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How Do Children Adapt to Change?

When we were going back and forth about living on a remote island for year, the biggest question was, “How will Marcus and Nora adapt?”

I thought often about a haunting conversation with a stranger many years ago, pre-children. Kristin and I sat next to a man at a bar in Saugatuck, Michigan. The man told us about his family with two small children sailing around the world for several years. We were prepared to be enthralled with stories of strange encounters, exotic places, and how the children matured by learning self-reliance and diversity of the world. But that man didn’t talk about those things. He talked about how the experience affected his children later. One child thrived and went on to be a successful and happy adult, while the other child didn’t do that well. Even though he didn’t flatly say “I wrecked my child’s life,” guilt and regret were unmistakable.

How would putting your children in a totally different environment for a year affect them? How would they cope going there, and coming back? It’s very hard to get good data about this sort of thing from people who’ve done it before, precisely because nobody would admit they wrecked their children’s lives. Really, is there a more painful, more devastating admission? That man in Saugatuck is the only person I’ve ever met who openly admitted that his indulgence hurt his children. Probably because he knew we’d never see him again.

But did that second child turn out badly solely because of the years spent on a sailboat? People are born with a set of immutable traits that cannot be changed by experience — we know this from science. Maybe that man shouldn’t feel any guilt: How can he be so sure that his child wouldn’t turn out badly even if he did all the safe, conventional things?

What is poignant about that encounter is this: It’s hard to feel guilt and regret when you do the safe, conventional things: pre-school, soccer, piano lessons, play dates in the park, good public school, vacationing in Europe, etc., but if you drag your children sailing around the world, or take them to live on a remote island, you become unequivocally accountable for how your children turn out, whether it’s your fault or not.

We made our decision because Marcus and Nora both tend to be absorbed in the present. They rarely say they want to be somewhere else, wherever they are. Marcus likes to socialize and think everyone is his friend, so we weren’t worried about him at all. Nora is more attached to specific people, so we were more worried about her missing her friends. But we thought she’d cope. And we rationalized that, being apart from people you care about is a fact of life, and it’s okay for her to experience it for a year.

The kids have been here for exactly one month, and they seem to be doing fine. We don’t detect any big differences in their behavior.

We won’t know how they turn out until we’re pretty old. And we’ll never know for certain if this year in Rødøy will have affected them positively, or negatively. But, one way or another, as I said, we’re now a lot more accountable then we were before.

  1. Carol Lidington #

    About 10 years ago, an Australian family moved in down the street from us. The father was on a temporary (1 year) assignment in the US. We became friendly and, although they moved away long ago, we’ve stayed in touch. During the year that they lived here, they took advantage of every opportunity to travel the country. During school vacations, they took their 2 young daughters to more distant locations; and on long weekends, they traveled throughout New England. On “regular” weekends, they went sightseeing within Massachusetts. They seemed to have a nearly insatiable desire to learn about our country and our culture. By the end of the year, we marvelled at how well-acquainted they were with the US. Shortly after returning to Australia, the husband was given the opportunity to relocate to Singapore for a year, so his family picked up and moved again. Of course, they used Singapore as a base for doing more extensive travel, just as they had done while in the US. Now, their two girls are in college. They’re well-adjusted, open-minded, and curious about the world around them. They’ve both spent summers in various poor countries, doing charity work to help the underprivileged people living there. I’d say the girls have turned out well. And I suspect their exposure to surroundings and lifestyles very different from their own played a part in shaping their characters. My guess is that this experience is impacting your children in ways that you can’t measure – can’t even imagine. And they’ll almost certainly be better off for having had their horizons broadened.

    September 15, 2011
    • Hi Carol,
      Thanks for sharing that story. The outcome you describe is exactly what we hope for. We’ll see in 10, 20 years. Another important point is your story is that children often emulate their parents. We hope they’ll take breaks like this when they’re our age!

      September 15, 2011
  2. Kirrily #

    I am so excited for you both (you four) and think this can’t help but be a wonderful experience for you. I think there is a big difference to spending a number of years on a boat with kids and spending one year in a different home.

    I remember speaking to my brother once about my love of travel and wanting to just keep going and not stop. He mentioned an aquaintance of his in her early 30s (which seemed unimaginably old at the time!) who had done just that – one long trip after another, with only brief times working wherever in between. As a result she had been to amazing places but had lost touch with friends, family, as well as having no work experience of real value. Now she felt ready to stop but was finding she had no home to come back to and had lost the knack of forming close and long term relationships. I don’t know what ultimately happened to her but this seems closer to what the children on the boat may have experienced. I agree that how they later dealt with that was probably down to their intrinsic personalities.

    What you are doing seems more the equivalent of one long trip somewhere – which we all know is a good thing!

    I feel inspired. Not sure where it will take Chris and I but after many years of itchy feet, we are now feeling tied down by the kids being at a great school (don’t want to take them out but then is travelling when they are teenagers such a good idea?),the property (cows, chickens, etc), jobs, inertia… I have signed up for your blog and look forward to hearing how it goes. Well done for doing it!

    September 16, 2011
    • Hi Kirrily,
      How many years has it been? Pre-children for sure. Kristin and I had such a great time with you and Chris in London.
      You’re right. Spending a year wondering from place to place is very different from staying at a fixed place for a year. No doubt for the children the later is better. For me personally, being at a fixed place caused apprehension. Unlike traveling, there’s no easy, programmatic escape if I don’t like the place or the people here. It is a serious commitment, while traveling/backpacking is about freedom. Before coming here I didn’t get the typical giddy excitement before taking an epic trip.

      September 18, 2011
  3. Kirrily #

    I understand and agree completely. It is also a big change to live in a small community compared to a big city. We live near a village of 400 but with 1000s in the hills surrounding so not tiny but not big. There are wonderful things that make me think I could never live in a big city again, but there is also the downside of small. So far small still is more appealing.
    Yes, definitely pre-kids. Ours are 9, 7 and 5 now – can’t figure out where the time went!

    September 19, 2011
  4. I love this, getting correct data is hard because nobody wants to admit they wrecked their children. That is priceless. I haven’t read your whole blog and don’t know how old your kids are, but I’m guessing (unless they are in HS, and even then it might be alright for a year) they will thrive where ever they are with parents as mindful as you. There’s always a kid who does great and a kid who doesn’t do so great, doesn’t matter where you take ’em right? I think the bigger fear for today’s parents is unregulated guilt. But why is it that people either have tons of guilt, or none? Can’t we have just ‘the right amount of guilt’, like, I’ll have a medium please. It’s weird. It’s like the parents who have no guilt are off-loading it somewhere and the excessively guilty are packing it up and hauling it away. Wuz up wit dat?

    Honestly though, where kids are concerned, excessive guilt in a parent is not helpful, it turns them into tyrants. Believe me, I’m a therapist working with adolescents. The guilty parents (and they are everywhere, everywhere, why? because we have marketed them into believing they can’t do enough, and need to buy more things for their kids) don’t always produce the kindest offspring. They tend to over-indulge, and oddly, their kids wind up feeling like enough is never enough. Sorry to rant, but I’m a parent in recovery from excessive guilt : ).

    September 26, 2011
    • So true. Excessive guilt makes parents do irrational things. Over-indulgence for sure. Seen it myself among parents I know. Too much candy and ice cream. Too many useless gifts. A relationship based on sugar and materialism — that can’t be good.

      September 27, 2011
  5. Hey there,
    I am a young Australian just relocated to France to live with my French husband. We basically can’t choose between the countries so have settled to living in Bretagne, France for 5 years and then hopefully settling in Australia with babies in tow (haven’t had them yet but that’s the general idea). We will obviously play this by ear but I can’t think of anything more enriching for a kid to go through. Of course I will be worried when we change. Even things like me learning french on the go is hard enough. Finding a single Curly Wurly (Australian Chocolate bar) made my first month here bearable!
    I’ll also bring something up that I noticed from my home town. I grew up in a small coastal town of 500 people and my parents have now relocated to a village of 10 people (surrounded by about 500 farming families). The latter is in the middle of the outback.
    The amount of Australian families living abroad from those two communities is amazing. I can count easily 20 families off the top of my head. Normally the attitude is if it’s possible we’ll do it. While I would say maybe 2 kids out of that lot didn’t adjust well they all learnt a lot from the experience and coming home they still had their mates they grew up with.
    To top that off, the kids that have traveled with family for one year overseas stints (in my age group) now live abroad. Nearly all of them except one, and she is at university.
    We didn’t do that as a family. Too many kids. But in my family I have one brother living in Laos, a sister in Samoa, my other sister in England and myself in France. Only one sibling lives in Australia he is 9 hours drive to Mum and Dad.
    I hope this tops up your confidence for your kids. Remeber lots of families do this all the time. You just need to look at English families (There is so many over here!) immigrating to Bretagne in France to see that it’s positive for the kids. Double the language, new friends and experiences. If they miss hershey kisses you can buy them online!
    Good luck. I look forward to reading more from you!
    Nikki Le Moigne

    September 27, 2011
    • Thanks so much for your long and thoughtful note. You Aussies definitely make your way around the world! Maybe all that open space gives you restless legs.
      We’re pretty sure we’re not going to wreck our kids’ lives. In a more mobile world, you could say that this experience makes them more comfortable living in different places, which is a good thing beyond learning a new language, culture, etc..

      September 27, 2011
  6. Winston,

    it’s a tough choice you take. I travelled a lot as a kid and it definitely helped me, but my sister did not fare as well – so it is definitely down to those immutable traits you mention. But you are definitely being more accountable, and I consider that a good thing.

    November 1, 2011

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