parenting

Parents escape everyday life, grow closer to kids with a family adventure

June 22, 2014 at 1:59 PM ET

family in Rome
Courtesy Martha Sterne and Vincent Rubino
Celebrating Christmas 2013 in St. Peter's Square in Rome, from left to right, is mom Martha Sterne, the kids -- Sarah, Paul and James -- and dad Vincent Rubino.

It’s a long way from a comfortable home in Silicon Valley to a household on wheels named “LandShark,” currently on the move in Scandinavia.

But life on the road proved irresistible for Martha Sterne and Vincent Rubino, a California couple who quit their jobs to go RVing across Europe for a year with their three children and a terrier named Molly.

The goal of the sabbatical: to get their kids curious about the world and get closer as a family in the process.

“We wanted to get our children out of the U.S. for a while and to see other countries, other cultures, other ways of life,” said Sterne, 52, from Stockholm, Sweden, the family’s latest stop.

“It really is a life of ‘we’ when we’re traveling like this, whereas I would find life before has always been a life of different ‘I’s’, so it really is very different,” Rubino, 44, said.

They’re part of an enthusiastic club of parents who decide to take part in a big adventure as a family – anything to leave the 9-to-5 treadmill, show the kids the world and bond during journeys that can last months or even years.

family in Scotland
Courtesy Martha Sterne and Vincent Rubino
Sarah, Vincent and Paul (holding Molly the dog) are dressed in kilts on the day the family visited the Pitlochry Games in Scotland last October.

Rubino brought up the idea of taking a year off to explore Europe in 2012. A full-size motor home – shipped from the U.S. – would let the family tour and live in style.

The initial reaction from the kids – twin boys, Paul and James, who are now 14; and daughter Sarah, who is now 8 – wasn’t exactly pure delight.

“Paul stood up and said, ‘Hell, no’ – something along those lines – and everybody else got really quiet,” Rubino recalled.

He listed some of the children’s worries: “It was being trapped with the family, not being with friends, not being able to get out but really just being stuck all together. … Oddly enough, as the trip got going, I think Paul became the most excited of the bunch about the experience.”

The boys were in seventh grade when Rubino suggested the trip, so the couple decided to go during their eighth grade year, which would let the twins come back in time to enjoy the typical high school experience.

motor home
Courtesy Martha Sterne and Vincent Rubino
The family travels in a full-size RV. Here, they're in Waldshut-Tiengen next to the Rhine River in southern Germany.

Rubino and Sterne quit their jobs and rented out their house in Los Gatos, which helped finance the trip. The family left California last July, first driving across the country to meet the container ship that would transport their RV – nicknamed LandShark – to the UK.

They began their European adventure in London, and have since explored all corners of the continent – from France and Spain to Turkey and Romania, some 26 countries in all.

The children are homeschooled and get along fairly well, despite the tight quarters, the couple noted.

“It’s not all Kumbaya by any means. Several times during the day, there’s some squabble taking place, but it gets resolved pretty quickly,” Sterne said.

“They’re a lot closer than they’ve ever been before. There’s far more friendliness and intimacy in the family because the thing is you face issues right away; you can’t let them fester,” Rubino added.

The family plans to end the trip next month.

As their adventure winds down, David and Emily Kallin are still in the middle of theirs. The couple from Portland, Maine, began hiking the full Appalachian Trail with their two children, Nathan, 9, and Madeline, 7, in April. The 2,185 mile hike from Georgia to Maine ends in October. 

"We've schemed and dreamed about it for years," the parents said. "We started thinking about hiking the full trail with our kids long before we ever started to think about having kids."

Each day, they wake up, eat and walk north, with the Kallins fascinated by how their children have matured and become more self reliant along the way.

Kallin family
Courtesy Kallin family
The Kallin family enjoys a moment on the Appalachian Trail.

Erik Hemingway, who hosts the Family Adventure Podcast, tells parents who are dreaming of taking their own sabbatical with the kids to go for it. You don’t have to be rich or take a year off, he said.

His own adventure began in 2009, when he started living on a sail boat with his wife and five children and ended up sailing for more than three years, including cruising around the Mediterranean Sea and crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The couple even welcomed a sixth child along the way. (His birth, in Israel, prompted the family to take a break from sailing for several months.)

family
Courtesy Erik Hemingway
The Hemingway family includes mom Rachel, dad Erik and six kids: Maggie, Levi, Emma, Lily, Zoe and Miles, who was born during the adventure.

Hemingway, who now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, said he and his wife sold all of their belongings and lived off savings during the adventure. His background is real estate investing, so he approached the trip with a similar mindset.

“This is an investment in our kids and in our family, but one that you can’t measure on a spreadsheet,” Hemingway, 43, said.

“We’re going to take this chunk of money, we’re going to put it into this adventure and we hope we all become closer through it and that was absolutely how it worked out for us.”

boat
Courtesy Erik Hemingway
The family lived on this sail boat, which has four cabins and about 350 square feet of space.

The children, who ranged in age from 3 to 15 when the trip began, were homeschooled and received real-life history lessons in places like Jerusalem, Istanbul, Rome and Athens.

Oldest daughter Maggie, who is now 20, said she missed her friends and fought with her mom at first but grew to love the voyage.

"After we finished dinner, we'd always sit and talk at the table for hours," she recalled. "Life on land runs a little too fast for that kinda stuff to happen."

Hemingway is proud the siblings have grown into “super confident” kids.

But not everyone is a fan of families sailing with small children. When a couple had to be rescued from the Pacific Ocean in April after their 13-month-old daughter became ill during the voyage, some called the parents selfish and irresponsible.

Hemingway’s take is that people should be allowed to live their dreams however they see fit. He respects the family for following their dream, just like his family followed theirs.

“It paid off in dividends,” Hemingway said. “We really still feel like a team.”

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