This week we celebrated the six-month semi-anniversary of our European road trip and working vacation. We’ve unpacked our luggage in at least seven different guest rooms that we temporarily called our home, and we’ve camped with our VW bus in at least a dozen different campgrounds and parking lots alongside rivers, lakes and gas stations. We’ve taken street directions in Dutch, gotten stilt-walking lessons in Slovenian, and been addressed by church fathers in Latin. An impatient truck driver even gave me the middle finger in Italian.
And still people ask if our children are learning. Shouldn’t they be in school? What about her cursive?! I was never worried about missing a year of first grade curriculum. Spending a year in a room with 25 other seven-year-old could not possibly be as edifying as driving around Europe, visiting farms and households in 8 or 10 other countries and spending a month with each family, adopting their rules and customs, and befriending their children, could it? The seven-year-old son of our current host has already taught our daughter a myriad of French vocabulary, mostly obscenities, but it has encouraged her to bone up on her online Spanish lessons, totally self-driven, with Duolingo.
In addition to the countless opportunities to learn from other people in strange, exotic settings, our kids also have the mixed blessing of spending a tremendous amount of time with their parents, and learning more about our specific interests and perspectives. Driving across Europe, I insist on visiting every possible church and cathedral, because that’s what American tourists do. And it so happens that I’m pretty intrigued by old architecture, world religion and art history. So now we have a curious daughter with an ever increasing number of questions about crucifixions, holy water and the Virgin Mary.
The other day she asked me point blank who Jesus was. Is he related to God, or are they just friends, or what? My wife suddenly took a tremendous interest in a dilapidated, dried up fountain in front of the church, and I was left in charge of religious education. If we were keen on indoctrination, this would have been my perfect chance, though we are not. Of course, if indoctrination is what she wants, I let my daughter know that it’s an option. She need only refer to my other blog, which used to be my chief pastime, before I started travel writing.
We also spend a lot of time on Greco-Roman mythology, and again, the stories raise many questions, most importantly: what is a god? and who is god? Not an easy question to answer really. I’d prefer not to spoil it all by going straight to the post-modern secular humanist explanation. I think she first needs to cozy up with the fairy tale idea of god, just like kids do with Santa Claus, and when she’s a bit older I’ll be more than delighted to introduce her to some more subtle versions of the esoteric.
Of course, I’m not the only one educating our kids. Mom spends hours every day reading with them, tutoring them in arithmetic and explaining everything from the course of the digestive tract to the procession of the equinoxes. Our daughter has learned an incredible amount about avian migratory habits, baking, and fermentation. She recently reminded me how much I still had to learn about sourdough (as I’ve recently taken over on the bread baking, so that mom can concentrate her efforts on the finer arts of apple pie and quince jam), and just the other day I heard her cracking wise about bone broth.
But lately, we’ve been getting more questions off the internet from parents who are considering taking their kids on a similar trip, and wondering if it’s really truly feasible or just plain miserable. The fact is, yes, traveling can be difficult. But keep in mind, parenting is also definitely difficult. And at the same time, they are both amazing and eye-opening.
Bringing children on an adventure like this will force you to adjust your plans and modify some of your expectations, just like bringing your children into the world in the first place has already done to your life, completely and irreversibly. But if you enjoy traveling, and you enjoy parenting, and you enjoy being with your kids—let’s face it, a lot of parents would rather send their kids away to school for eight hours a day than be with them day in and day out—then you will probably love traveling with your kids.
Maybe we’re lucky. Our kids are very open about trying new things and eating different foods. Dining with new hosts and different cuisine every month has never been an issue for us, as some might expect, and many have asked. Constantly meeting new people and mixing in with new playmates—something about which we had some trepidation—has also gone surprisingly well. Our three-year-old son is completely open, and for him I suppose all this just seems completely normal. Our daughter has her preferences, generally wanting to play with girls more than with boys, and better if they are closer to her own age. But in all the various settings she has proven herself to be remarkably adaptable. And increasingly adaptable. And that’s the real reward, for all of us.
Honestly, the hardest part for us has been finding Work-Away hosts who have the space and the wherewithal to house and feed a family of four. We generally only look for hosts who have children of their own, to guarantee that our kids will have some playmates. Now that works out well, but it makes for a pretty full house when you figure our family of four is moving in with another family of four, or six. Many hosts simply don’t want extra kids, and lots of prospective hosts don’t respond to us, so we can assume that might be one reason why.
Eventually though, we always find a host when and where we need to. Maybe after a month they are happy to have their house back to themselves, but it’s always a good time while it lasts. And in the end, we always do enough work to make a fair exchange for everyone. Usually we end up doing a lot more than the 4 to 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, typically expected from WorkAway volunteers, but it seems fair considering the extra space we take up in beds and around the dinner table.
One more thing to be aware of when lodging with other families in different countries, is that you are going to directly witness and experience parenting styles that may differ radically from your own. Every family has its own sets of rules, boundaries and consequences. Some are stricter, some are looser, some are rigid, and some have policies that change with the weather. So when you share the same roof and eat at the same table, you have to be willing, in many ways, to accept their customs. Inevitably, somebody is going to wonder and ask why they aren’t allowed to do something when other kids are. It can be a challenge, but it can also be an opportunity to defend and explain the rules that your family follows. Or maybe even change and improve upon those rules.
There will be times when you see another family exhibiting model behavior, and you’ll say to yourself, “Holy cow, how come I’ve never been able to train my children to be half as polite as that?” And a few days later, you’ll see one of their children explode in an unmitigated meltdown, and you’ll say to yourself, “Holy cow, what’s the matter with these people? My children would never act like that.” Then, it’s not long before you see your children copying their children’s behavior, in good ways and in bad, and finally you just have to stop and say to yourself, “Holy cow, I guess this is how children learn and grow. Well, aren’t I lucky to be here to watch it, rather than let it take place on an unmonitored playground behind the school gymnasium.”
In our conversations with parents and prospective globetrotters, there are different opinions about what are the best ages for taking kids out of school and on an adventure like this. But the broadest consensus seems to say that almost any age is the right age, as long as they are out of diapers and not yet entirely surly and rebellious. The fact is, every age will have it’s challenges, and more than anything it depends on the individual.
I’m reminded of a friend who was once telling me how she and her partner were wanting to start a family, but they had too many projects going on at the time, between work and art and music making. Basically, they were waiting for a time when it would be more convenient. All I could do, as the father of a one-year-old, was shrug my shoulders and say, “Sorry to shatter your plans and expectations, but having a baby is anything but convenient.” Taking your children to go and work on a farm in the south of France is a little bit like that.
To sum it up then, yes, you should by all means give it a try. Regardless of their age, it’s probably the best thing you can do to enhance your children’s education and world view, not to mention your own. Just be prepared for anything and everything. But if you’ve been parenting for this long, then nobody needs to remind you of that.