How Do Children Adapt to Change?
When we were going back and forth about living on a remote island for year, the biggest question was, “How will Marcus and Nora adapt?”
I thought often about a haunting conversation with a stranger many years ago, pre-children. Kristin and I sat next to a man at a bar in Saugatuck, Michigan. The man told us about his family with two small children sailing around the world for several years. We were prepared to be enthralled with stories of strange encounters, exotic places, and how the children matured by learning self-reliance and diversity of the world. But that man didn’t talk about those things. He talked about how the experience affected his children later. One child thrived and went on to be a successful and happy adult, while the other child didn’t do that well. Even though he didn’t flatly say “I wrecked my child’s life,” guilt and regret were unmistakable.
How would putting your children in a totally different environment for a year affect them? How would they cope going there, and coming back? It’s very hard to get good data about this sort of thing from people who’ve done it before, precisely because nobody would admit they wrecked their children’s lives. Really, is there a more painful, more devastating admission? That man in Saugatuck is the only person I’ve ever met who openly admitted that his indulgence hurt his children. Probably because he knew we’d never see him again.
But did that second child turn out badly solely because of the years spent on a sailboat? People are born with a set of immutable traits that cannot be changed by experience — we know this from science. Maybe that man shouldn’t feel any guilt: How can he be so sure that his child wouldn’t turn out badly even if he did all the safe, conventional things?
What is poignant about that encounter is this: It’s hard to feel guilt and regret when you do the safe, conventional things: pre-school, soccer, piano lessons, play dates in the park, good public school, vacationing in Europe, etc., but if you drag your children sailing around the world, or take them to live on a remote island, you become unequivocally accountable for how your children turn out, whether it’s your fault or not.
We made our decision because Marcus and Nora both tend to be absorbed in the present. They rarely say they want to be somewhere else, wherever they are. Marcus likes to socialize and think everyone is his friend, so we weren’t worried about him at all. Nora is more attached to specific people, so we were more worried about her missing her friends. But we thought she’d cope. And we rationalized that, being apart from people you care about is a fact of life, and it’s okay for her to experience it for a year.
The kids have been here for exactly one month, and they seem to be doing fine. We don’t detect any big differences in their behavior.
We won’t know how they turn out until we’re pretty old. And we’ll never know for certain if this year in Rødøy will have affected them positively, or negatively. But, one way or another, as I said, we’re now a lot more accountable then we were before.