friend is finished, so they avoid interrupting. It can be helpful to coach children to listen to others and wait for a break in conversation to speak. When children are little, it may work more smoothly to give a visual or physical cue. A physical cue might be a talking stick. You can introduce this at dinner time. Take a popsicle stick or something similar and discuss how whoever has the stick is the speaker and others must be listeners. Practice passing the stick regularly and develop a cue they can give if they need the stick next. This takes practice, but it quiets the table and gives everyone time to speak and actually be heard.

I had a mom in class who taught her children that if she was on the phone or speaking with someone and they needed her, they should put a hand on one of her hands, she would then put her free hand on theirs to let them know she felt the touch. This exchange of hands was a signal to mom that the child wanted her attention, and a signal back to the child she would get to them as soon as possible. For this to work well, the first 10 or 15 times, the mom immediately following the hand exchange said, “excuse me, my child needs me,” turned to the child and said, “I felt your hand, how can I help you?” The child has learning to trust the system. After several immediate successes the idea is to gradually add a bit of time. Start with a 5 second delay before you turn and speak with the child, a few times later a smile and a 10 second delay before turning to the child. Gradually work your way up to a few minutes or more.

If waiting for you on the phone or computer is often problematic, you might give them other things to do such as a writing pad beside the phone to communicate that way or just activities they can quietly do to fill their wait time.

After each time they successfully wait, draw attention by saying something like, “wow, that was a while to wait. You were so patient!” You might also highlight when you or they are patient about waiting in life. Talk about how it was nice to have pleasant conversation waiting in the grocery line, or how they were able to wait for a turn on the slide at the playground.

Blended Families and Re-Building Relationships

Hi Dr. Rene,
We are a blended family and have been for more than five years. One of my step children has suddenly decided they dislike me, and will avoid eye contact or any type of interaction with me if possible. I am getting sighs and dirty looks for doing something as simple as saying good morning. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no changes or incidences to cause this sudden change in behavior. Before this started we were very close, got along well and spent regular time together doing activities we both enjoyed. My husband and I have tried talking to the child about the behavior; that seems to help for a day or two. We’ve tried ignoring the behavior; which seems to make it escalate. We are at the point of wanting to enforce some sort of discipline for being disrespectful and rude. I’m not sure if this will help or hurt the situation, but things cannot continue this way, the behavior is affecting the entire family. Any advice would be welcomed.  Thank you!



Dear Michelle,

I am sure this is upsetting, but I would avoid discipline, at least at the emotion. First, I would try to look at the emotion behind the behavior and address that. While you may be unaware of any change, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. It may have been a piece of a passing conversation, a new understanding of an old problem as they mature or a sense of slight from his other parent. It may be impossible to find the cause, even the child may be unable to pin point it, but clearly there is upset. I would go out of my way to validate the difficult emotions when there is a behavior. When child rolls eyes, this sounds like, “I get you are frustrated with me, you don’t like what I just asked you to do.” Without lecturing, this can be followed by a simple, “and I need you to do it now.” The idea is to validate the emotion, but follow through with the behavior. It is a narrow road, but if you move forward with discipline, it is along these lines. Validate the emotions and discipline the related behaviors. In the moment this would be starting with, “I see you are grumpy this morning, I will try again later,” or, “I know you are frustratted, let’s go back and try that again.” You might also coach how the child can better display emotion. Rather than a dirty look to a “good morning,” coach that they can say, “I’m not awake yet.” This coaching is best out of the moment, when all is well.

In all this coaching, avoid putting pressure on the individual relationship. Rather than saying, “you and I are family, and you will treat me with respect,” go more global, “that is an unfriendly way to say good morning, it would be nicer to say…” Focus on coaching how to speak to people in general, how to be kind and how to carry conversation rather than pressuring the relationship.

I would also make every effort to have child spend individual time connecting with each parent. There’s no need to make an announcement, but think at least weekly each of you are spending a bit of time. This can be a trip to the grocery store if you are focused on conversation and spending the time together. You might also read about and practice Greenspan’s Talk Time as presented in Playground Politics. This is a book about social and emotional development through the grade school years, and it highlights the importance of children having open talk time as they move out of Floortime. It’s an interesting way to open up conversations and emotions.

If you decide to go more specific at the discipline, I would initially make it a whole family effort. Sit and talk with everyone about how you are going to make an effort to be kinder and gentler with each other in communicating even when people are upset. Make it an effort in your marriage and in the parent-child relationships. If there are consequences for negative tones and words, this goes for all. Likely more successful here is, it is a global effort rather than a narrow focus. I would look to discipline more specifically only if all this fails. I hope this helps!


Dr. Rene

Mealtime Behaviors

Using contribution to address behaviors means giving children jobs related to the given situation. This is a proactive skill that can be used before, during and after mealtimes.

  • Before meals, children can be buttering rolls, serving green beans, taking drink orders, coloring placemats and writing menus.
  • During meals, children can pass serving bowls, serve onto plates, decide topics of conversation and monitor manners (helps them to learn manners by being in charge of others).
  • After meals, children can scrape plates, carry plates to the sink, load silverware in the dishwasher and wipe the table.

Using choices to address behaviors can be an effective piece of managing mealtime behaviors. For a child who won’t stay seated, “do you want to sit by mommy or daddy today?” or, “do you want to sit at the big table or your little table today?” As with most behaviors, the idea is to try choices before consequences. A positive logical consequence would be, “if you can stay seated, you can butter the rolls.” A negative logical consequence would be, “if you are out of your chair, you’ll have to be buckled in the booster seat.”

In my two hour evening workshop, we spend some of our time on ways to manage behaviors and some on avoiding pickiness. Avoiding pickiness includes being in charge of only what is offered, avoiding short-order cooking and bribery. To learn about these ideas and lots more, join me!

Correcting Manners

Dear Dr. Rene,

We had a grown-up visitor who taught my daughter to burp at the table. I didn’t like this at all, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I kept my mouth shut. What is the best way to handle this situation without upsetting anybody?

Katya, Mother of One

Dear Katya,
I don’t think you would be rude at all saying, “I’m sorry, but that’s not okay at our table.” It’s brief and direct without an upset. If given with a straight face, that should be enough to curb your guest and send a clear message to your child.
Dr. Rene

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