Dan Kois is an editor and writer at Slate, contributing writer at The New York Times, and co-host of the podcast, Mom and Dad are Fighting. His recently published memoir, How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Family Around the World to Find a Different Way to Be Together, is about the year him, his wife, and their pre-teen daughters left their busy lives in the D.C. suburbs to live in four very different places—New Zealand, The Netherlands, Costa Rica, and small-town Kansas—to learn how families live in other parts of the world. Kois recently visited The Ohio State University to teach a visiting writer workshop and spoke with our Associate Reviews and Interviews Editor, Lizzie Lawson, about the experience, writing, and researching of How to Be a Family.
Lizzie Lawson: Your memoir, How to Be a Family, incorporates research about overarching systems in each of the different places you traveled, including healthcare systems, work-life balance, parenting styles, and schooling methods. Can you talk about how you approached this research?
Dan Kois: It seemed like a more interesting experience for me and for readers if I wasn’t viewing each of these places as a kind of magical flower that had sprung up and could never be understood. Obviously, I was not going to come out of the Netherlands or Costa Rica in three months and know everything about those places, but I had the tools as a reporter to start to dig into why those places were the way they were and what that means for those of us in situations like mine who are interested in changing things. Sometimes it was talking to a researcher in the Netherlands about his research on family happiness and satisfaction. Sometimes it meant talking to the parents we made friends with in a real formal interview setting with me recording and a set of prepared questions. And sometimes it meant reading, and reading deeply, into the literature, laws and media to get a sense of the stories affecting parents and their lives. What are the fears about parenting and family reflected in those stories, whether fictional or news? What can we see in each of these places that is or isn’t reflected in the place we come from and are planning to return to?
LL: In How to Be a Family, you talk about different parenting styles, especially in the section about the Netherlands, with the polder model, which you seem to actively dislike despite the Netherlands claiming to have the “happiest kids in the world.” Now that you are back in the States, is there anything you find yourself particularly grateful to have learned about parenting on this trip?
DK: I hate the polder model, which in the book I describe as this notion in the Netherlands that all decisions, not just family decisions, are subject to consensus by everyone who will be affected by the decision. In the Dutch company, that means that any change in strategy is decided not just by the CEO, but by the CEO, all the Vice Presidents, and all other rank and file down to the janitors in the office building. Everyone needs to come to the table and agree before that change is to be made. In families, everything a family does and every rule a family follows is subject to negotiation between the parents and the children.
As you note, I hated that. I wanted to tell my children what to do and have them do it, which of course is not what happens usually. But I felt much better being enraged that my children didn’t do what I told them than subverting what I viewed as my own authority to let them make suggestions that I knew were obviously wrong and crazy. Yet, after coming home, I found that in our family decision making we are dramatically more likely to talk to our children, to take their opinions into account, to compromise somewhere in between what we want and what they want. In part, because I saw it work for Dutch families and also in part because the experience of the trip was one big experience of learning what happens when you make an enormous family decision without consulting your children at all, which is that you end up going on a year-long trip that they are angry and resentful about because they weren’t consulted and didn’t buy into this crazy idea that me and my wife had.
LL: You write very honestly about the challenges that came along with this year-long family trip. One of the goals of the trip was to spend more time together, but that was also ended up being of the biggest challenges. Can you talk about the difficulty of spending excessive time together as a family?
DK: In the winter of 2016, there was this enormous snowstorm that snowed us together in our house for ten days. We were all driven insane like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and my “solution” to that problem was to spend a year together in places where we would be stuck together in houses and wouldn’t know many people. It isn’t logically sensical when you think about it that way, but that snowstorm taught me how frustrating it was for the four of us to coexist in one space for long periods of time without retreating to our separate corners. On the trip, I was striving to find the balance between the time we were together and engaged with each other and the times we gave each other space.
Different people in my family have different senses of that instinct. My youngest daughter she wants people to be doing things with her all the time, and for her the challenge of the trip was finding ways to be alone productively when we couldn’t be with her. I prize solitary time, and when that is interrupted by a kid or spouse who needs or wants something from me, I get frustrated. To me, the trip was about finding ways to be together, sitting at a table or in a room, and not feel like productivity was escaping me but instead engaging and focusing on that moment and what we could be doing together. And it was hard. I was often not good at it. I think the book is a testament to not only the times it worked but the times I wasn’t good at it.
After we got back from the trip, we have seen real tangible changes for us as a family operating in the same place. We are all a lot more conscious of each other and each other’s needs in a way that does not come naturally to children and often doesn’t come naturally to adults either.
LL: Looking back, are you glad you chose the places you chose?
DK: I am. The struggle always was we wanted there to be more places. The original goal was to go to six places in a year and a half, but we didn’t have enough money.
I don’t think I would change the places. The place everyone always asked about when I would tell them about the trip was Kansas. We would talk about the exotic places we were going—the Netherlands, Costa Rica, New Zealand—and then everyone would say, Kansas? Eventually our kids would start saying it too, Kansas? That was the place I was most worried about, having this trip of a lifetime and spending three months of it in Kansas. But I wouldn’t change that, because those last three months helped us gain perspective on the goals of the entire trip and what we were looking for. Kansas was a place like home, but not. Even the kids could see the very subtle differences between those two worlds, which became very clarifying from a writing perspective. I also think for the project of the book it was necessary to go to another place in the United States. But also, we just loved it. We loved being in Kansas and everyone was so nice in ways that I’m sure if you lived there your entire life could be stultifying and annoying. But for three months it was great.
LL: What was it like to write about your family while living with your family?
DK: It was great. If I had any questions, I could be like, “Lyra, what do you think about this?” and I’d write it down. I write about my family a lot, and I talk about my family a lot on a parenting podcast that I host. They are very used to the idea that things that happen in our life may end up being in print or on a podcast. As they get older, they get less and less comfortable with that. The trip was taken at an age in which they still thought it was neat that they might appear in a book. I think for Lyra, in particular, my older daughter, the experience of being one of the subjects of the book has made her a lot more skeptical about that now. One of the battles of the book was over what I should and shouldn’t say about her and how I portray her. That was a learning process for her and for me.
Another difficulty when writing about my children, is being faced everyday with the way they are while writing about the way they were. There’s a little disjunction there, especially a year after the trip when I was at the last stages of writing and editing the book. Kids change so fast. It was like trying to remember creatures from a different eon, like the dinosaurs or something, trying to remember Harper at nine while sitting in my house and she’s eleven and bouncing around being a completely different kid. That was really challenging, and I think in a lot of ways I didn’t do a great job. I had notes to deal with, but I also think the kids morphed over the course of the book, into some kind of hybrid version of the kids they were and the kids they had become.
LL: I found the inclusion of passages written by your wife, Alia, and daughters, Harper and Lyra, to be particularly rich and delightful to read. Was it always part of the plan to include these passages?
DK: It was. It was part of the book proposal, in fact. I would have been happy to have even more passages from them if they’d had the willingness or energy to write, but they also have lives and things to do. As Alia memorably told me, “This book is not my problem. This book is your problem.”
It was always the plan for a couple of reasons. One, I thought it would make it a better book to have their voices here and there to give people a break from my voice. I think that my voice can be a lot on the page, and you’re really getting it like full-bore over the course of this book. I was also thinking about the ways someone might view the book as exploitative, annoying, an object of privilege, and so on. Certainly it is all of those things, but I did want the rest of my family to have a chance to give their sides of different stories and things we were struggling with and the stories that I told, to help people who might otherwise mistrust the book trust it a little bit more.
In the end, those sections, and particularly Lyra’s section at the end, very aggressively did that because I ended up asking her essentially to respond to the book. I knew the book’s portrayal of our relationship and the ways we clashed over the course of that year was obviously slanted in my favor. There’s no way I could write it any other way. As kind as I tried to be to her and as much as I tried to follow my rule of always portraying myself as the worst guy in any scenario with those kids, there was going to be things about it that bothered her, and it seemed like it would be absolutely unfair to not give her that chance.