Lessons for Raising an American Kid in a Mongolian Yurt

The ups and downs of parenthood take on new dimensions on the vast expanse of Mongolia's steppe.

There are times in every parent's life that feel like a wander through the wilderness.

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Author Carroll Dunham

That’s more true for some than others: Starting when their sons were two and six, National Geographic photographer Thomas Kelly and filmmaker and author Carroll Dunham have spent 16 consecutive summers on the Mongolian steppe living the nomadic lifestyle in a ger camp. Over the years, Carroll and Thomas have been asked all sorts of questions from their compatriots back home: How will you manage without a Nintendo? What do you feed them other than milk? Is it safe? Here, Carroll reveals some lessons she’s learned raising American kids among Mongolian nomads.

Think beyond the baby gate: Living in a ger with young children comes with a unique set of challenges—not least of which is the blazing stove flanked by posts at the center of the room. “For Mongols,” explains Carroll, “this area is considered sacred. The left post is considered male, and the right post female, with Ich Tenger—the sky god—seen above [through a round opening in the ceiling]. This custom helps keep kids away from the fire.”

Nobody minds their own business: Privacy takes on new meaning in Mongol culture. Gers are considered public spaces—the vast outdoors has plenty of room for introspection. In other words, says Dunham, “no one knocks first.” But while anyone can enter, there are strict rules of etiquette that govern how they do it—which foot enters the tent first, where and how one sits, and on and on. “Neighbors barrel in, and customs dictate how to host—by offering mare’s milk, homemade vodka, and local cookies called butz. Adjusting to this took a bit of time.”

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No toys required: A child’s imagination runs wild in a nomadic culture—in spite of, or maybe because of, the lack of material goods. “My boys were rambunctious,” says Dunham. “Instead of being pathologized as overactive, in the Bunkhan valley they played, ran around, made homemade toys and horsewhips, wrestled with nomad neighbors, and herded the animals—until they dropped at night like flies exhausted from a good long day of activity outdoors.”

Following the herd isn’t always a bad thing: Navigating different cultures teaches kids a valuable skill: adaptability. With that comes emotional intelligence and other coveted characteristics that can’t be taught in a classroom. “Liam, my oldest son, has an unshakable love of wilderness and respect for the environment, and knows happiness has nothing to do with things,” says Dunham, who refers to her sons as bi-cultured. “Galen, our youngest, is fearless. He can make friends anywhere you put him. He finds humanity and kindness, which I think comes from his upbringing—he knows what it means to feel like an outsider, and he also knows the power of feeling part of a tribe. The elements can be brutal in Mongolia. When one endures difficult weather on a horse and physical circumstances together, this makes bonds that are unshakable for life.”

Understanding humanity > knowing pop culture: Reverse culture shock can be a challenge for kids, but depth of experience changes the conversation. Dunham says that when her sons would return to the United States as teenagers, “their eyes could see other worlds beyond what many of their classmates had experienced. I think they see that while they don’t know the American cultural zeitgeist of their classmates, they have very broad views of the world and greater understanding of humanity—its light and dark qualities.”

The boogeyman is real sometimes: Forget the monster under the bed. In Mongolia, you never know what creatures may be lurking—from a baby goat peeking out from under the bed to yaks snorting loudly outside the thin ger walls. “It’s always a thrill going out to pee at night in the pitch dark and seeing the glowing eyes of a startled yak underneath star-speckled skies or hearing wolves howling in the mountains,” says Dunham, who also recalls a year when an infestation of chipmunk-like pikas kept everyone on their toes.

Routines and discovery go hand in hand: Traditional parenting maxims emphasize the importance of routines. Dunham believes discovery is equally important. For her family, finding a balance between the two has meant traveling to the same places each year: Goa, India, in the winter; Nepal in the spring and fall; and Mongolia in the summer. “We used to joke that we live just like Mongol sheep, migrating to different pastures at different seasons,” she says. “What I found was that helping children to recognize who they are beyond culture, beyond all external patterns and habits, is probably the most important thing for making them feel grounded.”

Same goes for risks and rewards: Dunham says that the greatest gift Mongolia has given her boys is courage. “So much of our modern life has litigated out any chance for taking risk. And yet, to ride that thin line of risk is where all the learning is,” she says. “Mongolia provided my children with the risks, but even more were the great rewards of vast wilderness.” During the Naadam festival, which is rooted in warrior culture for turning boys into men, her sons rode fast horses for many miles over rugged terrain. “Chances of falling or becoming hurt are high, as the young boys hold onto the manes and reins. I believe my boys were changed forever after this life rite. It was terrifying for me as a mother, but I learned to trust my sons. And they learned to trust the horse and themselves, and there is no greater gift than that.”

The family that works together grows together: Nagging goes out the window when you share a ger. “Everyone has to work together to survive,” Dunham says. “At an early age, my boys learned to be useful and to contribute. The sense of internal confidence that arises from this is not to be underestimated. They knew that if they didn’t haul water from the stream, gather and chop firewood, and start the fire, we would not have dinner or be warm.

Be prepared for anything: Whether you’re in the Mongolian steppe or in an American suburb, some parts of parenting are always true. “Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best,” says Dunham. “Always travel with an extensive medical kit and travel insurance, bone up on your wilderness first aid, and have a rescue plan in mind in case of an accident.” Equally as critical, she adds, is a sense of humor.

Thomas Kelly and Carroll Dunham designed National Geographic Expeditions' popular Mongolian Horse Trek and lead the trip—along with their now grown sons—every summer. Carroll also serves as an expert on select National Geographic Expeditions to Mongolia.