Have Kids, Will Travel

1

2

3

cover

The shots might have pushed her over the edge. Our family of four was preparing for a six month stay in Rwanda last year, and my 10-year old daughter was growing increasingly ambivalent about the prospect. Now there were rabies shots to contend with? She toughed it out, we went, and a year later we continue to marvel at how confident and self-assured the experience has left her.

Many Upper Valley families have spent time overseas with their kids, either for work or adventure. Ashley Milliken recently spent six months, mostly in Taiwan, with her husband and daughters Perrin and Carly. “We did it to share the rest of the world with our kids and have them study another language in the place where it was spoken,” she explains, “and to give the girls a chance to try what it’s like living in a city. ” But she emphasizes that the trip was not so much about exposure to foreign culture and seeing new things as it was about discovering what it would be like to travel as four people, taking on risk. Doing so teaches kids as much about themselves as it does about the world around them.

Pam Miles spent a year in Cape Town, South Africa, with her family. She says, “Of course we all loved the experience of being on safari out on the African plains. But what most deeply impacted our children (ages 4, 7, and 10), was the concentrated and very regular time we spent tutoring and playing soccer with kids in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha every available weekend.”

Whether you’re in a village in Central America or a bustling European capital, your destination sets the stage for your experience, but what matters more than anything is that you have taken yourself and your kids out of the comfort zone that is the Upper Valley. (Bonus benefit: they’ll come to appreciate just how amazing our neck of the woods is when they return). And even if you spend most of your time on the move, it’s about more than the travel; it’s about living differently for a while.

A year overseas requires significant preparation. The logistics are the same as for any trip, albeit more involved. How long is long enough? Four months is probably the minimum — anything shorter than that, and there will be little time to really settle in before it’s time to leave again. What to bring for an entire year away? When to go? Many don’t, but if you have that luxury, consider when would work best for your kids. “We spent a significant amount of time trying to figure out the ideal year to travel around the world with Brook,” explains Eydie Pines, who completed an epic 15 month trip around the world with her husband and son last year. “We decided that sixth grade was best for striking the balance between him being old enough to get a lot out of the trip but young enough to enjoy spending 24/7 with us.”

You also need to consider how your kids will deal with with the idea and get them on board. How will your rambunctious teenager function in a big city? Or survive without his Xbox? Your anxious child may have a hard time with a transition of this magnitude, and a clingy kid may cling like never before. “You’re going to be away from your friends and your room and your pets for a long time in a big city where people eat strange things with chopsticks. You’ll be in a school where they speak a language you don’t understand. Oh, and weird bugs, too.” That’s definitely not the way to broach the topic, but it may well be how your kids perceive it at first. Be prepared.

Amy Neuman, who is currently spending a couple of years in Prague with her husband and three children, faced some apprehension from her kids, and says, “We validated their concerns. We knew they’d be nervous and uncertain. I was nervous, and they knew that, too. But we could point out other things in their lives that had been challenging and scary and talk about their ability to deal. Tell them that we knew that they would be fine. We also really emphasized that we were a team and that as long as we were together, we could meet any challenge.”

Our daughter was convinced her friends would forget her, but kids at school had traveled for a year and she’d barely noticed them missing. It helps to be honest and acknowledge the known unknowns, and to put the timeline into perspective (you’re not leaving home forever). Remind them that their home and their community will still be there and waiting for them when they return.

The Comforting Routines of Daily Life

You’re not looking for every day to be dawn-to-dusk adventure packed with amazing sights as you would on, say, a whirlwind tour of Europe. You’re settling into a new routine and making the unfamiliar familiar enough that it may serve as the environment for a new daily life, recreating a “home” while “away.”

Those new routines may be very different, and creature comforts may be missing, which will affect how you interact as a family. The Milliken’s life in Taiwan was contained in a small apartment with precious little privacy. “So, everyone becomes more flexible — you need to get used to talking to each other more,” says Ashley. “Bonding was really intense. The four of us were together all the time, and although the girls would get on each others nerves every so often, ninety percent of the time it was amazing.”

You can’t help but empathize strongly with your kids as the deal with the challenges, and their moods will impact your own state of mind: if they’re not happy, chances are you’re not happy; when they soar with accomplishment, you come along for the ride. They may grapple with conflicting feelings of missing home while still appreciating the new setting. One parent remembers her daughter working through her emotions: “‘I like it here, I do,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to go home, but I miss my friends and I am allowed to be sad sometimes.'” Indeed, the social life is often the kids’ biggest challenge: close friends are hard to replace while away and doing so may feel like “cheating.” Attending an international school will connect them with kids sharing their experience and who keen to make new friends, but it’s also worth reach out ahead of time: sports, culture, hobbies — anything that might forge a connection.

Home sickness and travel fatigue may be preempted if not prevented entirely. Eydie Pines and her family planned a route that took them from less to more developed for increased creature comfort, and arranged to reconnect with family and friends from home along the way. A trip home halfway through can give everyone something to look forward to, and will allow the kids to confirm that life back home is there and waiting. And of course, Facebook and Skype enable everyone to stay in touch.

School

School is likely to be a key part of your kids’ daily routine. International schools cater to temporary visitors with a familiar curriculum, but they can suck you into a bubble of foreigners isolated from the local community. Local schools may be inadequate academically, especially for older kids, and learning in a foreign language can be a real challenge.

Sometimes school doesn’t work well, and you need to find alternatives. As an 8th grader Max Munafo was having a hard time with the school his parents had found for their year in Padova in Northern Italy. “He wasn’t getting what they had promised, and was getting frustrated,” explains his mother, Giavanna, “but we turned the bump in the road into a great opportunity. Instead of structured homeschooling his learning consisted of travel, writing about our adventures, creating photo essays, and soaking up the history and culture all around us.”

Even if you set out to homeschool, the reality on the ground may change your plan. Ashley Milliken came to Taiwan with plenty of curriculum ideas for her daughters.”But in the end,” she explains, “we only did a fraction of what I’d planned — it was just about being and living the experience, we really didn’t need the rest.”

A Life Changer — Yours and Theirs Alike

Parents beware: your kids will become independent as they negotiate their new life and master skills on a par with the adults around them. In Prague, the Neuman kids now confidently commute to school across town using public transportation. Kids will see their parents in a different light as you make mistakes, struggle with languages and daily challenges. They’ll see you ask questions and take risks, start doing the same. They may even rise to the occasion and help you cope.

Amy Neuman reflects on the first tough times in Prague: “I feel like the kids and I became a real team. They really helped me, and they know it.” Ashley Milliken tells of her daughters growing appreciation of having choices to make and how they took ownership and began to call the shots and plan what they did as a family in Taipei. “These are lasting changes that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Our kids are excited to face new and unknown experiences and even if unsettling at first, they have the confidence to move forward,” adds Pam Miles.

Back home, little will have changed when you return. But your kids will not be the same: a second language, big city street smarts, the social skills to meet new people and make new friends. As well an appreciation that their cozy Upper Valley world is not the center of the universe, and that our “way of life” is not the only one. Pam Miles notes, “We have seen quite clearly that our children left their experience in South Africa with an appreciation of what it means to give back to the world and the joy it brings not only to the recipients, but also to the givers.”

Most importantly, perhaps, your kids will have learned how to cope with change, adversity, uncertainty, new things, scary things, the unknown, the untried. As one parent said reflecting on a challenging time with her family in Eastern Europe a few years back: “even the bad experiences are still valuable experiences and worth having.” It all builds character. As parents, we discover our own strengths and weaknesses along the way, and we may end up seeing our children in a different light, too. As Ashley Milliken notes, “This is a chance to have a different type of time with your kids, a different kind of relationship with them. That’s unique, it’s never going to happen again.” And it is definitely worth it.

This story was first published in the February-March 2014 issue of Kids Stuff Magazine, published by 9Dot Magazine. 

Dear Teenage Son, I Just Want to Make Sure You Really Get This

Underage_DrinkingHere are two printouts: one’s about alcohol, one about marijuana. They explain how the law and law enforcement look at this stuff (spoiler alert: they don’t like it).

Let’s be really clear: what you’re looking at are the actual, non-negotiable consequences if you get caught drinking or smoking. 1) You will get a $300 fine (which you will have to pay out of your own pocket). 2) You will lose your driver’s license for somewhere between three months and a year (even if you’re not driving when you get caught). 3) You will get a permanent mark on your criminal record (which looks kinda awkward when you go to apply to college or for a job. For one thing, you wouldn’t be able to work as camp counselor any more, so no summer job, so no money). It is possible to get your record cleaned up by getting a lawyer to ask on your behalf, doing a lengthy alcohol awareness education class and some significant community service – but I don’t get the impression that those are ways you’d want to spend your time.

Oh, and getting caught also counts as strike one against you; the next time you get caught, you’ll be a repeat offender – and then things starts getting ugly, because then they know you don’t really give a shit.

So, there’s that. But also the added sting: if you get caught by the cops, we’ll find out about it. Because we’ll get that really embarrassing call from the Hanover Police at 2AM to come pick you up at the station. And then the game is going to be over. You’re going to be so grounded it won’t even be funny. No driver’s license, no nothing. It will suck so very, very badly – probably way, way more than it could ever possibly have been worth.

But. This doesn’t mean the challenge is to keep trying to hide your booze hunting and joint sharing from us in order to get away with it – which, unfortunately, seems to be the game you guys are currently playing. That’s a bad tactic, because a) all y’all suck at being stealthy, which is why I happen to know that you are still trying to line up booze and marijuana to make things “more interesting” (as if), and b) once you’re drunk or high, the whole world can tell – especially the cops. Believe me, the smell of you and your buddies when I picked you up after the last dance? Enough to make me see double. The cops do this shit for a living – they’ll pick a drunk 15-year-old out of a crowd in a heartbeat. And remember: that’s all it takes. They don’t have to see you drink or smoke; just being high or drunk when you’re under 21 is illegal.

This is not about what does or does not happen at home when I nab you dipping into my booze (that’s incredibly annoying, but I refuse to play hide-and-seek with you as if you were suddenly a toddler in diapers again); this is about what happens out there in the real world when you and the posse prance around drunk and high, thinking you’re the shizzle, and the cops get a whiff of you. At the rate you guys are pushing it, it’s not a question of “if” it’s a question of “when.” Sure, “fuck the police” and “stick it to the man” sounds all cool and gangsta, but is there any part of illegal (il-le-gal /i(l)ˈlēgəl/: contrary to or forbidden by law) that’s not registering with you? They enforce the law; the law says you can’t drink or do drugs. Not my law, the law. If you break the law they’ll bust your ass. Not sure how that scenario sits with your homies — maybe they genuinely don’t care, although I hope someone is trying to talk some sense into them right about now. But I’d definitely like to think that you’re smart enough to want to avoid taking your game of Chicken that far.

So I’m going to ask you again (but probably for the last time, because I’m old, tired, and have much better things to do with my time) to make smart choices. There’s no undo button here. I had hoped that getting caught at home once could have set you straight; twice, perhaps, because, well, maybe you’re just slow to “get it.” But twice didn’t cut it either. Now you’re hunting way off the reservation, and while a strike or two there will perhaps be what it takes to get the message across, it will also leave a mark. You’ll be out of commission before the going even got good.

If it still seems way cool to put booze and drugs on the agenda, and if the risk of getting caught by the cops just adds to the whole drama and adventure, then you’re on your own – I can’t stop you from willfully screwing up your life with this sort of shit, but I can make sure you’re very, very aware of the kind of fire you’re playing with. Consider this a friendly warning — but definitely a warning. You keep playing with this kind of fire, you will get burned. Not because I’m going to get grumpy (although I will) but because the cops don’t accept apologies and white lies. They play hardball. Welcome to the real world; enjoy your stay…

So think about it – then make a smart choice.

Jodi Jill Should Probably Stick to Writing About Celebrities and Disney Cookies

Yeah, and back in 2010 we all thought Hannah Kearney was full of herself, too. That's why her hometown never came out to celebrate her.
Yeah, and back in 2010 we all thought Hannah Kearney was full of herself, too. That’s why her hometown never came out to celebrate her.

Sadly, Norwich, VT native and all-around nice girl Hannah Kearney is no longer defending Olympic freestyle moguls champion. Billed as the favorite and hoping to repeat her gold medal performance from Vancouver, she instead had a tough final run at the Sochi Olympics and ended up “only” winning bronze. It was disappointing to herself and her fans, and certainly wasn’t what she’d hoped and trained for. Perhaps overcome by the emotions of it all she expressed as much in front of the cameras and online immediately after her final run.

Kearney’s genuine reaction as a highly competitive world class athlete who failed to deliver when it mattered the most was about what you’d expect. But it had Jodi Jill, a columnist for the LA Times and Examiner.com, “shocked.”  Her panties all in a bunch, Ms. Jill would have preferred if Kearney had followed the example of slighted Oscar nominees and simply gushed effusively over how much fun it had been to be on the big stage, by gosh!

In her Examiner.com column Ms. Jill then proceeds to go unhinged, droning on about how Kearney somehow embarrassed the collective America, insisting that Kearney “does need a lesson in gracefulness and perhaps a discussion about her entitlement issues.”

Whatever, Jodi. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion.

But it’s not clear why anyone should care what celebrity gossip columnist Jodi Jill (“Direct from Hollywood” as her website banner ad proclaims) has to say about the world of sports — a world she evidently doesn’t understand, even on the most basic level.

A rather pathetic and pedestrian writer, Ms. Jill has written a book on “How to Make Funny, Crazy Cat Videos Go Viral” and lists “Disney Desserts” as one of her passions in life. Her main claim to fame is, apparently, her deeply dysfunctional family background, but she’s deftly managed to ride socio-economic awkwardness to professional success. Ms. Jill’s day-to-day professional focus as a writer is the plastic fantastic people who wouldn’t know true emotion if it bit them on their surgically enhanced ass.

Striving to meet their unending need for attention, she fawns and speculates over the stars’ every move, on stage and off. In August of last year she regaled her readers with the minutiae of a virtual cat-fight between two pseudo-humans, a pointless spat between Kim Kardashian and Katie Kouric over something-or-other involving  a baby gift and some harsh twitter posts.

It’s interesting to note how Ms. Jill reserves her patronizing finger wagging and moralizing for professional athletes like Hannah Kearney. Her beloved stars, on the other hand, are treated with reverence, and Ms. Jill’s only remark about Kardashian’s emotional reaction to Kouric’s criticism was that, “It’s understandable why Kim Kardashian is so irate as the comments appear unprovoked.”

So, to sum up Ms. Jill’s perspective: Hannah Kearney, professional athlete, expressing her genuine disappointment over her performance at the most important event of her career? Bad. Embarrassing. Shocking, even. Kim Kardashian, reality TV star, throwing a scripted tantrum over something someone said or did or didn’t do? Understandable. Justified.

Ms. Jill is about as far removed from the world of competitive athletics as you can get, which is why it genuinely baffles me that an assignment editor would think it a good idea for her to cover the Winter Olympics. Hers is a vapid and emotionally stunted universe, with recent top stories on her vanity website including “A list of stars that joined Twitter in 2013” and “Towel Art.”

She really should leave the coverage of professional athletes, their performance and their emotional reactions to those who know better — pretty much anybody other than herself. She can’t even keep their names straight (Jason Brown? Jeremy Brown? Some cute young guy in tights out there on the ice). It would be a win-win, because she could then go back to doing what she does adequately enough to earn a living: gush about “Dancing With Stars” while sporting ladywood over the hot boys in One Direction.