“A parent may believe that a child learns to use a napkin, knife and fork merely because he is told that if he doesn’t use them properly, he will be spanked. By test, this inhibits the natural learning, putting an artificial command under the natural ability to mimic. The common result of this is to cause the child to revolt. If the child is permitted to observe, without coaching or coaxing, adults eating with knives and forks and using napkins, the child, unless badly aberrated, will, by test, struggle and fumble to mimic. And it will come up at last with manners, better manners than those forced upon it, providing the parents themselves know how to use table silver and napkins properly.” — L. Ron Hubbard
Personally, I’ve always found that clean, effective communication and setting a good example go much further toward getting kids to have good manners, than any level of punishment. Of course, it’s rough when you’ve got two kids of similar ages – as the kids will start to look to each other for an example to set (i.e., “My little brother got away with playing with food, why can’t I?”) but for the most part – mimicry works wonders.
I can’t tell you the number of times that we’ve been struggling with getting kids to sit at the table and eat, and then my wife & I look at each other, and we’re flying around doing EVERYTHING ELSE besides also sitting & eating.
But, for me, where I’ve seen this most is in simple human interactions – asking to use things, asking if one can have some snack food, cleaning up one’s room, etc. If my wife & I set a good example, the kids seem to follow along.