Daniela Weil

In Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed one Family’s Life Forever, John Marshall brings the reader along on his family's six-month volunteering vacation. With two teenage kids who struggled to be connected to the world beyond their electronic devices, a 20-year marriage in urgent need of a rebirth, and a desire to be of service, the Marshalls set off to work in some of the most remote places on earth.

At the time you embarked on your journey, you had two teenagers: a 17-year-old son (Logan) and a 14-year-old daughter (Jackson). What was their reaction when you told them they would be leaving their school, friends and comfortable life to travel with mom and dad for six months to go work for free in Third World countries?
My son was into it. He was excited by the possibility. But my daughter Jackson was a harder sell. "Freshman year is kind of a big deal," she told me. But she came around. It was really an amazing chance to unplug them both and allow them to look up from cell phones or computers and see the world. It was also a great chance for us to spend time as a family. Now that they're off to college, I cherish our time on the trip even more.

Logan and Jackson Marshall in a classroom in Thailand.

 

Along your journey, you worked with wild animals in Costa Rica, muscled through organic farms in New Zealand, taught English in a remote village in Thailand, worked with orphans in India and helped in a Buddhist school in the Himalayas. Was there a part of the trip that you found most meaningful for your family?
Each stop had its own lesson to teach. At our first stop in Costa Rica, our kids got chewed out for not working hard enough and that really motivated them to try harder for the rest of the trip. But I think the orphanage in India was the most transformative. Certainly it was for me. Volunteering in the developing world is a jolt of reality. It's easy to sit at home and talk about the poor, to be sad in a general sense about world hunger or global poverty. But when I actually met real people who are poor and hungry . . . they were not what I was imagining. That was certainly true for orphaned children. Before leaving home, I thought of them as some general, faceless mass of regrettable humanity. But when I got to know them, one on one, as children, it's been impossible for me to return home and live as if they do not exist.

When you were at the orphanage in India, you connected with a 13-year-old boy named Job. His name was very symbolic of what he’d been through, and the faith he had. Can you explain why he was so important to you and what you learned from him?
For whatever reason two people connect, Job and I loved each other. He started as a funny, over-acting joker, acting as my bodyguard, giving up his seat whenever I entered the room, fanning me if the air was hot. But this was just his way of saying how much he liked me. I'm now his sponsor at the orphanage, and we're in touch all the time. But during our trip, Job symbolized to me the real power of volunteering. By traveling, by serving, we connect with people we would otherwise never meet. Just by showing up. Just by trying. If you asked Job who gave more, he would say that Uncle John did. That's what he called me. If you asked me, I would say that Job did. And that's the beauty of service. Everyone feels like they're getting a lot more than they're giving. It's the perfect exchange.

Which part of the trip had the most effect on your son?
I think Thailand was Logan's favorite. He was a little shy going into this trip. But in Thailand, he really came into his own. It didn't hurt that he was adored by the girls at the school where we were teaching. No kidding, they shrieked like he was a pop star at times, asking him for autographs, wanting to pose with him for pictures. Our daughter Jackson was also adored by the Thai boys, but Thailand was Logan's moment to shine. He taught his own English classes at just 17, made lots of friends, had a blast. It was fun to watch.

The Marshall family on Mt. Fyfe in New Zealand.

 

I find that a lot of teenagers in the United States suffer from lack of confidence, despite their parents spending their whole childhood telling them how special and wonderful they are. Do you see this lack of confidence in kids in other cultures? What part of the trip taught your kids most about confidence?
Yes and no. Some countries are extremely humble as a cultural norm. In Ladakh, in the north of India, we stayed in a Buddhist community and, as a rule, they were extremely soft spoken and modest. The children we met in rural Thailand were also quite shy at times. As for Western children, I feel we don't ask enough of them and perhaps their lack of confidence comes from never having really been challenged. On the road, our kids needed to work, and they really stepped up. On farms in New Zealand, they worked for three to five hours a day, which they rarely did at home. They taught their own English classes, three classes a day, five days a week. They worked alongside the orphans in the orphanage laundry and kitchen, which was a big, constant job. It was all hard, demanding work, but they did it. And now they know they can do it. Confidence comes from experience that pushes you beyond what you thought you were capable of—not from empty affirmations by well-meaning parents. Yes, you're special and wonderful. Now go clean out the anteater cage.

I have witnessed relationships between girls being very complex and difficult here. Was there something about your daughter’s experiences in the trip that may have helped her socially when she returned?
I think being a girl in America is a tough job. It's hard all over the world, but the U.S. has its own brand of teen challenges. Before she went on the trip, Jackson was a typical teenager. She loved her phone and her Facebook page, and she saw herself as the center of the world, which is pretty normal. But on the trip, she began to focus out and realize that other people had much bigger problems than she did. She also made friends with girls her age who were orphaned at birth or extremely poor, and this has a power to put the materialism and our celebrity-obsessed culture in a new perspective.

Her friends are still very important to her and she still loves her phone, but she's much less concerned by "First World" problems, as she says.

How do you think this trip changed you and your wife as parents?
Parents don't often get the chance to see their children's best selves. We hear about it from other parents, how well they behaved at a friend’s house or at school. But on our trip, we got to see it every day. When they didn't think we were watching, we'd see them reading to a child at the orphanage, or playing with a group of younger children at the Thai school. Working hard, being kind. I don't think the trip changed my wife and me as parents. If anything, it just made us feel that our kids would be just fine when they left home, which is all we've ever tried to give them.

John Marshall with Sweetie

 

I was really touched when you asked a teenage girl in the Himalayas what she was most grateful for and she answered without hesitation, “I am most grateful for my beloved parents. They provide me with all that I have and they are like precious jewels I have been given but do not deserve.” What is it that we’re getting wrong as parents that our kids would NEVER say this about us here in America?
In American culture, we glorify youth. Children have all the answers. It's like the Bart Simpson-ification of our country. Like Homer, parents are idiots. Children are the cool ones. But other countries don't pump this message down their children's throats. Parents are revered, respected. And really, why shouldn't they be? It really struck me on the trip. Anyone who is a parent and tries to raise their children with love, sacrifices on a dozen simultaneous levels. And yet every cultural message our kids hear is that we parents are fools. When you meet children who love their parents as "precious jewels," it's not hard to see that they have something to teach us.

You describe an encounter in Tibet with a poor boy on the street. He felt the need to give you something, though he had nothing. He pulled out a half-eaten filthy fruit from his pocket, and insisted that you take it. What did that moment mean to you?
This was in the tiny village of Stok that is like a time capsule for rural Tibet. The people make their own clothes, farm the land, live as a community. It's a very simple way of life, but they survive by sharing with one another. Most of the time, when children approach you on the street, they are begging. But this boy and his two friends saw me and, true to their upbringing, wanted to give me something. I thought they were begging, but they weren't. And when I saw how happy they were to give me the only things they had—a few dirty apricots and a half eaten apple—it was a great lesson in the joy that can come from giving.

What would you say to parents like me, who have a secret desire to up and leave for a year of “voluntourism” but feel like it would be impossible?
It's not impossible, Daniela! Really, if we can do it, so can you. We were not rich and bored. I didn't have a book deal before we left. We took out a home equity loan to make it happen. The trick is to decide to do it. Not dream of it or desire it but make a commitment to get out the door. For people who are interested, I have a section at the back of the book that spells out how much we paid and exactly what we did. If that helps anyone make their dream of family volunteer travel come true, I will be extremely honored. For anyone who does go, I encourage you to go with a learner's mind and a sense of humility. You will not change the world. It's the world that will change you.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Marshall's book.

Daniela Weil was born and raised in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and now lives in Houston with her daughter Lucy. Trained as a whale biologist, Weil is also a writer and illustrator whose work includes both children’s books and scientific illustrations. She is the creator of the web comic The World According to Lucy, which chronicles the experiences of an introverted adoptive mom parenting the fearless, free-spirited Lucy.

In Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed one Family’s Life Forever, John Marshall brings the reader along on his family's six-month volunteering vacation. With two teenage kids who struggled to be connected to the world beyond their electronic devices, a 20-year marriage in urgent need of a rebirth, and a desire to be of service, the Marshalls set off to work in some of the most remote places on earth.

Eleven years ago, Claude Knobler and his wife, who had two children, decided to adopt a 5-year-old boy from Ethiopia. In More Love, Less Panic: 7 Lessons I Learned About Life, Love, and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son from Ethiopia, Knobler explains how his struggle to turn the wild, silly, loud and “too optimistic” Nati into a quiet, neurotic Jew like himself forever changed the way he approached parenting.


Daniela and Lucy Weil (left) and Claude and Nati Knobler (right). Photos © Erik Zanker and Claude Knobler.

I have an adopted daughter from Ethiopia, too. She’s 8 and very much like Nati. She is loud, outgoing, silly, fearless and chronically happy. I sometimes try to tone her down, but, like you, I think I might be turning her into a “neurotic Jew.”
It's funny. I think with every kid you learn that they are who they are. It's just that when you adopt a child, you learn it a bit quicker. Our son Clay was exactly who he is from the day he was born, but it wasn't until we had our second child, our daughter Grace, that we really started to see that you can parent all you want, but your kids have their own personalities from day one.

Then . . . we adopted Nati, who was exuberant and giddy and silly, and we really realized that no matter what we did in the name of parenting, he was going to be exactly who he was going to be no matter what we did. There was just no way we could turn this silly Ethiopian 5-year-old who loved shouting and practical jokes into a young Woody Allen—which really makes parenting easier. Because you can just enjoy them for who they already are without worrying about whom you want to turn them into.

You can have long arguments with a toddler about how important it is for them to share their cookies, or you can get in the habit of being a generous, decent person in front of them.

The first lesson you learned is how it's better to influence, than to control. Let's talk about control.
Or about not having any! My wife and I were sent all these videotapes with 10-second snippets of kids saying their names. We had no idea how you could actually choose a child. And then we got this tiny photo of a little boy, and when we saw him on a video, we all just knew. Even when we were in charge, we had no more control than we did with our first two kids! The way we were given to go about “choosing” Nati was strange, but it really also was a good way to start seeing how little control we had.

As parents, it's so easy to make yourself and your child miserable “for their own good,” when really trying to control my kids is often just my way of dealing with the anxiety every parent feels. We love our kids so much that we can't help but be afraid about so many things in their lives. You can have long arguments with a toddler about how important it is for them to share their cookies, or you can get in the habit of being a generous, decent person in front of them. Most kids grow out of the worst kinds of selfishness on their own with time. Yelling at them and arguing with them won't make them better people. But they do watch what you do. Being able to let go of the idea that you can create a perfect child by being a perfect parent really can make your life and your child's life much gentler and happier.

I think when you're a biological parent, perhaps you have more expectations that your kid will become some version of you. Like they'll play the piano if you're a musician. When you adopt, I think you accept from the get-go that this child will be what he/she will be. For me, it's been clear that I cannot hold onto my expectations of who she will become. Maybe she will never go to college. Maybe she's going to end up being a mountain climber, or in one of those jackass videos (the Jewish mother's nightmare). But I've made my peace with that.
Yes! I think that's true, but again, I think that while adoption can speed it up, that's the process that every parent goes through. Talk to any parent of two children and before long they'll tell you how their second child had a personality of its own as soon as it was born. Really what I learned with Nati was that I didn't want any specific thing for any of my three kids. I just want them to be happy—though I do hope your daughter doesn't become a mountain climber or appears in a "Jackass" video. But only because mountain climbing scares me. As do "Jackass" videos.

Oh trust me, it scares the heck out of me too. I have a terrible phobia of heights, and she's a fearless climber. But I never wanted her to inherit my fears, so when she was little, I’d pretend I was totally OK with the crazy stuff she was doing in the playground. The other parents would walk up to me and say "Excuse me, do you think it's OK for your kid to be on the roof of the castle?"
But it was OK for her. Better to let your daughter climb than to shout at her because you're worried she'll fall off a mountain three decades from now. She didn't fall off that castle did she? Because if she did, I'm going to have to re-write my book.

LOL!
In your book, you talk a lot about nature versus nurture, and it seems like nature is the overwhelming force that shapes a child. Do you see the nurture element in Nati's personality?

That's such a great question. I do think that kids are like watching those old Polaroid pictures after they come out of the camera. The image is already there; you just have to wait for it to come into focus. That said, I don't think we changed who Nati was, but I do think that the cumulative effect of the life we've led has changed and shifted him. I haven't parented Nati into being more mature, but the traveling we've done, the conversations we've had and most of all, being a member of this family and seeing how we share our lives has, I know, helped him grow into the remarkable young man he's become.

The most helpful part of your book to me was the image of Nati's biological mom, who was dying of AIDS, whispering in his ear a final goodbye which you witnessed before leaving Ethiopia. It reminds me to let go.
I'm sure it goes without saying that being with Nati while his mother said goodbye to him was one of the most powerful experiences I'll ever have. It certainly made clear to me that there can be a purity to love. In our daily lives, love can come out in so many strange ways. I nag my kids because I love them. I worry about my family because of the love I feel for them. But at that moment, Nati's mother wasn't telling him anything for his future, or trying to teach him anything, she was just being with him, connecting with him and loving him as purely as anyone ever could. And yet, I do think it's important to remember that you can't always live in that kind of moment. If you never lose your temper with your kids, then you're probably not spending enough time with them. I think, for me, it's important to allow myself to feel all of it; the love, the frustrations, the fears without believing what those feelings sometimes tell me. It's OK to feel frustrated with your child's behavior without believing that voice that says, “How will she ever get a job as an adult when she'll always be this way?” It's possible to love your child with every fiber of your being and still step back and let them live their own lives as they mature.

A lot of what you say reminds me of the serenity prayer (God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference).
I did waste a lot of time as a parent trying to change what couldn't be changed and didn't need to be changed. I have a son in college now and once that happens you really do learn that while you think your kids are the entire book of your life, they're really just a chapter. They grow up and get their own lives, no matter how great a parent you are. And if you don't stop and enjoy all of their insanity and strangeness, then you've missed something wonderful. More love, less panic, because either way, whether you spend these years laughing or crying, they're going to be who they are and then they're going to go out into the world.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of this book.

Daniela Weil was born and raised in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and now lives in Houston with her daughter Lucy. Trained as a whale biologist, Weil is also a writer and illustrator whose work includes both children’s books and scientific illustrations. She is the creator of the web comic The World According to Lucy, which chronicles the experiences of an introverted adoptive mom parenting the fearless, free-spirited Lucy.

Eleven years ago, Claude Knobler and his wife, who had two children, decided to adopt a 5-year-old boy from Ethiopia. In More Love, Less Panic: 7 Lessons I learned About Life, Love, and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son from Ethiopia, Knobler explains how his struggle to turn the wild, silly, loud and “too optimistic” Nati into a quiet, neurotic Jew like himself forever changed the way he approached parenting.

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