Slate editor Dan Kois and his wife, Alia Smith, uprooted their family to live for a year in four different places—New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and rural Kansas. It may sound like an epic adventure, but even in paradise, there are bad days. How did they survive when things didn’t go right, they fought, or they missed home? On a recent episode of How To!, host Charles Duhigg talked with Kois, Smith, and their two daughters about how they learned to make peace with the rough patches.
For one, don’t insist that your kids will appreciate all this later. The lessons Kois and his family learned just might help yours the next time you’re experiencing a meltdown during your own family adventure. Part of their discussion, condensed and edited for clarity, is below.
Dan Kois: I think that those first three months in New Zealand did have a real feeling of an extended vacation for everyone. Even though the kids had to go to school, they weren’t their schools and they weren’t particularly academically rigorous. They were a little more chill, a little more fun. We were doing all kinds of fun activities.
Harper Kois: It was like camp.
Dan Kois: We were visiting fun places.
Harper Kois: It was like somehow a better version of home, I feel like, because we had this really nice house.
Dan Kois: You had lots of friends, right, Harper?
Harper Kois: Yeah, I made lots of friends.
Charles Duhigg: The whole family loved New Zealand. Neighbors invited them over for dinner. It was a beautiful and exotic place. The kids were popular at school and they had a really easy time making new friends. But, even though New Zealand was such an easy entry, the Koises learned the next lesson pretty quickly. Setting expectations for both kids and for parents is really important.
Dan Kois: Right, and part of the idea of this trip was to have normal days, right? It wasn’t Disneyland. It wasn’t supposed to be Disneyland. It was supposed to be life, but just in different places. So in New Zealand, the very first attempt we made at trying to experience the great outdoors and become an outdoorsy family the way Kiwis are was a pretty simple day hike.
And I definitely had these visions of how appreciative and happy my kids would be at the end of it. And the trip itself was fun. But then when my kids did not, at the end of it, seem as appreciative or overjoyed about the experience as I sort of hoped or expected they would be, I ended up getting in a huge fight with Lyra about some bullshit. And that was an object lesson for me about the ways that my expectations, not only about how things would go, but how they would respond, were wrecking it for people.
Alia Smith: Yeah. I felt that way, especially in the Netherlands because, as an adult, I really wanted to do all this stuff that being in Europe allows you to do. Which is go to historic sites, go to museums, go see a bunch of old stuff, look at art, look at architecture, etc. And the kids were just not at all interested in that. And it was frustrating to me. I thought, why aren’t you having fun? This is an amazing experience. Please, you know, eat it up, soak it up, like it. And that was not useful.
Dan Kois: We did really learn on this trip: It is not a winning argument with children to be like, when you’re older, you’re going to be so grateful that you did this.
Alia Smith: And in fact, it makes them really mad.
Dan Kois: Yeah, no, it does the opposite of working.
Charles Duhigg: So you’re in New Zealand and it’s a great experience. You’ve been there for three months, and then you go to the Netherlands. And how do things change with your family?
Dan Kois: I would say, first of all, we really did at that moment feel all of us, but particularly the kids, sort of hit a wall, a wall of homesickness and a wall of frustration that this trip was still going on. It wasn’t over yet. And a little bit of that wall came from the feeling of repetitiveness, that Oh, we just sort of got New Zealand and we made friends and we had a great time. But now we have to start from zero again.
Lyra Kois: Yeah. And this time we’re doing it in a place that doesn’t even have any lush foliage to distract us.
Dan Kois: That’s true. And a place where, while most people speak English, there were very important places where English wasn’t being spoken. For example, in the kid’s school. And that was very difficult for them. And so, as a family we found that the experience was that we were sniping at each other a lot.
Charles Duhigg: If you’re on an adventure that’s supposed to bring your family closer together, you’re going to fight, and sometimes you’re not going to be close at all, and that’s totally OK. Adventures are supposed to take you out of your comfort zone. That’s kind of the point.
Dan Kois: There’s the thing that Alia had said to me during the trip, which was a lesson that it took me a long time to learn, which is that it’s OK if it’s bad sometimes. My response to my kids being unhappy, or me being not happy or Ali being unhappy or something going wrong, often was frustration that I couldn’t instantly make it better. But sometimes we were just going to have a bad day. Sometimes we were just going to have a really hard time fitting in somewhere or making friends. Sometimes we would really struggle with school or with language. And as much as I talked about wanting this trip to build resilience for my kids, I found it very difficult to respond with equanimity to bad times. I got frantic and desperate to make them better. And yeah, the lesson was to roll with it a little bit more.
Alia Smith: If your object is to go to a place and experience what life is like there, you can’t expect for it to go smoothly all the time or for you to be happy all the time. No one’s life is like that wherever you are. And so to try and accept the bad with the good, I think is an important lesson to learn.
To listen to the entire episode, including tips for how to pack for 12 months away from home, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
And read Dan Kois’ book How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together for additional stories and insights.