Family Health

How I Parent: This Dad Raised Two Sons On an Off-Grid Island Through Sustainable Living

Name: Greg Seaman
Location: Rural island in the Puget Sound archipelago
Occupation: Founder of Eartheasy
Family situation: Married with two sons, who are now in their thirties. We’ve had no assistance or day care. The children were most often with me and my wife.
Parenting “philosophy” in a sentence: Our family is a team, we need and help each other.

What was your journey to having the family life you have today?
From a young age, I always knew that I wanted to raise children. I also loved being in nature and wanted to live in a natural setting. But as I got older and started a career in psychology, I was unhappy because I wasn’t really working towards the life I wanted to live. During that time, I read a book called At Home in the Woods: Living the Life of Thoreau Today. It’s about a couple who also wanted to leave city life and plant their roots in a remote area, surrounded by nature … The book allowed me to see that the life I wanted to live was possible.

The first thing I needed to do was quit my job and move and then find a partner who would also want to live this lifestyle. I eventually met my wonderful wife, Lindsay. We went camping, hiking, and exploring all the years we were dating. For our honeymoon, we took a road trip across the country, and while on the road we looked for possible homes that would meet our requirements. An opportunity popped up on a small island and I jumped at it.

We moved to a land co-op, and as members of the co-op, we all own the land together. My wife and I didn’t have a whole lot of savings at the time so this type of community made it possible for us to jumpstart our lives together. We don’t give out the name of this island out of respect to our neighbors and fellow islanders but it’s an off-grid island with no electricity, police or hospitals. There’s a little two-room school and a ferry that runs five days a week but that’s about it. It’s very sparsely populated and quite rural. It was 1980 when we moved onto the island with our first son, who was three months old at the time, and we’ve been living there ever since.

Growing up on this island was quite an experience for my two boys. When they were young, we would tell them, “We’re a team and we work together. We help each other no matter what. We’re all in it for each other.” That was our family dynamic and still is today.

Both of my sons’ childhoods were different [from average]; they didn’t have a lot of friends because there were no kids their ages. We had to be their friends as well as their parents. Our life wasn’t so much an income-driven life, where you buy everything you need. It was more like, you make a little money and you gather fish, hunt, grow and collect what you need. The kids lived a very hands-on lifestyle, which they really appreciated and felt like they were part of a team. They did play like normal kids, with little cars and toys and things, but at the same time, they didn’t really like to just play idly. They much preferred purposeful activity. They’d rather go out and catch a fish and bring it home for dinner. That was their idea of a fun time.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had some doubts and regrets creep in lately, about the kids and the way they grew up. It’s a wonderful thing in childhood to participate in team activities, but they never had that. You can’t be everything to a child; there are some things that are going to fall through the cracks and aren’t as ideal, but they never complained about feeling lonely, or not being on a team.

By the time my sons were in high school, I had felt like my experience of parenting and living off-grid had been a success, even though we didn’t have much money or any other particular advantages to help us. I just thought that everyone could benefit from the things I’ve learned so I decided to start my own website called Eartheasy.

When I started the site, I did two things. First, I made a list of all the prominent eco sites and stuck it next to my computer. I told myself that I wasn’t going to look at those site again because I wanted my site to be original and not influenced by someone else’s design. Then, I decided that I was going to write great content and not worry about money or other things that would just get in the way of pure, great content. Those were both good calls. After about two years, I ended up winning a big award called The Stockholm Challenge, an international award program for websites that benefit humanity, and that really boosted my confidence. Now we have hundreds of eco-friendly products on Eartheasy, a wonderful web editor named Shannon Cowan and a great team of writers who help run the site. My two sons oversee the entire company so it’s become a family business.

Sustainable living by definition is not an option. It’s a necessity. It’s what you need to survive. One thing anyone can do to take their first step is grow a garden. Gardening is interesting because it affects you on multiple levels. People think it’s about growing food, and indeed it is, but there’s more to it: Gardening is the study of life. It’s endlessly rewarding and eventually you’ll start to see yourself with a new perspective.

How did your upbringing influence your parenting style?
I grew up on Long Island. My father was in the advertising business and my mother was a copywriter. Both of them worked in New York City. They left every morning on the train and didn’t get home until 7:00 p.m. Then they had to put dinner together, and, you know, interact with four children, one of whom was handicapped. They really had their hands full.

I felt sad for them because they were very successful people and yet they struggled. Life wasn’t easy for them and it was hard for me to see that. Neither of my parents lived to age 70. I believe it was because of the stress of their life. Having four children and just the tough grind of succeeding in the city — it just is all-consuming. All through my developmental years I felt, “I’ve got to find a new way of living because this is just too fast paced, and it’s too aggressive. Everyone is competing with everyone.” … I wanted to start over and try something new.

I felt like when we came to this island, the blackboard was clear. The slate was wiped and we were starting from zero and creating the life we wanted. In my opinion, it has been very successful. My only regret is that my parents didn’t live long enough to see how successful it has been. Also, interestingly enough, my brother, the oldest sibling, is my next door neighbor right here on this island.

What’s your favorite thing about parenting?
My years parenting, from when my first child was born until my second child went to university, were by far the best years of my life. One of our great adventures was when I took them up North in a small speedboat when the kids were little.

I was taking my son to a field trip his school had planned and everyone was going to go in kayaks. Once we were at the dock ready to go, my son looked up and said, “Dad, I don’t want to go.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean you don’t want to go? We’re all packed.” He continued to say he didn’t want to go, so I said, “Well, okay. We won’t go, but we’re packed. Do you want to go somewhere else just with me and maybe we’ll get your brother?” He agreed and we changed plans right then and there. We ended up taking quite a journey up North to place called Desolation Sound in Canada. We camped out and saw bears, whales, and all sorts of exciting geography and creatures. It was really special.

What’s the hardest part?
The greatest fear, or challenge, I had was when my younger boy got sick. He had a fever and it was really bad. We called the hospital and they said we should get him there right away. It was winter and I had to take him down the hill into a boat, while it was windy, stormy and dark. I had to row him a mile across the bay to where the ferry is, and it was rough. Then, I got him in the ferry and took him to the hospital. We spent about four or five days there and even when we got back home, he still wasn’t 100 percent.

I remember looking at him while I was rowing the boat. He was pale and I thought he was going to pass out. I told him to grab on the rails and squeeze hard once the wind really started picking up. It was so cold and dark and I just thought, “I put my kid’s life at risk for this lifestyle.” It was one time that I felt maybe this whole idea was a very bad mistake. That was the lowest point of my experience on the island.

How do you find time for yourself and your relationship?
When the kids were young, I didn’t need time for myself. I loved my kids so much and we had so much fun together. Our house was octagon-shaped and everything was either borrowed or made from something we recycled so we allowed the kids to do whatever they wanted in the house. We didn’t care. You spill something, it doesn’t matter. You make a dent in the floor, we don’t care. We had a swing in the house and a trapeze hanging from one of the beams. We were constantly wrestling, chasing each other or playing games. We spent a lot of time reading every evening. We had a routine. I would be sitting in what we call the “Big Bear” chair and then one of the boys would be in my lap, and we’d read National Geographic.

We always ate together at the same time – that was super important for our family dynamic. We had a round table, so there was no head of the table. We’re a team. After dinner, we’d all pitch in and clean up. No one ever complained about doing the dishes. Then my wife would take over at bedtime and she would read to them every night without fail for an hour.

What’s the best advice you can share with new parents?
You just need to make time for your children, the more the better. That’s why I feel for people in cities because they’ve got more challenges. They have bigger jobs, where they have to work 40 hours a week and do what the boss says. They come home and they’re tired so it’s hard for them to engage with their children. But I acknowledge that it’s very difficult for young parents to balance the needs of generating an income and giving children the time they need. It’s a tough call. It’s a balancing act, and every parent has to cope with that.

How do you embrace the most unpredictable moments of parenthood?
There will be many unpredictable situations and one of my tools in my arsenal would be to ask the child for the solution. More often than not, a solution was provided and things would work out. One time, one of our boys had a temper tantrum and I didn’t know what to do. I sent him to his room, and once I went in there, I sat next to him and said, “I don’t know what to do with you. I’m new at parenting. I’ve never had a four-year-old before. You think I’ve always been Dad, but I didn’t used to be dad until you came along. Now, here you are acting like this. I don’t know what to do with you. I don’t know, should I spank you? I don’t want to spank you. If you were me, what would you do?” He looked up at me and said, “I would spank me,” and we both laughed.

What would you want your kids to say about you as a parent?
That that I’ve always treated them as equals and had respect for them as equals.

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