Living Off the Grid With Kids

Yesterday I mentioned Daniel Suelo, and his caveman existence, as part of the weekly roundup. While scanning my list of daily reads on Thursday I happened upon a great follow up to Suelo’s story. It comes from a post at The Digerati Life about homesteading in the wilderness, and features The Long family living (almost) off the grid in New Zealand.

Robert Long walked away from medical school at the age of 24, rejecting a materialistic lifestyle and all its trappings, and sought to start a life completely unplugged from civilization. He and his wife discovered a remote area of New Zealand nestled between mountains and the sea. Here, they would live in a hut rent free in exchange for being caretakers of the surrounding area. That was 16 years ago.

Now the Long’s have two teenagers who have grown up in isolation. They have been home-schooled by their parents, and are far removed from the lifestyle most teenagers experience today. No MTV, iPods, laptop computers, and other goodies teens enjoy today. With the exception of a monthly plane drop of a few supplies, they live off the land, and animals around them.

A garden provides vegetables, and the ocean, a variety of sea life to eat. For entertainment, the family does have a radio where they can pick up New Zealand national public radio. The kids complete their studies minus laptops, and instead do research the old fashioned way – they read books (the video shows the kids working on homework with the help of an encyclopedia – remember those?).

newzealandhomesteading
Click image above to launch video

Critics of the Longs’ lifestyle show most concern for the welfare of the children. Admittedly, I had similar concerns while watching the video. Were the parents stifling opportunities for their children by raising them in such isolation? Or is it us who is exposing our children to harmful influences raising kids in a debt-driven, materialistic society? It’s an interesting debate.

I enjoyed the video because it was one of the first stories I have heard of someone successfully going off the grid with a full family. Often times we hear about the lone hermit, or even the occasional couple, who cash out and head for a life of simplicity. Rarely do we hear about family survival with small children.

I suppose the difficulties of raising kids is hard enough with the comforts we have today, but imagine doing it without any modern conveniences. My great-grandmother did it during the depression, raising a large family (nine kids) as did many in her generation. Her lifestyle was one of necessity, not the product of a voluntary rejection of the finer things. But today we’ve been spoiled by these modern conveniences, and in a way, we’ve become slaves to them.

How many of us, myself included, are working to pay for debts accumulated years ago for things we probably no longer enjoy, rarely spending time with our families while we eke out a miserable, corporate existence? I personally think there is more to life than accumulating wealth while climbing the corporate ladder. Perhaps we could all learn a little from families like the Longs.

What’s your take on this family’s lifestyle?

Comments

  1. I’m envious that they have made the choice to rid themselves of distractions. After many working years, I’m preparing my family for a similar retreat. Props to them!

  2. What he is doing is absolutely fine. The only three things people ever need are basic shelter, food and clothing and anything above that will not bring you any more happiness. You told about how they get the shelter and food part, but nothing about the clothing part. I mean you can make your own clothes from nature but any basic clothing as we know would give some happiness. I am not talking any fancy clothing but just normal clothing as we know.

    Good article brother. keep up the good work.

  3. I think that if more people listened to the values they hold most secretly dear, the choice to raise children “off the grid” might not be so shocking and taboo. I shudder to think what familial and societal rancor I might incur if I really listened to my instincts and got rid of the TV, the Internet, video games and the car! Fear of what others might think amounts to a kind of imprisonment, and I think sometimes that I am voluntarily handing my child over to a machine that eats creativity, individuality, contentment and self-sufficiency. Who’s at fault for these choices? Hmmm. I envy this family, too.

  4. You said, “I suppose the difficulties of raising kids is hard enough with the comforts we have today, but imagine doing it without any modern conveniences”…..

    I should think in their situation it would be much much easier and less stressful to raise those kids withOUT modern conveniences, than with the distractions of them. Their time is mostly their own, the kids are probably polite and helpful, and they are probably so busy with work and with enjoying that place that the word “boring” is never mentioned :)

    I know when raising my kids on the dairy farm, without TV, internet, ipods, etc, the kids were always busy and managed to have fun even when doing their farm chores and milking.

    100 years ago the NZ’s way of life would have seemed normal – it is the world that has changed away from normal in the past 100 years, and this family is returning to that old normalcy. After all, electricity is a modern invention, and the world got along fine without it for a long long time…and still can… of course, I wouldn’t be writing this without it, but you wouldn’t miss it either :)

    Hats off!

  5. Wow – thank you so much for sharing this. What an inspiring story. I love the attitude of the kids and can imagine them as future advocates for sustainability and natural living. Peace is a treasure that often escapes us as we live day to day. These people have the right idea.

  6. Good comment by Marcy. You have put a lot of deep inner meaning in simple words.
    People were able to raise happy and content children without the need of any modern comforts. Human evolution started 100,000 years ago and these modern comforts are only less than 100 years old.

    Time goes by so slowly huh….

  7. Even though I’ll never do this – it has no appeal – I still learned a ton from this post. I don’t really have to go to this extreme but it puts my lifestyle choices in perspective.

    I may not put rain barrels out to collect water (I’m in So Cal so it would take a very long time to collect enough to be meaningful) but I can take a 2 minute shower.

    I may not hunt for lunch or grow my own veggies, but I can make sure I don’t buy food only to throw it away.

    This article reminds me of that ….so thanks!

  8. I was raised in the country and derive comfort from those memories to this day. How I wish I could step outdoors into the freedom of isolation and clearly see the stars. Then again, I have hay fever, nasty allergic reactions to mosquito bites and a healthy fear of spiders and snakes. Pizza delivery, cell phone reception and snow plowed roads are not necessarily societal evils.

    Seriously though, being surrounded by forests, wildlife and agriculture is a great way to grow up. The only thing I’m concerned about for these kids is that they get a thorough education, regular social interaction with peers and enough exposure to technology to support their future careers. I’m not wild about homeschooling unless the parents do it extremely well.

  9. The thing that interests me is how they raised two kids without a community. Without support from other adults it is difficult to raise children. People throughout history have usually lived in groups. It takes a village.

  10. Yeah, the lack of community tips it over the edge into selfish and odd for me. It would be one thing if it were an off-the-grid community, but one family going it alone without access to proper medical care or outside contact for 28 years (16 of which were with children) isn’t so much abuse as bizarre.

    How exactly are these children supposed to function outside of their current surroundings when they have had pretty much no contact with anyone other than each other?

    Also, those monthly supply drops can’t be cheap, and I doubt selling animal pelts brings in very much cash, so I suspect, based on the backstory of father’s success, that there is family money that is in funding them. he hasn’t eschewed the modern world so much as he’s taken a permanent vacation from it.

    I don’t see his motives as particularly altruistic either. What exactly is he doing that benefits anyone but himself? No Impact Man (http://noimpactman.typepad.com/) was annoying, but at least he was acting for change on what he believed, not shutting himself off.

  11. You nailed it with the last two paragraphs of this article! They really drove the point home in my mind.

    I think it is great that these people are raising their children without exposing them to mass consumerism, living in a way which is in harmony with the world around them. It is a shame that these people are not more respected for their decision to live this way. Instead they are an anomoly, freaks, unfit parents.

    I’m willing to blame materialism for many of the worlds problems, today & in the past. Yes, great advancements in living standards have resulted due to materialism. Technology has made leaps and bounds as well directly as a result of consumerism (materialism). Yet, despite these advancements, we are unable to solve even our most basic problems; waste management, air pollution, water pollution, global warming, destruction of habitat…the list goes on.

    We are killing our world in pursuit (and disposal) of material goods. Yet it is the person who voluntarily rejects this way of life, choosing to live by their moral standards rather than those of the masses, who is the strange one.

    Being “green” is a fashion statement these days, nothing more than a feel good movement. Could it be a step in the right direction…I really don’t think so. Even those who proclaim they love the sea turtles never do anything aside from purchasing a t-shirt (consumerism).

    Sorry I went on a tangent, but we have such a long way to go…

  12. I agree that green is basically the new black, but holding this up as the gold standard for green is a fallacy. They are consuming, obviously less than your typical Western household, but they’re not exactly walking around in animal pelts or eating off hand-carved dishes. They’re also flying in goods, which raises the carbon footprint considerably.

  13. I’m not saying these people are the gold standard. I speak in general about people who chose to live a life not filled with materialism & consumerism. I don’t think we need to revert back to caveman times in order to live a sustainable existence. We should do our best to minimize our impact on the earth, be conscience of what we buy (and dispose) and live our lives by our values instead of those of others.

  14. This article brings to mind one of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard:

    “Things you own end up owning you.”

  15. “Critics of the Longs’ lifestyle show most concern for the welfare of the children.”

    The quote above would be incentive to join them! We live in a world where so many people are so sure they know how children should be raised. How cool would it be to actually be able to raise your kids just exactly and precisely the way you feel is right without someone looking over your shoulder telling you you’re messing them up? Heck, if that’s our intention I think the culture is doing it for us!

    OK, I’m done ranting. More critically, as idyllic as this lifestyle may seem, the fact is it requires living in an area where there are wide open spaces, resources for living (you couldn’t do this in the Sahara Desert or on an deserted island, Gilligans Island notwithstanding) and not a lot of people around to bother you.

    That increasingly is not the world we live in. Sooner or later you’ll be disposessed of your land and forced to move on. So now, not only are you off the grid, but you’re also a nomad. What do you do if a parent dies or the family is hit by a long term medical situation like cancer?Those situations are tough enough to deal with when your supported by civilization. Pre-civilization, people just died, families might dissappear, etc.

    Comfortably nestled in Civilization, it’s often easy to forget that we’re where we are today because previous generations ran away from that lifestyle and the hardships it included. I don’t think we can go back. Short term it would be therapeutic, but long term… I’ll pass!

  16. “The only three things people ever need are basic shelter, food and clothing and anything above that will not bring you any more happiness. ”

    This is wrong. After basic shelter, food, and clothing, the thing that research shows brings the most happiness is community — strong ties with friends and family.

    Like several others have pointed out the concern here is not the lack of “stuff” but the lack of people. Those mythical grandmothers who raised houses full of kids without any modern conveniences usually had the benefit of family, friends, neighbors.

    Our modern world is too cocooning and isolationist by far. You could argue that the trend is caused by all our technological toys or that the toys were invented because of the trend — chicken and egg. In any case, moving into the wilderness far away from everyone only solves half the issue.

  17. People only need basic needs to survive, but to be happy that is different for everyone. I wouldn’t be happy without medical care or friends or new knowledge. Do they get books from a library? I kind of wonder what they are learning and how up-to-date it is. I guess it doesn’t matter to them if they don’t have anything to compare it to. Hopefully they won’t have it too hard adapting socially as they get older. Sounds like the young girl might need to go to a college later on if she wants to be a researcher.

  18. It is a very interesting debate. Living, even for a short time, without all of these modern conveniences can be quite freeing. You’re absolutely right in pointing out that many of us are a slave to them. Especially with technology and gadgets. Taking time away may just be insurance for our sanity. Our lives are often cluttered with these things and it’s a nice respite to get away and learn of a simpler time. It may lead to some peace of mind. Imagine that.
    Jerry

  19. I grew up “off the grid” as did many of my friends. Remember those back-to-the-landers from the 1970s? Some of them had kids and stayed “back”.

    After an unmentionable disaster with baby chickens, my parents got “real” jobs, but we lived in an 1890s farmhouse without regular electricity. I remember when we got indoor running water, and my parents didn’t put in an indoor flush toilet until after I left for college.

    We went to public school, but that doesn’t guarantee proper socialization. See, for example: http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2009/07/very_off_topic_why_i_wont_be_a.php

    What people tend to forget is that life is hard without modern conveniences like clothes dryers, vaccuums, microwaves, freezers, and electric lights. You work hard because you have to – which is not necessarily a bad thing, but something to remember.

    Personally, I consider air conditioning a wonderful thing. ;)

  20. Yeah, you might be able to live that life if you never knew anything different, but to go back to nature after growing up with modern conveniences would be more than most of us could ever stand.

  21. After reading the thread its amazing how people are so concerned about the kids. You know I get so sick of that. If you have kids raise them the way you see fit, if you don’t then you don’t have a clue, sorry you don’t.

    Now I personally lived out in the country myself for a few years it was harder. More to mow. longer drives for everything. I had the modern conveniences, electricity, DSL (slow), Heat/AC. Even tried raising a few Chickens. Moved back to a small city (20K-30K). Each has their pluses and minuses. But more rural is more difficult. You generally get more privacy etc…

  22. Does it really take a village to raise a child?

    During the pioneer era, settler families were very isolated and often there were miles between farms. The families tended to be pretty large (no family planning tools), and the tech wasn’t exactly high. I’m thinking of a “Little House On The Prairie” situation, minus most of the town scenes.

    The kids from that era seemed to do OK provided the parents were in fact willing and able to teach. Judging by Laura Ingalls’ writing and that of her daughter, even the women (who frequently had fewer educational opportunities than the men) were far from illiterate or ignorant.

    In many parts of the USA and Canada, many rural families are still physically isolated especially in the far North. This hasn’t automatically ruined those children. Yet in the not-too-distant past it was fashionable to forcibly take children from rural parents and raise them in residential schools.

  23. It isn’t likely that many early settlers truly did it alone. For most of human existence it was conventional wisdom that living alone lowered the chances of survival. We have a natural orientiontion toward pack/herd/community behavior. I suspect that much of the go-it-alone attitude is an over romanticized notion peculiar to the modern era where people desperately want to escape hyper-civilization and urbanism.

    In the pioneer/westward expansion days, not only did families not live alone, but they didn’t travel alone either. They may have had their own piece of ground, but it wouldn’t have been terribly far from other families or from a local community. Yes there may have been well documented cases of families truly living alone, but that probably was the exception, not the rule. Few people prior to 1900 would have chosen isolation unless there was absolutely no choice, ie a fugative from the law.

    We seem to have that luxury of even imagining such an existence today, though as accustomed as we are to modern conveniences, it probably would be quite a bit harder for us, not the least of which because we’re so far removed from basic survival skills.

  24. I second Kevin.

    Squeaky, the reason that Laura Ingalls Wilder is so remarkable is her literacy. Illiteracy rates before the turn of the 20th century were fairly high. Yes, families were large, but they were also combined into close multigenerational multifamily units, much like the Amish today.

    Remember, distances were different in those days – 3 miles (the typical there-and-back-in-a-day walking distance) is equivalent to about 500 miles today, because that’s the typical day’s drive in an automobile.

    Socialization requirements were different as well. Introverts were much more valued–the “strong, silent type” — as opposed to the current emphasis on “social skills” and extroversion. Ironically enough, the ability to keep your mouth shut is highly valued when you work long-term in small groups, as opposed to today’s fragmented society.

  25. There’s a part of me that admires this family for their gutsy approach. (Living without basics is stressful, if you’ve had them before, and takes a lot of time/energy.)

    It’s a comment on our society that you do have to seemingly go to extremes to not “succumb” to consumerism, peer influence, etc. in your daily life. Personally, I think families pay a price for this extreme of “off the grid.” I’d seriously like to see real scientific studies on how it affects their kids ability to socialize, interact, etc. not just anecdotal speculation.

    I’ve known plenty of folks who live a very “simple” life and don’t watch tv, limit their kids “indoor” computer/video game time and do not let their kids dictate expensive purchases (But mom, we HAVE to have…fill in the blank, be it designer sneakers or expensive toys.) They also don’t allow their kids to join every sport, engage in every activity. It’s very selective. Family time (Which is NOT the time spent in cars, shutteling kids around to one activity or another) is a priority. This works well for some, not so well for others.

    As their kids grow and socialize more and more, it is tougher and tougher because the kids see the difference in how they are living versus their friends. This often causes a lot of friction because kids for the most part want to be like their friends. And kids today are ruthless in judging others who do not act, think like them. it’s not easy being your own person as a teenager.

    Even the most firmly convinced of their ideals parents have huge difficulties with teenagers who can’t enjoy, even to a limited extent, the lifestyles of their friends, and this applies to all socio-economic levels, not just the rich or well off.

    Simplicity is a concept you learn, some earlier, some later, some not at all. When it’s imposed on you, it can be really problematic (as in when one partner wants it and one does not…)

    I think it does take a village to connect and integrate humans into the world around them. Yea, the whole socializing and socialization bit can get out of hand and cause some grief, but in the world, you really need to understand how people “work” and act with each other. Otherwise, you are at a disadvantage in how you interact with others.

    I also think living off the grid is probably far more difficult if there is only one child versus a few, who can play and learn from each other.

    But, good or bad, parents have to do what they believe is right. I just hope they make thoughtful choices that take into account the downsides, as those are also a part of the decision for an “alternate” lifestyle.

  26. @Courtney,

    I’m not sure I agree with you on the equivalence of distance in the modern era. I don’t believe 3 miles is such a big deal in the kind of terrain that covers most of the USA. It’s a comfortable distance to run for exercise, and it’s shorter than a one-way trip to the grocery store for me, and the route is about half paved and half dirt. This is not the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon.

    I do all my grocery shopping on foot, and I go at least once a week for dairy, kitty litter, and such. The dirt part is easier on my knees compared to pavement especially if I’m carrying a load. But I still seldom break a sweat doing it, and I’m one of those out-of-shape overweight people!

    Comparing my weekly stroll to the grocery store (which requires an investment of maybe two hours if I dawdle in the store), to a 500 mile car trek, which at an average speed of 75 miles per hour would take 6 hours 40 minutes and require full alertness to avoid a car accident, just doesn’t seem realistic to me.

  27. As a public school teacher who has taught students who are “socialized” and those who were homescooled, I can unequivocably argue for homeschooling. How genuine an interaction is the public school system? All people of the exact same age in the same classes together? Self-segregation by cliches in the lunchrooms? Hardly real world “socialization,” unless you of course only hang out with people your exact age group. Is it better to “socialize” them to hypersexualization to the point where the average age of first time sexual encounter is around thirteen years? Teen binge drinking on the rise? I don’t worry for these off the grid children at all. I worry for the rest of them.

  28. @ Squeaky Re: Distance

    What I said was that 3 miles then was about 500 now.

    I actually didn’t come up with this by myself.

    In a study of distances traveled by populations in various eras, most medieval peasants traveled no further than 3 miles from their homes, on average, in their entire lives. They were walking on foot, laden with provisions for their journey, not on good roads – most were the equivalent of goat paths. Modern roads and accompanying infrastructure are more uncommon throughout history than one would think. See also Zvi Razi’s Medieval society and the manor court.

    For example, I used to live 1.75 miles (about 2.5k) up a dirt road. No problem, right? Except that walking home after the bus dropped us off was nearly impossible because there were two hills to go over, and 2 knee-deep creeks to cross, and about a tenth of a mile where you traveled through the creek bed. The creeks were commonly used for travel because at least they were relatively flat, and free of vegetation. You might read Follow The River by James Alexander Thom for more details about this.

    Barring major moves or travel, most modern, middle-class Americans will travel no further than 1000 miles in a day (500 miles there and 500 miles back), because that’s the average distance you can travel in a day in a car. And we are a sedentary, car loving nation.

  29. Penny Copperwire (32)–A couple of years back a Wash DC psychologist who studies such things said pretty much the same things you’re saying. She said that schools create the perfect little peer groups, segregated based on age, and forceably homogenized to a degree they’ll never see in adult life. Her argument was that this very arrangement, accepted without question that it is, generates a great deal of the problems seen in schools.

    But to get back to the topic at hand, it probably is best for all of us to make some attempt at incorporating some of the principals of “living off the grid” within the context of modern life. Few of us have the willingness or ability to go back to a pure live-off-the-land existence but there are components that are desireable, such as detaching ourselves from the media and the popculture to a large degree, spending more time with family and friends, perhaps homeschooling our kids and in general emphasizing self-reliance. We don’t need to live in the wilderness to do any of these things, but maybe we can make some effort to incorporate the best of both worlds into our own.

  30. Have friends in Alaska? Many of them live off the grid and isolated. Mine are a 2 hr boat trip from anywhere/anyone, with only one summer home anywhere nearby. Most of the time they have the place completely all to themselves. Have to keep shoveling snow off the boat in winter in case of emergency, or get a plane to fly in and land on the bay.

    They have diesel that the haul on the boat for the generator, run sparingly, and gas, also hauled in by boat, and no electric. The plane drops a bundle once a month in the winter time. There are a lot of folks doing the same thing there, and in other places, so it is not as uncommon as one might think.

    Here in NW coastal Oregon, we often times go 3-4 days without electric in the winter, stretching to 8 days without 2 winters ago. Cell phones were out for 10 days, and only local landline calls could be made for 10 days. With a wood stove, for heat, hot water, and cooking, all I worried about was the freezer. It was cozy, and the family all gathered at my house cuz they knew Mom (me) would have a great stew going on the woodstove :) Since then I have been trying to can more and freeze less to prevent a major loss of meat.

  31. I think the goal should be sustainability – not necessarily being grid free. It should be our goal rather than materialism/consumerism. That being said, life without electricity or power is tough. I much prefer air conditioning and computers to not. I’m not ready to go back to the 1890′s – but I do think we didn’t plan ahead to see where our consumer driven lifestyles were going to get us. Every house in the US should be able to sell electricity to the grid, every house in America should be recycling their garbage, every house in America should be part of an intentional community that works together for the common good. Our #1 goal should have always been sustainability – and then we would be flying high today – instead, we are having to dig ourselves out of a big hole – and we’re not doing very well at that.

    • Agree – but sometimes it is a matter of money – and affordability of the off-grid systems.
      I have a perfect roof for solar – but, my electric bill only runs $35 – $50 even in the winter in Oregon – so at approx $500/yr total for electric bill, how would I ever financially justify putting in an expensive solar system? Just not feasible.

      For our community however, we have put in a digester to produce electricity from methane and from cow manure…. and this being Moo-town, we have LOTS of cow manure and the project is working well!

  32. Just found this site.
    I live in new zealand,have 2 kids and live off the grid also.
    I have read roberts book,living off the grid is not that hard really.You have to be organised.Really organised.You cant run out of wood as this life for us,we cook,hot water,heat the house.Your day revolves around the fire really.
    I dont have solar,its all very basic.
    Kids take to this way of life very well,they become creative and just beautiful human beings.They learn where your food comes from and learn how to get it.
    The amazing thing about robert is the remote area where is lives.I have been through there,if you have an accident you are buggered.The years he spent he there on is own must have been extreme.The beauty of that country with the complete isolation,That I could not do.
    Grow your food,live with in your means,remove your non-essentials.That is the future of the world,watch your kids grow with passion and love.
    Take care.

  33. We’re off-grid in NZ too, but fully interact with the world – one full-time employed.
    It’s all about sustainability, as some one said up there, but you can’t be sustainable hooked to a coal-fired power station.
    We once spent a year cruising with two kids (10 and 12 at the time) in a boat with sitting headroom only, one 20-watt solar panel and one small car battery.
    It was, by consent 10 years later, the best year we all ever had.
    Most people don’t live because they’re too scared.

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