Raising Kids on the Road

an adolescent boy holds a water jug while standing in the door of a vintage airstream travel trailer

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No more controversial does full-time travel become than when children are mentioned.

Whether its passing judgement on teenage trainhoppers or parents toting their toddlers along with them on their RV lifestyle, this is the one area where you’re bound to get at least that one dissenting viewpoint.

“You should be ashamed of yourself to do this with children” or “You’re robbing your kids of their childhood.”

For some reason, once you throw the little ones into the mix, people feel the need to try and foresee some great tragedy happening to them. Perhaps their own jealousy finally finds an outlet, or maybe they just have truly good intentions and merely flawed communication, but either way, it’s a hot spot.

Personally, we have no qualms at all about raising our children this way. Our oldest is now 12, and has been on the road since just before his 7th birthday. It’s true that many a summer before those years he would spend with grandparents while travel took the adults in his life elsewhere for awhile, but he has had very little trouble with finding friends, keeping up with his education, and finding happiness while traveling.

Our youngest two, at one and three years old, have never known any other life. They were both born during all of this, and while interpreting the way a one year old feels about a traveling life is a bit more difficult, we know our three year old is in love with the lifestyle. When we take a few months to sit still, renting short term housing in some town we love or just need to take a break from constant motion, he’s always bringing up our home on the road.

“Mama, can we move back into the Airstream and I’ll sleep in my bed with T,” short for Tristan, his older brother, “and I will go on a hike with you.”

I’m sure it sounds much cuter in my head, using his little high pitched voice and distorting sounds like a toddler does, but hopefully you get the picture.

As I see it there are four main facets to being a child: play, friendships, education and family. Let’s explore each from the traditional upbringing in a house, going to school, and living with the average family, to this migratory lifestyle.

Play

There are commercials on television these days where athletes aren’t selling a product at all, but simply promoting the idea of playing for 60 minutes a day. Think about that. It’s become so important to get kids to go outside and play that organizations like the NFL are putting out commercials trying to get children to do it for just one hour. Like it’s unheard of that children would be doing something active that long every day.

That is ludicrous. When I was a kid, and I’m not that old and I didn’t stop being a kid very long ago, we played all day long. We woke up and ran around the neighborhood for hours, until we were literally so tired that we had to come home for a nap. As I became a teenager we did the same thing, skateboarding with my friends so hard that we dripped with sweat and stink and came home to watch our heroes on videos just long enough to rest up and go out and do it all again. There was no, “Go outside and play!” Even when we liked video games, they were just one aspect of a day, something to pass the time while we waited for other friends to come over or before bed after a long day of outdoor awesome.

three boys eat sandwiches on a picnic table outside of an Airstream travel trailer
Winter, Tristan and Wylder having lunch in Missoula, Montana.
a young mother carries a baby on her back in a backpack, coffee in hand, at the beach
Even babies who can’t walk get to see the world from their mother’s back.

So that’s the “standard”. Kids are obese and find it hard to get outside to do stuff. Quarterbacks have to get paid to ask them to do it, because they’re not getting it at school (our oldest once attended a public school where recess was 15 minutes a day and their weekly gym class was always the first to get cut in the event of any other possible event).

Living on the road, particularly doing the RV thing, there is no hanging around inside. Our kids go nuts if we keep them cooped up too long, and even more so, we go nuts. There is no TV to quell our boredom with zombie staring at nothing. There is no place to just go hide and play video games and retreat into couch potato nation.

a young boy with curly hair rides on his dad's shoulders in a wooded area
Near daily bonding time as we find things that we can all do together as a family. Namely: exploring the country one hiking trail and sidewalk at a time.

And so the great outdoors become truly great once more. Your backyard changes often, new adventures arrive on a regular basis. There are hills to climb, beaches to dig up, trees to stare up at in awe of. National Parks and new city playgrounds alike chant, “Come, have fun, be young!” all the day long.

No child will find as much desire to use his imagination and his physical body to create amazing world’s of play than one who is presented with new and unusual surroundings. Life on the road is a natural conduit to getting children outside and playing, and not just for sixty minutes a day.

We call that warming up around here.

a baby plays in the dirt near a stream where his older brothers are digging in the mud and riding bicycles
Learning the value of dirt, our boys dig in the muck of a river in British Columbia.

Friendship

When you live in a house for most of your life, six or seven years at a time, or perhaps your entire childhood, you are no doubt going to make some friends. A lasting crew of people that you may take with you throughout your life, particularly if you all remain in the same town into old age.

That is a beautiful thing, and yes, we miss having longterm friendships right around the corner.

This is one aspect of traveling that I won’t sugar coat. It’s a simple fact, you will not have the same core group of friends to call on a regular basis and neither will your children.

That doesn’t mean there are no friendships, though. I have a host of great friends and we continue to see one or another group of them regularly. When you can go anywhere, you can go anywhere.

a woman carries a baby on her back, her man carries their toddler on his shoulders, standing at the edge of a cliff with a large bridge spanning the gorge behind them.
Since before they could walk we’d lug them up and down mountains (this time in West Virginia’s New River Gorge). Now we can’t get them to stay up there…

For our youngest boys, they will have one another throughout life. Friends will come and go, just as they would for kids living in brick houses, but their bond will live on.

Tristan is not quite as lucky. He’s done most of this time on his own or with a brother much younger than him, and though they can play together, it’s a bit more babysitter than best friend. So how has he fared through five years with no consistent physical location.

Not that bad, I’d say.

There have been times, I’ll admit, when he was not excited about the prospect of moving on. We’ve been traveling full-time since 2008, yes, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t taken months at a time to enjoy places. He’s established friendships during those months, lasting ones that were hard to watch fade into the rearview mirror.

Phone numbers get exchanged, emails get sent. These tend to come less and less frequently, just as normal friendships often dissipate without continued communication.

What he has learned though, is to make friends quickly. If there are twenty minutes for him to hang out at a particular playground, he’ll spend the first minute saying “Hi!” and the remaining 19 playing with new kids. He’s learned to get his foot in the door, the elusive art of breaking the ice, and because of that he makes friends, and then makes better friends, near immediately when we do slow down.

Would I like him to have people he’ll be able to say he’s known for years? Yes, I would. Does not having those friendships make his childhood any less enjoyable? Not necessarily.

How many friends from 6th grade do you still keep in touch with? How many high school friends, outside of Facebook, are you still hanging around with?

Real friendships don’t necessarily come from long term relationships, but from two people putting forth the effort to be good to one another, and that’s what we’re focusing on more than anything.

Hanging out with people is just having company, but great friends are the company you keep.

a mother holds her young baby, sitting on a curb outside of a vintage Volkswagen Bus
Does baby look sad that he’s living in that Volkswagen bus? No, he’s about to be carried around on his mom’s back, has warm milk in his belly, and otherwise is learning life one day at a time like every other infant.
a baby in a small seat, his father kneeling, watching over him as he sleeps
Dad contemplates waking up the baby to see if he wants to try some dark chocolate. The rest of the campground is probably hoping he doesn’t.

Education

This is the most touchy of subjects when it comes to the youth gone mobile. There is a general sense among many people that education means school. That is laughable to those of us who know drastically better, but opinions are like onions: they can make you cry and one is usually too much for any person to handle.

I am adamantly behind homeschooling. Forget the social structure, the lessons that are learned on the playground, and all of those hypotheticals. When it comes to an actual education, a parent teaching one, two, maybe three children is going to be far more effective than a single teacher staring down a room full of thirty strangers every day.

Public and private schools tend to lean towards accommodating the lowest common denominator. And they then pigeon hole particular kids into that role. Many children are excellent at math, reading, spelling, and science. “Book smart” is a ridiculous term that has sprung from our society’s approach to education, because there is nothing smart about learning life from a book. Other children are more proficient in the arts, or physical pursuits, or just really thrive on a couple of subjects and not the whole spectrum.

a mother holds her toddler in her arms at the beach
Taking Winter, a few months before his third birthday, back to the beach where he was born, near Astoria, Oregon.
an eleven year old boy surveys a campfire he built
Tristan learns the most basic discovery which sets man apart from animals, how to build a fire. This is his first ever crafted completely on his own, age 11.

Through this practice of deeming “reading, writing and arithmetic” the important subjects and all else extras that get slotted in where possible we force some children to be the ones who are holding everyone else up. Teachers get frustrated at having to spend so much time with a small percentage of the class, while student who excel in those fields grow bored with not being challenged. Parents get involved, and no one feels the winner.

With homeschool, and even more so unschooling and roadschooling, we as parents have the opportunity to teach our children the lessons we know are important, while allowing their natural talents to come all sunrise shining through. The world becomes our classroom, and children earnestly want to participate in learning.

It’s pretty easy to get behind a history lesson when you’re in the middle of a Civil War reenactment, or get excited about different types of plants when you’re hiding in the creases of some redwood roots.

America’s educational system is broken in a serious way, and to find proof of that look no further than the rest of the world. We see ourselves as the mightiest country alive, the only true superpower, yet our educational system is ranked 17th among the developed world. That’s insane given our GDP and ability to truly create anything we’ve ever wanted, from cars to snowboarding to the Internet, yet lawmakers and the population alike seem content to continue down this road of education that was formulated over a hundred years ago with the goal of teaching our youth how to be good factory workers.

a woman feeds her baby on a park bench
No one loves their babies more than this woman, and if she thought any harm or lesser life would come to them through travel, she’d be the first to put an end to it all.
two boys carrying tools for planting trees, in a rainforest
Planting Sitka spruce trees in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.

Americans don’t work in factories anymore, and if we hope to produce Mark Twains instead of Joe the Plumbers, it’s time for parents to take education back into their own hands.

You don’t need travel to do that, but it certainly makes it much easier. Not just because you can set your kids on autopilot as they explore the Grand Canyon or Gettysburg, but because of the open-mindedness they gain from seeing new cultures, different types of people. When kids know black and white, poor and rich, when they get a sense of the differences in all of the people of the world, they start to understand that life is about learning, not about forming opinions. The more we can, as a nation raising our future, understand that, the better we’ll be when we’re old and relying on them to make the policies which will last through our funerals.

a boy sits in a tree writing in a tablet
Without instruction he does two things little boys do best: climbs a tree and uses his imagination to craft a story, this time written down on paper.

Family

a woman carries her baby in front of a crooked house, as in the nursery rhyme
Touring Story Book Forest, a real life fairy tale kingdom. Here the kids got to explore Mother Goose hands on.

The final piece of our puzzle is the issue of removing your children from their extended family. This is another tough subject and one I’m also willing to say is not as easy as a lofty description of how glorious this life is.

When living the traveling life, your kids will likely not have as much access to their larger family as they would if you were living in the same small town that the rest of your siblings and parents are. That’s a pretty clean and clear fact.

I grew up surrounded by my cousins, my aunts and uncles, grandparents and even more extended family in abundance. And I truly loved it, I still think back on it very, very fondly. This is not possible with a migratory lifestyle.

Assuming that you and your partners family all live in the same town. It’s become vastly more common now for people to meet in distant cities and set up roots far away from one or both of their families. If that’s the type of family you’re in, the good news is that you’ll likely get to spend way more time with your loved ones, and your kids will too, than if you decided to remain stationary.

two boys walk through a desert landscape of buttes and plains
Hiking the Badlands National Park, just another day in the life.

We do an almost annual migration to Florida and Pennsylvania, where all of our kids various grandparents live, and typically spend a week to a month in each place. It provides plenty of time to get in, get close, and get gone if we want to, all the while knowing we can come back whenever we want.

We’ve also brought extended family even closer–my baby’s mama’s mama lives with us full-time on the road. That’s right, I live with my mother-in-law in close quarters while we travel.

I’m not saying it’s always harmonious, but I will tell you that I’ve come to love and appreciate her more than I ever would have otherwise. And so have the kids. She’s become a staple in all three of their lives, to the point that really I don’t think they could imagine life without her.

an eleven year old boy captains a pontoon boat on a large lake
Learning to captain a pontoon boat on Lake Superior.
a baby picks up moss in a forest
Discovering the qualities of nature hands on in Mt. Rainier National Park.
two toddlers in a massive pumpkin patch
Picking pumpkins in Bend, Oregon.

Just as our two youngest babies have never known a life outside of the road, they’ve never known a life without their “nanny.”

So while living on the road may mean less daily interaction with extended family, it can mean a much more sincere, enthusiastic bond when the time does come. We’ve even shown how you can bring some along with you (we’ve often wished that other grandparents would retire and start a caravan with us!) Hell, with Facetime and Skype these days, you can practically be in the same room with anyone in the United States at the push of a button.

There is nothing shameful about taking your kids on the road with you. It was considered quite normal a hundred years ago in America, five hundred years ago for Native Americans, a thousand years ago for gypsies in Europe. Humans have been a migratory sort ever since we began leaving Africa. It is in our nature, and if we’d spend a little less time questioning people who are living outside of the social norm today and a little more time wondering if the modern norm is really the way to go, we may find ourselves a happier, healthier, wiser people all around.end of article