The problem with cruising kids and socialization


“But what about socialization?” People unfamiliar but curious about cruising lifestyle often ask this about our children. We’ve done a few presentations about our travels during our first month back in the USA, and can almost guarantee the question of our kids’ socialization will come up in the Q&A afterwards.

Tucked into comfortable chairs on a friend’s porch last week, we compared notes on our two families’ cruising experiences. The Reys have alternated cruising their classic Huckins, Cortado, with travels to Europe—building worldschooling experiences for their kids while staying close to Tony’s work. A dozen yards away, our collective tribe of six kids aged 11 to 17 laughed over a Harry Potter trivia game before abandoning the porch to play basketball in the driveway. Listening to them shoot hoops by headlights in the fading light, these kids easily interacted across a wide age range, weren’t phased by gender, and were not reticent to engage adults (or other kids more than a couple of years apart in age). It’s one example, but it’s typical, and seems to me they’re pretty well socialized.


The only problem with cruising kids and socialization is that the myth they will be inadequately socialized persists.

Playing “horsies” on the bow with Zada: Mexico, 2009

By flickering candlelight, we muddled over the subject of socialization. Lynne & Tony’s response is one of my favorites, too. They like to return a different question: “How did you like junior high school? What about high school?” for most of us, those weren’t overwhelmingly positive social experiences, except maybe with rose-tinted hindsight. Why not just skip over a whole pile of angst while raising and educating kids who are self-confident and secure?

I like to flip this question another way, too. Why is it presumed better socialization to put a couple of dozen kids the same age into a classroom with a single adult? Does a narrow band of peer-dominated socialization provide optimal social growth? I don’t think so, and research agrees.

The question generally comes from unaware curiosity. I suspect we are imagined off in the middle of nowhere, alone in our travels, interacting overwhelmingly just within our family unit. It’s sometimes true, but it’s the exception. Most of our time is spent “somewhere,” among the company of other cruising families on an extended field trip. Our kids have to work out conflicts, and appreciate the value of friendships. They more frequently face the social challenge to make new friends. They readily engage others across age and gender, and their communication benefits from routinely socializing with adults. Everyday life informs them about the “real world.”

cruising kids gather for a group sketching session – Malaysia, 2014

It does take work to place yourself in the company of other kid boats. On a Facebook forum for cruising families recently, one parent wondered why, after months in the popular cruising grounds of the Bahamas, they did not encounter a single cruising family. As newbie cruisers, this family didn’t realize you can’t expect it to happen organically: it takes some effort, some advance research and contacts. And then, you have to be flexible in your plans. (How to do this another story, and a section of Voyaging with Kids is devoted to the topic.)

Rough housing on a lawn in Nantucket: July, 2016

Being solo is fine for a while—months, even. But it can be tough over time, especially for singleton kids. It’s changed our routing plans many times, in big and small ways. We’ve seen the need for their child to be among a larger peer group push families to stop cruising altogether. I’m sure the fact our kids have each other as peers and playmates has made our stretches away from other cruisers easier.

Kids jetting off on adventures! Comoros, 2015

In fact, there are a lot of other cruising families “out there,” and our kids get to hang out with other kids most of the time. I expect it to be harder the next few years, because older boat kids are less common: the sweet spot seems to be from around 6 to 12. (I’m still amazed that we managed to be around a more than a dozen of tween and teen cruisers during our Indian Ocean crossing year!)  It will take effort to find and connect with other kids, unless we make the tradeoff to go our own way.

Kids from three boats prep a foraged dinner: Indian Ocean, 2015

This paints a rosy picture. Socialization is more multidimensional, and about individual personalities as well as environment. But our kids are growing as social beings in a very different way than their peers at home. We have to be open with them about these differences, so they don’t expect seamless interactions now, or transitions later. They are largely outsiders to mainstream culture. They don’t know the names of the latest celebrity newsmakers, musical hits, or fashion trends. But for the most part, it’s because they don’t care: they’re not in a bubble, and they can find these things online, and choose what’s important to them to follow.

Boat kids e.Exploring WWII wrecks: Rabaul, PNG, 2012
Boat kids e.Exploring WWII wrecks: Rabaul, PNG, 2012

It’s intimidating to make the leap to raise children differently, and we’ve gone WAY off the path of the norm. Back on Lynne & Tony’s porch, I think about hearing the “what about socialization?” question, and how it makes my mama bear hackles come up, ready to defend my cubs. I have to remember, it’s not negative judgment—just a lack of understanding. Our differently socialized kids are doing fine, thank you.

Making an impression at the Seychelles Yacht Club
Making an impression at the Seychelles Yacht Club, 2015

23 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting this. I find that boat kids learn to be social with a variety of ages, which makes them more versatile than the “average American child”. Our oldest who is now 13 can play with younger kids one minute and then hang out with the adults the next. A pretty cool skill to have in my opinion 🙂 Hopefully this keeps true the next few years!

    1. One of the really nice benefits for sure. I love how easily they slide across ages. That said, when our girls know there’s goign to be someone “their age,” we usually get high-fives. But their definition of someone around the same age is STILL a spread of about +/- 3 years!

  2. Hi Behan,
    As I said to you before and I’ll happily mention it here as well…..My observations of your kids, when both Samantha and I had the opportunity to meet them, was how approachable, friendly and centered they were, able to hold a conversation with both adults and peers. No surprise however as I anticipated that their real life education, immersed in many different customs and cultures would lead them to be incredibly well rounded (As with anyone). Not being socialized? A lot of parents can/should take a page from your book (Literally)

  3. Behan,
    This is a nice supplemental update to the book and to your interview with Delos. I actually had our kids watch Brady’s interview of your kids with me the other day. Our kids were fascinated and intrigued by your kids, especially by the coincidence of your kids having the same age differential as ours, although we’re about seven years behind you. Though we’re still a few years away from our planned departure, the kids seem to be warming to the idea, in no small part to exposing them to your experience as well as to those of other cruising/live-aboard/travel families, e.g. Windtraveler and SV Necesse.

    As always, thank you for sharing. Look forward to talking to you in a couple of weeks.

    1. Thanks Josh. It is interesting about the age parallel with the kids! Jamie and I are looking forward to talking too.

  4. Thank you for this. Not because I need to be reassured your children are well socialized but because it’s another glimpse in the richness of their lives. This question is commonly asked of dirtdwelling parents who homeschool. I am very grateful you have chosen this way of raising your children. I meet cruising and homeschooled children often, and it’s usually a great joy, that they easily engage me, share their experiences and are filled with questions and respect. But most of all, I simply enjoy their company. I enjoy their confidence and joy. It gives me hope for a better world.

  5. You rock, Behan! Just as I am stressing about this myself as I have a 13yr old son on board and we haven’t met a kid boat since PV and we are stuck in Costa Del Sol, El Salvador for the rainy season, you come out with these words of wisdom. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I know we are on the right track, just needed some assurance. We will put extra effort into finding teen boat a as we head south to Panama in the fall…..

    1. Teresa, glad I can help. It is harder with teens for sure. Are you connected with any kid boats up in MX? The folks spending the hurricane season up there may know of a teen boat headed your way in the fall. Fingers crossed!!

  6. Well said Behan. We are always worried about the social life of our kids but having 3 definitely helps. My kids are great at putting themselves out there to form new friendships but it’s pretty funny when they approach school kids in a public setting, they just lack the confidence and the know how of introducing themselves to strangers. “Socialized” school kids form a bubble and I don’t think that’s healthy.

    1. I think being concerned/aware helps… you look for opportunities for your kids. And then, they have each other, too! Bubble is the perfect word. It is a thin wall holding together…what, really? Fear of the unknown?

  7. Hi Behan,

    I see the “problem” in a different way from most people who raise the question. The problem is not with the social deficiencies of kids raised as citizens of the world, but rather with kids socialized by advertising media and interaction with a narrow group of peers. Learning the power relationships and consumerist values of their peers may make for a “successful” career in business law, or politics, but it is unlikely to create the type of human being who understands and contributes to the health of the world.

    Socialization into any closed minded society, be it a peasant village in Italy, a Valley Girl cliche SoCal, or a prep school in New England is a deadening experience, and one which cruising kids are fortunate to miss!

  8. Love it! Just looking at those beautiful pics says it all… As a mama who’s brought her cubs back to a more traditional life from world schooling I see some advantages but socialisation isn’t one of them although making the switch back came with challenges of having to re enter a narrow peer groups who had become age gender and fashion concious!!! We still have folks say how amazed they are that our kids have ‘coped’ so well with what they missed!!! Ha!!! IKeep enjoying – i’m a little envious – we’d still love to catch up with you all one day somewhere in the world!

    1. Thanks for chiming in Mo. The kids develop good skills on both sides… but the perspective from folks who only know one angle can be, well, interesting! Here’s to crossing paths someday.

  9. We face similar questions often, especially when traveling in English speaking countries. We are currently in the town in Australia where I was an exchange student 30 years ago. Our kids came with us to the Rotary Club meeting because I was the guest speaker. Someone asked them a similar question about socialization, and our 8 year old said, “Well, as the youngest person at this meeting, I would like to say this is a great learning experience. I love meetings!” The room roared with laughter but also learned a lot from her comment. It is the little things that happen every day that make them not just socialized but well rounded members of the communities we spend time in and I am grateful for the every day and the momentous.

    1. Love your perspective as usual, Colleen! A lot of it really is about the opportunities for ‘real life’ exposure, which is something ALL kids–not just cruising or full-time traveling kids–could be exposed to. They way we live just makes it a more organic part of everyday life.

  10. It’s been great fun to read these posts. My husband and I and our three children are sailors. In a few years we’ll also begin a cruising voyage. We live on an unconnected Maine island and so we also don’t have children who are savvy to the trends or contemporary hits. There is only peace with lifestyle choices when you let go of comparing to what other people are experiencing (or not experiencing as may be the case). We’ve lived in so many countries abroad and only returned to the U.S. a year after our third, a daughter, was born. We don’t over–romanticize living abroad—or anywhere—but it seems from your blog entries that sailing is the best way to experience a country without the burocratic mess of having a phone line installed (Italy/Germany) or waiting for residency visas to be approved. I think we’ll appreciate the culture of moving more freely between countries while still having a permanent dwelling. Thanks for your continued sharing!

    1. oh, we get our share of crazy bureaucracy, too- they’re just different (like when it takes four days to check into a country, vs. walzing through lines in an airport). but yeah, it IS an amazing and remarkable thing to be able to carry our homes like turtles from one country to the next! it makes so much of the way we live easier. #respect for the full-time land traveling families, who just have a few bags – that’s hard core. Your Maine island sounds amazing! I wish we could have gotten to Maine this year! Good luck with your voyaging plans.

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