Our rules range from dealing with basic manners to the more idiosyncratic ones that were created to address specific situations. I will just deal with the basic ones... as for the others, everyone probably already knows that it is impolite to play with one's feet at the table, just not (some) of my children. They are pretty simple.
- Stay in your seat. If you need to get up to get more water or visit the bathroom, ask to be excused. If you just hop up from the table, we will assume you are done with you meal... even if you come back and announce you are still hungry.
- Wait to eat until everyone is served. J. serves and then we say grace together and then everyone may begin eating. With dessert (when we have it), everyone waits until the hostess (me), lifts her fork or spoon to begin. This solves the problem of children bolting through their food and then dashing away before others have even begun. It does create some funny situations, though, this waiting for everyone business. My children were at a friend's house for a birthday party last summer and were having their ice cream and cake outside. The friend's family follows the same rules and we look out the window to see 15 children quietly waiting until someone said it was OK to begin as their ice cream melted in the sun. We quickly sent someone outside to tell them to begin eating.
- Be appreciative of the food. Our children are not allowed, ever, to announce that the food is somehow distasteful. If so, the offending plate is quickly whisked away, rarely to return. (We would hate to torture our children by forcing them to sit and stare at such awfulness.) The child must still remain at the table because dinner is not over, but they do so without their dinner. Our children do not have to love everything on their plate and they may say that something is not their favorite, but they do have to try a bite of everything and be thankful that they have food to eat and appreciative of the effort which went into its preparation. I want to add that this method is effective if there is little fuss about it. Child complains, plate is taken away with apologies for having offended the child with the offering, child and their plate-less condition is ignored as life at the table goes on.
- Everyday rules of conversation apply. In our daily life we do not interrupt others; we do not speak unkindly; we do not yell if we are inside. These are also issues that are best dealt with outside of the dinner table. Usually if someone is being rude, we just have to remind them what the expected behavior is. (Would another post of our general life rules and corresponding consequences be helpful?)
I will also add that our children do not follow these rules perfectly all the time and that some meals are more successful than others. I also want to add that our dinners are not quiet. There are too many people with too much to say to have a quiet meal. I love the conversational chaos (usually) and how much we all enjoy sharing meals together. But I think a good part of that enjoyment comes from the fact that our children are generally well-behaved at the table and instead of focusing on discipline, we can focus on each other's company.