Weighing in On The 13-Year-Old Wants to Sail Solo ‘Round the World

Ahoy, Readers!

Today’s “Free-Range” controversy concerns Laura Dekker, a 13-year-old  in Holland who is already an accomplished sailor and now wants to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Her parents – or at least her dad, with whom she lives – is all for it. The Dutch equivalent of Child Protective Services is against it and currently seeking legal permission to step in, take temporary custody of the girl and stop her.

In other words: They want to ground her. (Literally!)

And I am with them.

Does this sail in the face of the Free-Range philosophy? No, matey. At Free-Range Kids we believe in two things: Freedom. And safety.

It may sound to some that safety is not of paramount concern here, but it is. That’s why (as you’ll note in the little statement to the left of this post), we believe in helmets and car seats and teaching your child to look both ways before crossing the street. Safety is good. What we don’t believe is that children are more endangered now than at any other time in history. That is why Free-Range is all in favor of letting kids do things that we did as kids that have only recently been deemed “dangerous.” Things like touching a shopping cart, playing on a merry-go-round, selling Girl Scout cookies and skipping to school. We believe 11-year-olds can be competent babysitters. They can also deliver newspapers.

We do not believe in actively courting danger.

Traveling solo around the world when you aren’t, say, fleeing the Nazis, seems less like ranging free and more like unnecessarily putting a young life at risk for the sake of bragging rights. (Or, God forbid, college applications.) If Ms. Dekker longs to sail far and wide, she can do it — with others. She’ll still get to see the world and have adventures, just like young Herman Melville.

But even Melville went with a crew.

Dekker’s dad is quoted as saying, “We would not let our child do something of which she was not in complete control.” But no one is in complete control on the high seas, unless their name is Poseidon.

Often when the authorities step in to override a parent’s judgment I find them out of line. When, for instance, they deem that a 9-year-old left at home for a few hours has been recklessly endangered by his parents. Or when they ticket a mom who lets her sleeping 2-year-old stay in the (locked!) car when she runs in to return a library book. Once again, those are cases that never would have been considered negligent a generation ago, which is generally my rule of thumb for determining whether something is truly risky or just a freshly minted, something-new-to-terrify-us-about-in-the-parenting-magazines precaution.

The ever-louder “What if…?” Chorus can be counted on dreaming up outlandish to scenarios that make parents believe any second their children are on their own, they are in dire peril. Scenarios like, “What if burglars break into your house on the Saturday morning you decide to leave your fourth grader alone?” But it is not a crazy “What if…?”  question to ask: “What if Laura, in a year of sailing, gets hit by the boom one day? Or gets dehydrated? Or too tired to sail after a relentless storm?” I love the idea of kids finding their inner strength. I don’t love the idea of their life hanging in the balance if they don’t.

As in cases of actual child abuse, there are times when the authorities really should step in to save a kid. A kid who can then grow up and take on the world.

Even by boat. — Lenore