Three Parenting Lessons I Learned On Vacation With My Kids
Take advantage of life's rare idle moments.
Hello, everyone! I’m finally back from our spring break trip, which happened in a different place than it was supposed to, and lasted longer than it was supposed to. A true adventure.
The short story: We had plans to visit my parents in Florida, but the day before we were meant to leave, my Dad tested positive for Covid. (He’s fully recovered now and just fine, thank goodness.) We were then faced with a dilemma: Should we stay home all week, or should we pivot and travel somewhere else? I’d had a particularly gnarly week that involved unsavory happenings on social media, so I was all for finding a new destination far away from my desk. And find one we did: We changed our flights to Turks and Caicos and left the next morning.
Also! While that was happening, I got to share some exciting news over social media, which is that I’m now writing the Well newsletter for The New York Times. I’m thrilled. (If you want to subscribe and get weekly health advice from me in your inbox, click here.)
We had a grand time on vacation. The beaches in Turks and Caicos are exquisite — soft pink sand and the most turquoise water I’ve ever seen. We had planned to fly home on Wednesday afternoon so that I could teach on Thursday, but — surprise! — our flight got cancelled. JetBlue put us up in a beautiful 5-star hotel, so we got to stay a little longer, and we certainly did not complain abut being stranded in the Caribbean (though I was sorry to have to miss class).
Today I want to share three key tips I learned from our trip (other than OMG, you have to reapply sunscreen a LOT in the Caribbean) that stemmed from memorable moments we shared while dining out together.
1. If kids broach an important (and/or awkward) topic in a not-so-elegant way, don’t shut them down or ignore them.
While we were having lunch one day at a restaurant that had a basketball game on TV in the background, my 10-year-old pointed out that one of the teams had a score of 69. He then giggled and emphatically repeated the number —“69!!!!” — and I realized he was making a veiled reference to oral sex. Reader, I did not know that he knew anything about oral sex.
There are many ways I could have responded to him. I could have run away screaming; ignored his comment in the hopes he would never bring it up again; or told him that his sexual reference was inappropriate. All of these would have sent a pretty clear message: Don’t talk about sex with us. I knew I didn’t want to send that message, because I want my kids to know that they can come to us with questions or concerns about sex or any other awkward or confusing topic.
So I took a deep breath and said — in my calmest, most nonchalant voice, even though I was not feeling calm or nonchalant at all — “Oh, so you know what 69 is?”
He then replied in a duh tone as if I were asking if he knew who Dua Lipa was: “Yes!!!!”
I replied: “OK, cool. Well, if you have any questions about it, you are welcome to ask me or Dad.”
Well, it turned out he did have questions about it, and at that point, he rather un-self-consciously launched into his queries. Suddenly, we were that family having a conversation about oral sex at a restaurant. But you know what? That’s fine. I don’t care what the other people at the restaurant thought of us. I do care that my kids feel like they can talk to us about sex. (And yes, my partner and I were honest about what oral sex is. Research suggests that when parents have open and receptive conversations about sex, their kids are less likely to have sex during adolescence.) My son’s reference to 69 was a tween-y attempt to start a conversation about a concept he didn’t quite understand, and it was, I suspect, a test to see how we would react. I like to think we passed.
After we finished talking, I reiterated to my kids that they should always feel welcome to come to us with questions about sex or other confusing topics. (Although I secretly hope that next time, it doesn’t happen in public.)
2. When kids nag you about things they want, engage with them about your concerns.
My 10-year-old really, really, really, really wants a smartphone. At another meal out — breakfast this time — he made a quip about his desire for said phone, and it was another comment I could have responded to in a number of ways, including with a curt reply like Stop talking about phones, because you’re not getting one anytime soon.
But then I realized: We were at a restaurant, waiting for our food, with nowhere else to go. Why not have an actual conversation about the issue?
I started by asking him: Why do you want a phone? He replied that he wanted to be able to use social media — Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Tiktok. Then my partner and I asked more follow-up questions. Once we understood what he wanted and why, we began to explain our perspective, including our concerns. We talked about FOMO, about the performative nature of social media, about privacy, about misinformation, about data collection. I also talked about the kinds of skills my son would need to demonstrate in order to use social media safely and responsibly.
It felt like a productive family breakfast meeting, and the best part was that my 10-year-old initiated it himself. The next time your kid brings up something that makes you want to roll your eyes — not this again — consider whether it might actually be an opportunity for you to share and discuss your values. (Also: I do not judge those of you who allow your kids to have phones. I really don’t. Every family has different priorities, needs and values. Feel free to substitute this particular request / topic with another one that feels more relevant.)
3. Play games with kids to help them develop key skills.
One evening towards the end of our vacation, at yet another restaurant (I do not want to look at our credit card bill this month), our kids were famished and our meals were taking a long time to arrive. So I invented a game that I knew the kids would enjoy — and would also be educational — called the Body Language Game.
Here’s how the game works: One person picks an emotion and silently acts it out using facial expressions and body language. Each person gets one guess, in turn, as to what the emotion is, with guesses continuing until someone gets it right. When I chose to act “tired,” I yawned and put my head on my hands. When my daughter acted out “annoyed,” she pouted and rolled her eyes. (She’s very good at that one. Lots of experience.)
Why did I choose to focus on body language? Emotional literacy serves as the foundation for so many other skills, including generosity and helpfulness. In order for kids to engage with others appropriately and kindly, they need to be able to read body language and facial expressions and understand what other people feel and need. (For more on the connection between emotional literacy and kindness, read my book.)
Not only does this game teach kids about body language, it also teaches them about emotions they may not have heard of before. When my husband was smiling goofily in one of his enactments, I guessed “elated,” and my daughter asked me what that meant. The Body Language Game is fun and silly (everyone was laughing) and teaches key emotional skills. The next time you’re stuck at a table with your family, try it — or make up your own game to reinforce a skill you think is especially important.
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If you missed my first two Well newsletters, you can read them now! In my first column, I busted myths about sleeping medications. In last week’s essay, I discussed why and how to give constructive feedback.
More proof that vacation with kids is simply parenting in a different (though gorgeous!) location :) But seriously, thank you for sharing these examples. You found opportunities to weave learning and guidance around huge issues into your family’s everyday activities and conversations, which I’m sure was more effective and collaborative than a big “sit down” talk kind of thing.
You did so much better in restaurants than we did! (The 4 year old is REALLY struggling to grasp why it takes so long to get food when we eat away from home...) But I secretly love when kids awkwardly bring up a weird issue at an inopportune time. Have explained many aspects of human reproduction in the grocery store checkout.