But children who don't learn to wait their turn for the potatoes or to chew with their mouth closed may face challenges later in life - especially in their careers.
"The No. 1 reason people lose a job is they don't play well with others," said Mary Spencer, director of placement at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
Three times a year, the school offers etiquette and interpersonal skill workshops for engineering students who are preparing for job interviews.
Lunch or dinner often is part of job interviews. The prospective employer is attuned to not only what the candidate says, but how he or she handles details of dinner - from selecting menu items to finessing conversation, Spencer said. That's because technical job skills aren't all that matter, especially if the job will involve entertaining clients over dinner.
"Table manners are considered shorthand for other aspects of etiquette," said Margery Sinclair of Glendale, who teaches etiquette classes for both children and business clients. "If table manners are fine, the rest of their social skills are considered good as well. Etiquette refers to all of the rules governing behavior. Manners refers to one's personal behavior."
If children develop good manners, they grow up with respect and consideration for others, Sinclair said, and tend to have more friends. "Children who grow up with a knowledge of etiquette have a lifelong advantage."
Sinclair has a favorite quote from "Miss Manners" Judith Martin: "Sloppy eating habits have probably ruined more relationships than evil hearts."
Stressing table manners from childhood through adulthood sounds a bit old-fashioned, but it's part of the lifelong pursuit of happiness, according to both those who teach etiquette and the professionals who validate its importance.
Spencer said MSOE started offering its workshops on etiquette after getting feedback from business owners and students about skills that needed honing, such as "what to wear to an interview and how to handle dinner."
"Students ate pizza and hamburgers for four years and all of the sudden, they were confronted with multiple forks and questions such as, 'Who orders, can I order a drink, do you crush the crackers for soup, which fork do I use first, and can I eat the flower on my plate?' " Spencer said.
Initially, MSOE had to do "a lot of selling" to get students who prided themselves on technical job skills to attend etiquette workshops, Spencer said. But turnout has been strong at the workshops taught by outside professionals.
Donna Panko, owner of Professional Skill Builders consulting in Chicago, has taught some of the MSOE workshops, which cover general business etiquette and image building.
"I usually do a Dine-and-Learn, where we walk through each course and talk about dos and taboos," Panko said.
Many twentysomethings enter the workplace after growing up with parents who didn't take the time to teach etiquette at home, she said.
It doesn't occur to them that, even with a polished resume, etiquette matters, she said.
Etiquette is one-third common sense, one-third courteousness and one-third knowledge, Panko said. "Most people have never really thought about it before."
Sinclair started teaching children's etiquette at George Watts Tea Shop about 15 years ago.
"I wanted to be validated and have my young son hear from someone else what I was teaching at home," she said.
At that time, no one else was teaching children's etiquette, and shop owner George Watts suggested Sinclair start her own class.
"Parents are so glad I'm doing something like this," she said. "I'm not doing anything that can't be taught at home, but it's independent validation of what is taught at home."
That's why Kelly and Chris Kluck of Brookfield enrolled their 8-year-old son, Andrew, in a recent three-session etiquette class at the shop.
Andrew didn't mind being the only boy in a group with 11 girls, his mom said. He's the only boy in his reading group at school, too.
"Now that he's taken the class, he tries to help us learn things we didn't know," such as the difference between European- and American-style eating, Kelly Kluck said. "And as we were leaving his class, he told us what we should do with our napkins as we left the table."
For those who don't know, Americans switch the fork from their left hand - used during cutting - to their right hand to actually eat, while Europeans stick with the left hand for both cutting and eating.
As for the napkin, it is left on the chair if you're planning to return to the table, but placed on the table if you're leaving the table for good.
"I think it's all part of having good social graces, and it helps him build respect for others, be kind to others and learn proper eye contact," Kelly Kluck said. "This is one more layer in helping our son grow into a good person who can be productive."
Sisters Imani, 8, and Shamoni Ray, 9, took the same etiquette class with their cousin, Asia Wilson, 10.
The three Brown Deer girls all were excited about the class, said Carmen Ray, mother of Imani and Shamoni and aunt of Asia.
Shamoni and Asia had been invited to a debutante ball before the etiquette class started, and Shamoni told her mom she felt awkward at the ball, unsure of the rules.
As an administrator of a child care center, Carmen Ray said she sees the value of etiquette in professional settings. This is part of what she wants to instill in her own daughters.
"Table manners weren't emphasized when I was growing up, but I remember watching families on TV, eating dinner together and thinking this is how I wanted it to be when I had kids someday," she said.
Ray said she was especially pleased to see Sinclair focusing on general social skills, such as formal introductions, and eye contact.
Sinclair said she offers a special rate for Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops because she was once a Girl Scout Leader and a Brownie leader, and she likes to reach wider audiences.
Years ago, parents started asking whether she offered classes for grown-ups. Now she mainly teaches adults through corporate etiquette dinners.
"Etiquette is coachable," Sinclair said. "It's very sad when someone deserves a promotion based on work skills, but doesn't get it because they lack social skills."