Admiring trees in California. (Jeff Schrum)

It’s the moment of truth for this high-mileage family. We’re flying home for a visit after 10 months living on the road. Doctors, dentists and various other professionals will be poking and prodding us to make sure we’re still roadworthy–an annual family safety inspection of sorts. Are the kids brushing and flossing enough, growing and developing as expected, and showing enough progress to pass the fourth and fifth grades? We’ll soon know.

As I prepare to see family and friends this week, it’s a good time to reflect on the past year and put some semi-cohesive thoughts together regarding our life-changing journey. They’ll no doubt be asking.

So how do you even quantify an experience like this? There is no gauge, no meter, nor standardized tests to prove its worth or quell skepticism. The kids are probably the best barometer. Are they happy? Do they enjoy traveling? Are they glad we did this, and do they want to continue?

I recently had an unsolicited conversation with my youngest about just this topic. He loves this opportunity and doesn’t want it to end. I can see with my own eyes that this has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for him, but it sure feels good to hear him say it, too.

So what have we accomplished as a family? How do I spin this for grandparents and friends, or even strangers who are reading this and contemplating such a crazy stunt themselves? Here’s what I have so far:

1. We are happier. We gave up a lot of luxuries to live on top of each other in an extremely small space. A growth experience or a total disaster: it really could have gone either way. Despite a new study that shows too much time with parents could actually be detrimental to kids’ happiness, I think our family-immersion experience has been a win. Consider the small gains, like eating more meals together, reliving happy moments from the trip, and daydreaming about upcoming destinations.

Of course we must work to sustain our positive feelings–to not take these moments for granted. In the first month on the road I had to pinch myself just about every day because I couldn’t believe we were actually doing this. By the third month, it still felt exciting but more and more like our new normal. Now in the tenth month, it has become a constant fight to appreciate the time we had rather than lament the upcoming end of the road. We must constantly remind ourselves to live in the moment.

2. We are learning stuff that really matters. We’ve crammed a lifetime’s worth of field trips into a single school year. Beyond what the boys learned in their studies and through the Junior Ranger programs at dozens of national parks and historic sites, they’ve learned how to make friends quickly–and how to maintain friendships from a distance. We’ve learned more about their interests and passions. For example, we never realized the full extent to which our oldest son loves history until we had to coax him out Andrew Jackson’s home in Tennessee, Minute Man National Historic Park in Massachusetts, and Manzanar National Historic Site in California. What’s more, the learning and development is 100 percent organic. Nothing about our road-schooling is forced or contrived, frozen, or made with artificial ingredients. We study astronomy in Dark Sky parks, learn about geology while hiking through slot canyons, and imagine history where it happened. Best of all, we (the parents) are right there learning with our boys. Nowadays we often discuss a moment in history or a natural wonder the way we would have talked about a movie or TV episode a year ago.

We haven’t limited our road-schooling to book learning. We’ve made new friends on the road from all walks of life, sought out unfamiliar experiences, and faced new challenges we would have otherwise avoided. Both kids have overcome their special challenges to embrace a lifestyle defined by constant change, make new friends, and open up in ways we dared not consider possible.

3. We got out of our parenting comfort zones. There is no place to stow life’s baggage in the trailer–no bedroom door to close, no rug under which to sweep a mess, and no closet large enough to hide one’s skeletons. In the life we put on hold to take this journey, the kids often saw a white-washed, social-media version of family dynamics. It wasn’t intentional, but I don’t think it helped them. I never thought about it until a friend recently shared a story. She noted that when her son failed at something he would become excessively angry. The pediatrician’s advice: he needs to see mom and dad make mistakes to learn how to react appropriately. Prepare a batch of cookies together, intentionally botch the recipe and model appropriate behavior, she advised, so he can learn resilience and self compassion.

Before this trip, the kids didn’t often watch us model reactions and emotions to disappointment. Living in 200 square feet, however, on top of each other 24-7, renders such simulations and contrived teaching moments totally unnecessary. They watch us mess up, make up, deal with, adjust to, agree-to-disagree with, apologize for, fume over, struggle with, laugh off, and get over stuff constantly. It’s not always comfortable or convenient, but it seems like a much more effective way to prepare them for life’s inevitable setbacks and disappointments than burning a batch of cookies. It also keeps us in line knowing someone is always watching.

I’m sure given more time and distance even greater insights and gains from our year-long travel experience will reveal themselves. In the meantime, though, I am happy with our progress as a family, gushingly proud of our little roadies, and excited and grateful for the time we have left.

Follow Schrum and his family at Up in the Airstream on Instagram.

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