By CRISTINA JANNEY
Nine months ago Dan Kois and his family left their life in a Washington, D.C., suburb to tour the world and experiment with different ways of being a family.
For the next three months, Dan, his wife, Alia Smith, and two daughters, Lyra and Harper, will live in a quiet neighborhood in Hays learning about family life in the Midwest.
Kois, an editor for the online magazine, Slate, and a contributor to New York Times magazine, and his family were feeling the pressure of suburban life and wondering if there were different parenting styles that could bring the family closer together.
“Living there was feeling a little off to us,” Kois said of Virginia. “We thought surely there were other ways we could be living our lives that would make us feel more connected to our kids, make us feel like we were raising the kids we would like to raise and having the kind of family life we would like to have, so we decided that we would try an experiment.
“The experiment was to travel around the world for a year and live in four different places and learn the most we could about how family life worked in each of those places,” he said.
The family selected New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica and Hays as places they would live for three months each to explore different types of family life.
Each of the locations was selected, because it represented a lifestyle and locale that was different from what the family was used to and frankly Kois said parenting styles that the Kois’ were just bad at.
Kois thought a look at family life would not be complete without a closer look at American family life. Kois grew up in Milwaukee, and although that life in a Midwest city is different from life in Hays, it also was very different from what his children were experiencing in Virginia.
“It seemed crazy to think about and write about different ways of being a parent and not think about the different ways there are to be an American parent — that our way of doing things on the east coast is not the only way to be a family in America,” he said. “So to explore a place that we could give ourselves a totally different life right here in America seemed really appealing and interesting.”
The Koises chose Hays because they are friends with playwright and Hays resident Catherine Trieschmann, who Dan knew from college.
The Koises were concerned about being able to break into the social world of a small town, and thought having someone here they knew might ease that transition. Dan said thus far that fear has been overblown.
“It just seems to be an entire town of people who seems to be devoted to being nice to us all of the time,” he said of Hays.
Harper, 10, who is in fifth-grade at O’Loughlin Elementary School and Lyra, who is in seventh grade at Hays Middle School, had mixed feelings about the adventure. They were excited about traveling and the prospect of getting their own YouTube channel to document their trip, but angry they had to leave home and friends behind.
“Those two emotions of being excited about the adventure and being annoyed about how difficult it could be — they have teetered on both of those emotions on the trip,” he said. “So there have been times it seems to me they have loved the places we have been and delighted in meeting new people and experiencing new things, and there definitely times we have just said, ‘God why can’t we just be back were we know how everything works and where all our friends are and things feel easy and not hard.'”
The family started their trip in New Zealand, where a family of non-outdoorsmen, enjoyed hiking and camping in the country’s spectacular national parks. They landed in a neighborhood with lots of children and families in a country that has been known to be very welcoming to newcomers.
“People were totally happy to meet strange, new people from the United States and immediately go out for a beer with them and ask them questions about Donald Trump,” he said.
Kois said parents in New Zealand do not keep track of their children every minute of the day. They are allowed to roam the neighborhoods freely.
“It reminded me of my childhood,” he said. “Letting my children roam without consequences, I really found refreshing.”
The Kois spent their next three months in Delft, Netherlands, which is north of Rotterdam.
Parents in the Netherlands use the polder method of parenting. Without the dam system in the Netherlands, the country would be underwater. The control of the water is a great matter of concern and negotiation. That spirit of negotiation carries over to the family dynamic. Children are encouraged to participate in family decisions and negotiate with and question their parents.
Kois said this type of parenting was a point with which he and his wife struggled.
“I found that I liked being an autocrat. I liked being in charge,” he said.
Like in New Zealand, the safe and secure environment in Delft allowed the Koises to give their daughters more independence and freedom. Transportation in the Netherlands is primary via bicycle. The girls’ new mobility led to more independence.
Kois said the family’s whole lives revolved around this new mode of transport. The family made more grocery trips, because they bought only what they could carry in a bicycle basket. Family outings were a bike trip to one of the local parks.
“It narrowed our world, but we were able to explore that world at our own pace,” he said.
Although the vast majority of people in the Netherlands also speak English, Intimate relationships and friendships are in Dutch, which Kois said made it very difficult for his family to break into social network of the community.
With the Koises move to Costa Rico, another language barrier arose. None of Koises were fluent in Spanish. The Koises were there over summer break, but the girls spent time in language classes.
Living in Costa Rica was not only a study of the traditional Costa Rica family structure, but also the structure of American ex-pats living in Costa Rica.
The life of the Koises peers in Costa Rico were revolved around the ocean.
“You swam in the ocean. You smelled the ocean. The weather was dictated by the ocean. Family activities were centered around the ocean,” he said.
Life in Costa Rico is very relaxed, and residents there have a deep appreciation of the environment and the natural world, which is embodied in the phrase Pura Vida.
Many Americans settle in Costa Rica because of its tropical setting, inexpensive cost of living and safe communities.
However, the country does not necessarily have all of the amenities the Koises were used to in Virginia. The electricity and the Internet access was often spotty. The water was not always drinkable and the mosquitoes were oppressive.
The children also witnessed a different standard of living and poverty among for some of Costa Rico’s citizens.
The Koises have only been Hays two weeks. Kois said he is reserving a judgment about Hays and its parenting style until he spends more time in the city.
“This feels more like home,” he said. “We know this will end in a few months and it is not as foreign as our time in Costa Rica.”
Lyra described the typical struggles of middle school life, but said she loved the Hays Public Library.
Harper excitedly talked about a recent trip to the Sternberg Museum of Natural History and getting to see its famed fish within a fish.
Kois’ book, “How to be a Family,” is set to be released in fall 2019. However, Kois said he hopes his family has gained something more than a book out of their year-long adventure.
“When our kids are adults and they are asked what their childhoods were like,” he said, “I feel quite certain this is the first thing they will say. I hope this has created an origin story for them.”