From New Zealand To The Netherlands — What's In A Family?
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Writer Dan Kois and his family are getting ready to head out on a trip, and it's a really, really great trip. It makes me at least a little bit envious. For the next year, Dan and his wife Alia and his daughters Lyra and Harper, ages 11 and 9, will spend three months each in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica and Hays, Kan. It's kind of an experiment to investigate how families live in each of these places and discover if there is perhaps a better way for a family unit to function than the Koises do in nearby Arlington, Va. And we plan to check in with the Koises at each stop.
Dan Kois joins me now in the studio. Hey, you.
DAN KOIS: Hello.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, so you're going to have to walk me through this. How did the idea for this come up?
KOIS: Well, so you weren't here last winter when we had our big Washington-area snowstorm.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was not.
KOIS: That snowstorm, for our family, was like the nail for want of which the army of our family was completely defeated. You know, our schedules - like many families, our schedules were already completely on the edge of, you know, disaster at every moment. And the addition of seven days of missed school and our children being unable to leave the house and our jobs being just the same as they always were led to total, absolute chaos.
And it so happened that - at that time that I was preparing for a trip to Iceland where I was reporting a story for The New York Times about the swimming pools of Iceland...
KOIS: ...And the way that they served as community centers and gathering places for families and friends in a place where it's hard to find a place to get together because it's freezing cold all the time. And so while I was there, I met an incredible number of families who just seemed to have it together. And I was trying to figure out why.
And, you know, thanks to cultural and governmental institutions that really supported family life, but also thanks to what seemed to be an entirely different national conception of what time spent with your kids should look like and what it should feel like. Everyone just seemed more satisfied and more calm and more happy in their interactions with their family members than I could even conceive of.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, so how did you choose these places? I mean, they seem to span not only the globe but also sort of very different takes on parenting.
KOIS: Yeah. Well, I wanted to look for places that polling and research have shown to be really conducive to happy and satisfied family life, so places like New Zealand and the Netherlands that constantly end up at the top of these lists of places with very happy families.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there's science behind this.
KOIS: There's some science behind - and then there's also, like, the kinds of polls that are done by, like, travel agents.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm listening to you and I'm thinking, this sounds amazing. I want to hear about this. But when you told your wife and your kids, hey, you know, this entire life that you've been living here, we're going to just leave it all behind and we're going to go have this parenting experience all around the world, what did they say?
KOIS: Well, I'm pretty sure that, as in most modern families, this was not a decision I presented to my wife as a done. We have talked about this idea for years, this - you know, the notion that the way that we are doing family life can't necessarily be the best way. And so when I sort of found a way to turn this half-baked fantasy into an actual trip we could take, my wife, who was stranded in a house with two kids in a snowstorm, was pretty into the idea.
My kids have had wildly varying responses. There are times when they are so excited about the adventure that we're about to go on and really seem to buy into the notion. Sometimes, when they're angry at us about something else, they will just out of the blue yell, and you're taking us on this stupid trip that we don't even care about. But, you know, we get a little of each.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, having traveled all over the world, you often see different parenting styles in different countries. But do you think it's transferable? Do you think we can really learn lessons from other cultures and import them to something completely different, like the United States where you are living this very fast-paced, hectic life? You don't really have the same kinds of infrastructure and culture in place.
KOIS: Right. Well, that's the important part, what you just said. The infrastructure that's in place in those countries allows families to live very different kinds of lives. But I do think from each of these places you can learn things about the personal interactions between parents and kids.
And I do think that living among these families for as long as we can and seeing how families treat each other and how they treat their time together makes me feel that it is possible to learn how to have a kind of quality time together as a family that isn't quality time as we necessarily define it here, right? Quality time meaning, oh, we really drilled math facts. I really wanted to have quality time with my family that was about facing a challenge together or talking about the world together. And I do think that's transferable from other cultures. I mean, I hope so.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Writer Dan Kois. His project and future book is called "How To Be A Family." Thank you. Bon voyage.
KOIS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.