DEAR MISS MANNERS: Is there a rule regarding the amount of conversation permissible during a meal?
I have a 3-year-old daughter who asks me questions (about friends, word meanings, family history, etc.) through entire meals. It is not usually that she is speaking with her mouth full; she simply does not have a big appetite and would prefer to chat.
The questions start as soon as we sit down, and I have sometimes put my plate aside rather than having it in front of me on the table, taunting me. I put a stop to my practice of pointing to my chewing mouth to show her that I was eating, thinking this was not proper.
I have sometimes announced that I have finished answering questions and would like to eat, but this puts a negative tone on the rest of the meal, and I don't think this is proper etiquette.
In fact, etiquette encourages dinner conversation, does it not? Does it offer any recourse to the would-be eater who is pummeled with questions? Perhaps this is why, in earlier times, some families had children eat separately.
GENTLE READER: Please forgive Miss Manners for being charmed while you starve. Family meals are, indeed, as much about conversation as about food, and in asking questions, rather than merely talking, your daughter shows a great aptitude for it.
However, you do need rescuing before you do something that discourages her, or, horrors, toss a tablet at her so that you can eat in silence.
Miss Manners suggests a cocktail hour before dinner. Well, no, not exactly. She is not suggesting liquor, and she is aware that you are not likely to have the leisure to sit around then.
But suppose you start a little ritual, whereby she sits near you, with a glass of juice or milk, while you are preparing dinner or perhaps doing other chores, and it becomes your special time for chatting. You will doubtless be charmed and can look forward to eating dinner (taking very small mouthfuls so as to be able to handle a reasonable amount of conversation).