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How A Three-Month Stay In Hays, Kansas, Helped One Family Become Happier and Stronger

Gary Scott
Dan Kois and his family in New Zealand.

Desperate for a better connection with his kids, writer and editor Dan Kois uprooted his family from their busy lives. Kois documents this journey in his book, "How To Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together.”

Before hitting the road, Kois said, his family was in "crisis." Though they lived under the same roof in Arlington, Virginia, everyone seemed to be living apart from one another.

“We were sort of all living our separate lives, on our separate screens, doing our separate activities,” Kois said.

A pipe dream becomes reality

By early 2017, they had fallen into the comfortable trap of predictable safety. So, they turned what had been a globe-trotting “pipe dream” into a reality. All sense of predictability changed when they left home.

"We were separating ourselves from all the support structures that we'd had before and depending on each other a lot more than we previously had," Kois said.

Credit Alia Smith
The two Kois daughters explore a beach in New Zealand.

Their first stop was New Zealand, followed by the Netherlands and then Costa Rica, staying for three months each in places that had scored relatively high on the UNESCO World Happiness survey.

"We wanted to do a hard reset on our life,” Kois said, “and see what happened if we went to a couple of different places and tried to live family life as they do there."

One American family tries life in the Heartland

Hays, Kansas, a town of around 20,000 people about a four-hour drive west of Kansas City, provided them with that opportunity. A family friend lived there, making it ideal for their final stop.

“Hays welcomed us with open arms,” Kois said.

Not only was Hays a place where Kois and his family could continue their experiment, it was also rife with opportunity. Because of its relatively small size, people could easily make their mark on the community by being the first to create something new.

“The Hays Symphony exists because people wanted there to be a symphony,” Kois said. “So they just said, ‘Fine, we’re starting a symphony.’”

From the Beltway to ‘Midwestern niceness’

Credit Alia Smith
Dan Kois

The family’s three-month stint in Kansas also gave them a chance to experience life in a community that was more conservative than where they’d been living in Virginia.

“It wasn’t like in Arlington where we could basically surround ourselves – almost entirely – with people who agreed with us,” Kois said.

In order for the family to make friends and connections within their new community, he said, they had to “get past it” when it came to political differences. For Kois, this manifested as an exploration of “Midwestern niceness.”

“The willingness not to talk about something and to assume the best of other people because you’re ‘nice’ can cloak a lot of other substantive and structural inequalities in a culture,” Kois said.

Ultimately, Kois said, the experience transformed his family. And he was the one who learned the most.

“It was about us - me particularly - figuring out how to be with my kids in a way that didn’t aggravate them and respected their choices and their desires.”

Dan Kois spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date. Listen to their entire conversation here.

Chelsea Engstrom is an intern at KCUR’s Up To Date.