How To Be a Family

When I heard that Dan Kois, Slate’s parenting editor and co-host of the parenting advice podcast “Mom and Dad Are Fighting,” had written a book, I assumed it would be about parenting, and it kinda is, sorta. Kois and his wife decided to take their two kids on a four-country tour over the course of a year as “a chance to control-alt-delete the life we’d trapped ourselves in,” one characterized by a disappointing squeeze play: not getting enough time together and then struggling to fight off screens and connect in what little they did. How To Be a Family is the resulting memoir-slash-travelogue. Like their trip, it’s glorious in parts but disappointingly uneven—and it just ends, without any life-altering insight. That doesn’t mean the endeavor lacks value, quite the contrary.

howtobeafamily

First, the good parts.

Kois is almost unerringly self-aware and unabashed about both his personal failings and structural ones from which his family benefits (e.g., “It didn’t escape my notice that we were avidly seeking international diversity after making a set of educational and lifestyle choices that had mostly eliminated diversity from our American lives”). That makes for plenty of refreshing and relatable mea culpas (e.g., “We paid our wonderful babysitter … hundreds of extra dollars,” to watch the kids during snow days, he writes, “just so we could do distracted, not-very-good work during the day and then yell at our children after she left”). 

He has a related knack for producing every-man imagery, evocative metaphors without the taint of writerly pretension: “The bays carved out of the land like bites from an apple,” he writes in describing New Zealand . There, Kois and his family saw hikers with infants in front-packs and toddlers in backpacks: “One poor bastard had one of each, both of them squealing and waving their arms about; he looked like a stormtrooper being brought down by rowdy Ewoks,” he writes. In Costa Rica they encountered “[b]ig fat flies, electric blue, that hover in front of your face like Snitches” and a “beautiful purple-and-blue butterfly with the same wingspan as a mass-market paperback.”

You can see in these descriptions the magically dry wit that Kois seems to have tucked away in his pocket, choosing to sprinkle it throughout his writing and IRL conversations like fairy dust. When it comes to physique, he says, “Dutch people like to credit the sneaky healthiness of their cuisine and all their bike riding; those of us who rode bikes around Holland for three months and did not lose any weight might also gently suggest there may be a genetic component.” And then there’s the time Kois deadpans, “Quiet reflection in nature is for Thoreau, because he is childless and dead.”

Packaged thusly, Kois delivers interesting, nuanced observations about parents in New Zealand fostering independence and the Dutch making consensus-based family decisions. He reports on “a public policy in New Zealand that had a concrete effect on the way parents parent. Personal-injury lawsuits are essentially nonexistent [thanks to] a government-run scheme that pays for any injury stemming from an accident, no matter whose fault it is.” And he delves into why it’s possible in the Netherlands for bikers to safely be “helmetless, unprotected from cars except by custom, respect, and the forethought that comes from [a driver] being able to think like a cyclist.”

Pieces of chapters read like thoroughly reported articles. Other chunks, most notably “The Dance Recital,” could stand alone as expertly crafted essays. But large parts are loose, and the book’s shifting style feels unsettling. The Contributions from Kois’s wife and girls didn’t do much for me, seeming more like page filler than anything else. The same thing goes for tangents that the editor in Kois must have known needed cutting. These weren’t the only aspects of How To Be a Family that felt schticky: both the captain’s log and the Cosmo-style “I tried it for a month” bits fell flat. And while some chapters worked others felt more like a first draft with excessive road marks, dicey pacing, and trouble discerning what details hold universal appeal.

I suspect it’s because Kois slam-dunked so many aspects of the book that I felt disappointed by the parts that air balled. But at the end of the day, we get a good deal of this guy, and for that How To Be a Family is worth reading:

Thank God for cards. One problem with spending time with your children, Alia and I have discovered in this year of spending time with our children, is that a lot of the stuff you can do with children is just awful…. [But then there’s a variation of the card game a$$hole.] I can’t think of another activity in which adults can play at the peak of their abilities and kids can still prevail. Limbo, I guess. Now, as a grown man, do I actually care whether I win or lose at cards with my loving family? Of course I do. I want to win. If I must lose, I at least want my wife to also lose. But I admit that the seductiveness of card-playing with my kids goes beyond the pleasure of ascending to kingship …. It has to do with my desire, so often thwarted these days, to look at them. Back when they were babies, we could look at them all the time. There were years of my life when I felt I did nothing but look at my children, afraid that if I looked away for even one second, they would be eaten by tigers. But now they disappear into screens and schools, behind closed doors, or out in the world. Even when they’re around, I find it difficult to cadge a good long look; it is the plight of the parent of tweens to desire nothing more than to look at his kids in peace and to be rebuffed most of the time by his kids saying, correctly, “Stop staring at me, that’s weird.” But around the table, playing cabbages and kings, they’re concerned with how to get rid of that solitary six or when to spring the triple fours. They don’t notice that I am drinking in the way their faces resemble their cousins’, the ways they express exasperation, their glee at unexpected windfalls…. the game that gets all four of us around the table and, briefly, off one another’s nerves.

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