"Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's house we go."
But wait, the kids aren't looking at the woods because they are too busy texting. In today's modern world, the annual family Thanksgiving gathering may be facing a few new challenges. Texting over turkey? Facebook photos of the pumpkin pie?
Laura Barclay, founder and president of the Etiquette Centre of Minneapolis, teaches etiquette classes to kids ages 7 to 17 and offers a few tips for parents on ways to tame the texting, create conversation and make this Thanksgiving memorable for everyone -- in a good way.
Although many teens might consider their cell phones a part of the family, there is really no place for the phones at the Thanksgiving table. Barclay said it is up to parents to set the limits for cell phone use during a special family event; not only for their kids, but for themselves, too.
"Have a conversation beforehand so that everyone knows what is expected -- no phones at the table," said Barclay. "Tell them they can check their messages before and after the meal if they want. Parents should follow the same rule."
Keeping the conversation flowing between the generations isn't always an easy task, but this is another area where Barclay believes a little planning is worthwhile.
"Not all kids are comfortable making conversation with adults, so parents might want to consider helping them come up with some ideas on interesting topics before the meal," she said, noting that the "five W's -- who, what, when, where, why" on any subject is a good place to start.
At the same time, review some classic conversation "stoppers" such as interrupting, bragging and body language (arms crossed, little eye contact). Barclay, who has never been a fan of the "children's table" for family holidays and who prefers to seat everyone together, said it's also important for adults to do their best to draw kids into conversation.
Something as simple as a table game can help: Barclay suggests putting Popsicle sticks or slips of paper with questions written on them into a jar and passing them around during dessert to get everyone talking. Another idea is to have photos nearby of family members who have passed away. Hearing stories about the lives of those family members, especially about when they were younger, can make an impact on kids and spark good memories for adults.
"If the adults forget to interact with them, kids really end up like pillows on the couch," said Barclay. "If they are given the opportunity to be part of the conversation, kids will learn to communicate better, which helps them build self-esteem and confidence."
Tips for the table
It never hurts to revisit a few etiquette basics before a family dinner, so Barclay suggests reviewing the rules with kids in advance:
Everything should be passed to the right. After all the dishes have made their way around the table once, they can then be passed to the left to whomever wants the food.
"If kids don't like something, tell them to pass it on, but they should refrain from making comments like 'yuck,'" said Barclay. "Encourage them to try something they've never had. They might be surprised to find out they like it."
Guests should wait until everyone has food in front of them before they begin to eat. Other rules: No talking with the mouth full, napkins should be on laps and a sincere "thank you" should be offered to the cook following the meal.
In the greater scheme of things, Thanksgiving dinner is much more than the sum of its mashed potato and green-bean casserole parts.
"You are really connecting the generations when you have a family celebration. It's an opportunity to spend quality time together," said Barclay. "Nobody wants a family event to feel like a "have to" appearance. You want it to be a 'look forward to' kind of experience."
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer. Have an idea for the Your Family page? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Your Family" in the subject line.