I Taught My Kids to Be More Polite—Then Had to Learn My Own Lesson
One simple phrase changed my entire perspective on the world.
My kids are decent eaters, but there are still plenty of foods they turn down: My 5-year-old will inexplicably gobble down broccoli yet refuse sweet potatoes. Fish is a go, but fried shrimp gets a grimace. And when they don’t want to try something, they’re loud, rude and downright gaggy. “This is dis-gus-ting!” Jack would declare in the face of his father’s (really great) cooking. The 2-year-old wouldn’t spit out food at a restaurant so much as let it slither out of her mouth while making a choking sound.
About a year ago, I decided I’d had enough and came up with an ambitious plan. I was fed up with “yuck.” Sick of “ew” and “I don’t want that!” From now on, I told Jack and Lia, we’d be more polite. “It’s not my favorite,” was a way to turn something down without hurting anyone’s feelings.
Explaining was easy; getting them to use the phrase took months of prompting. I don’t know where my daughter learned to say “blegh” with such drama and revulsion, but most of the time, I was able to keep from rolling my eyes in exasperation. I’d say, in my best isn’t-this-fun voice, “You mean it’s not your favorite?” “It’s not my favorite,” they would parrot back, staring down at the creamy, cheesy goodness or too-pink steak they would not be eating.
But over a couple of months, the response became a reflexive habit, and family meals became more civilized. Turns out, it’s hard even for a preschooler to accompany such a mild statement with a grimace and a gagging noise. And the phrase did more than improve their manners. It occurred to me that my kids were becoming more adventurous eaters. They were definitely trying more foods. Long-rejected asparagus got a nibble, then the nod. “It’s not my favorite,” let them express their distaste without labeling a food “bad.” Asparagus was no longer disgusting; it was just something they didn’t like as much as...oh, French fries, grilled cheese, and chocolate ice cream. These four simple words slowly made them more open to change and possibility and new tastes.
I felt like a hero. I know the kind of parent I want to be: compassionate, unflappable, firm but loving. Pretty much every day, I fall short: barking, sighing, engaging in power struggles over how quickly my son is picking up his Legos. But this felt like one of those rare moments of almost-perfect parenting.
Then we went on vacation.
My husband and I took the kids to an island in the Caribbean. The airline lost my daughter’s car seat along the way. The line at immigration was excruciatingly long, and the immigration officers were grilling every visitor who dared to present a passport. We got to the hotel and learned that it didn’t have our reservation, or our room, or any room at all for another eight hours. When we finally settled in, the Wi-Fi sputtered and then stopped completely.
“I hate it here,” I said to my husband.
I said it to myself again, silently, that day and the next, all the while gathering supporting evidence. The grocery store was out of butter. The roads were rutted and chaotic. More than once, we were nearly run into a ditch. “I hate it here,” I thought over and over, and changed our flights so we could leave in two days instead of four.
It felt good. Decisive. As I looked out on the view from our room, it was undeniably lovely—a sparkling bay and a colonial harbor town. But it was a relief, for once, not to have a bittersweet parting from a vacation destination. I wouldn’t fret about the waterfall we hadn’t hiked to, the restaurant we hadn’t tried. My angst began to pull back like a tide.
As it did, some other feelings began to surface. Back home, I marvel daily at how incredibly fortunate our family is. Not just because we get to take Caribbean vacations. We’re able to turn on the tap and have clean water pour out. Butter, unobtainable in some parts of the world, is a basic. Our children are healthy and have never been hungry.
Yet on this beautiful island, I’d managed to be preoccupied with all ways that I’d been uncomfortable and inconvenienced. In place of the unflappable model I wanted to be for my children—the parent who taught them to say “I don't like this” with kindness—I was acting like a brat.
Travel destinations—unless they are actually Disney World—don’t exist to please us, I reflected the day before we were supposed to leave. They’re not just there for our appreciation or enjoyment or purchase. They’re homes and homelands; places where people work and raise families and dream. Where they might fret about unrepaired roads and grocery shortages and whether there are enough hotel jobs. I tried repeating in my head, again and again, what I’d taught my kids. “It’s not my favorite,” I said. It was time to practice what I’d been preaching—and to take it beyond the dinner table. To remember not just to be considerate of others, but to look beyond first impressions and be open to a change of opinion.
That evening we walked down to the beach one last time. We had the long stretch of sand almost completely to ourselves. The sky was mottled with clouds. We ran in the waves. My husband swung the kids around in circles as they cackled and screamed.
The next morning, I canceled our flights home. I went to the front desk and asked if they could restart the Wi-Fi again. I asked if we might stay a little longer.
Sara Clemence is the author of Away & Aware: A Field Guide to Mindful Travel ($14; amazon.com).