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April 9, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

So this incident has been making the news (New York Times, 4/8/14). It raises some issues about what parents may and may not do as custodians of their kids. Predictably, it’s raised the ire of many people on each side of the debate.

Over a year ago, Eric and Charlotte Kaufman decided to take their 36-foot sailboat they named the Rebel Heart from the west coast of Mexico across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. He would be the captain and she the crew, but exactly what jobs their daughters Cora, 3 and Lyra, 1, were to perform is anyone’s guess. The trip, had they completed it, would have covered some 7,000 miles of open ocean.

That was their plan. Now, the articles on the incident don’t tell us just how experienced the two parents were in sailing the high seas. Of course, given the outcome, that’s obviously germane to whether the Kaufman’s decision was foolish or at least defensible. Whatever the case, they claim to have prepared as best they could. They shoved off from the State of Nayarit, Mexico two weeks ago.

It wasn’t long before they were in trouble. No one seems to know just what happened, but, only 900 miles off the Mexican coast, their boat (that’s strangely referred to as a “ship” in the article) lost its steering mechanism. And apparently the Kaufmans were unable to repair it. They called for help and three separate governmental agencies swung into action. In what’s called a complicated rescue, the California Air National Guard, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard parachuted a rescue team into the ocean near the boat, inflated a life raft and got all four Kaufmanns to safety before scuttling the Rebel Heart. The family was then taken to San Diego where all seem to be doing well.

Understandably, they’ve taken a lot of flak from at least two directions, those who think their decision to take two little kids on such a venture was irresponsible and those who question the Kaufmann’s maritime skills.

James Gardner, 56, a fisherman from Oceanside, Calif., who said he had spent 45 years on the sea and now owns a bait shop near the docks, called the decision to take such young children on such a journey “ridiculous.”

“Teenagers, maybe, but kids of those ages — I think it was asinine,” Mr. Gardner said in an interview. “He put his family at risk. Any Joe can take a Coast Guard course and you are a captain — it is just above a cereal box certification.”

Those who question the Kaufmann’s parenting are even more blunt in their appraisal of the incident.

But some parenting experts said in interviews on Monday that they took a dim view of the whole expedition. “I am very much anti-Bubble Wrap and think we should be giving our kids safe risks, but that doesn’t mean exposing them to actual risks,” said Ashley Merryman, a co-author of a parenting book called “NurtureShock.” “It’s not as if a 1-year-old is going to remember an experience, whether it’s positive or negative. We all need to think about what they are really ready for.”

Even some family members questioned their actions. Ms. Kaufman’s brother, James Moriset, told a television station in San Diego, where the Kaufmans used to live, that he had refused to send them off.

“I saw this coming — I saw the potential for every bit of it,” Mr. Moriset said. “I don’t understand what they were thinking to begin with. I’m sorry, I don’t even like to take my kids in a car ride that would be too dangerous, and it’s like taking them out into the big ocean?”

And, where parents are held up to scrutiny for endangering children, some people are sure to call for termination of their parental rights.

But well before they set foot on dry land, the Kaufmans have become the focus of a raging debate over responsible parenting. Some readers of their blogs have left blistering comments suggesting that the authorities should take their children away, seizing on such details in Ms. Kaufman’s postings as the baby rolling around and unable to sleep because of the ship’s violent pitch, and soiled diapers being washed in the galley sink.

One of those postings Charlotte Kaufman made to a personal blog prior to casting off read, “I think this may be the stupidest thing we have ever done,” she wrote in her trip blog, before concluding: “It is a difficult self-imposed isolation that is completely worth it.”

All things considered, this incident presents a set of facts that can be useful in thinking about parenting, who’s responsible for what and what the proper role of government is.

First, let me make it absolutely clear that I agree with James Gardner. I think what the Kaufmans did was asinine, and that’s putting it mildly. It borders on the delusional for them to take a “what could possibly go wrong” attitude about taking a one-year-old and a three-year-old on a months-long ocean voyage in a 36-foot craft. The fact is that, even with an experienced crew of adult sailors, a lot can go wrong, and when it does, all hands need to be on deck. They need to know their jobs and do them promptly and effectively. Inevitably, with and infant and a toddler, and only two parents to care for them, if something happens that requires all hands on deck, one of those hands at least will be dealing with a child who’s incapable of caring for herself. I repeat, that’s inevitable.

I’ve written before to excoriate “helicopter” parents and to praise the blog “Free Range Kids.” I strongly feel that parents are far too protective of children in ways that thwart the natural inquisitiveness and spirit of exploration that I believe are necessary for healthy development. I believe children need time away from their parents, away from parent-scheduled activities, in which they can be who they want to be and do what they want to do. But hauling two children as young as Cora and Lyra out into the Pacific Ocean takes the concept too far. That may have looked like an adventure to Eric and Charlotte, but it was entirely lost on children that young. Plus of course, it endangered their lives.

What exactly was the plan if Charlotte was needed to help sail the boat in heavy seas? What were they going to do with a one-year-old?

My guess is that much of the fire the Kaufmanns are taking comes at least in part from the fact that, without knowing details, they look like extremely privileged, affluent people. After all, they look to be in their mid- to late-thirties, but they were able both to own an expensive sailboat, and take a couple of years off to move to Mexico and then sail to New Zealand. Plus, they seem to have done so for the sole reason that it was an adventure that appealed to them. That “completely worth it” “self-imposed isolation” sounds a lot like the desire of an educated, highly affluent person with too much time on her hands to experience something – anything – “real.” It’s tough to see the “rebel heart” in people like those.

Everyman, these people aren’t. As such, they can expect little sympathy from whatever populist zeitgeist exists in this culture right now. And that’s pretty much what they’ve gotten.

But critics have borne down not only on the couple’s parenting judgment but also on their qualifications as sailors and the expense involved in their rescue, with some calling for them to be forced to pay the tab.

I couldn’t agree more. I’m perfectly happy for people to have whatever experiences they desire and take whatever risks come with them. If you want to climb Mt. Everest, you won’t find me standing in your way. If you want to sail the Pacific Ocean, I say “more power to you.” But when you get in trouble and want me to pay the cost of your rescue, I’ll give that a pass. I can’t guess what the involvement of three public entities including helicopters and dozens of rescue personnel might cost, but I’m sure it’s substantial. And I’d like the Kaufmans to pay it. It’s a prime example of a case in which a “user fee” is a good idea. Knowing you’ll have to pay for your own rescue might discourage people like the Kaufmans from beginning such a dangerous trip.

Those who support what they did seem not to grasp that basic concept. As veteran sailor Pam Wall said, “The whole idea of being a family that goes out to sea is that you are totally self-sufficient.”

But of course the Kaufmanns were anything but. “Self-sufficiency” means you’re able to do what you set out to do, including solving any problems that crop up. But two weeks out from port, the Kaufmans were tapping my IRS account to fund their rescue.

Still, the notion advanced by some that Child Protective Services should intervene and take Cora and Lyra from Eric and Charlotte isn’t right either. The fact is that, dangerous as this voyage was for the kids, they’re fine. They’re fine because the Kaufmans knew that, at least that close to land, there would be someone to rescue them if that became necessary. Did they place the children in danger? They did, and for that they’re rightly excoriated for being too cavalier with the well-being of children whose care society entrusts to their parents and who are far too young to make informed, intelligent choices on their own.

But the idea that, once parents make a mistake like the Kaufmanns did that they should lose their parenting rights is dangerously misguided. First, we know well that placing children in foster care should be a last resort reserved for the worst of parents – those who’ve proven themselves to be dangerous and incapable of improving. The Kaufmans don’t fall into that category. Foster care should be a last resort as well because the very fact of taking children from their parents and placing them in an alien environment is traumatic for them. And that’s if the foster home is a good one, which many are not. All too often, foster parents prove to be abusers themselves.

Moreover, we constantly face the specter of state encroachment on family life and privacy, and child welfare agencies are the thin edge of the wedge. Every time a child is hurt, neglected or endangered, it’s all too easy to demand that someone somewhere do something about it. The Kaufman case is a good example. But every time we open the door to state intrusion into family life, it proves difficult to close it again. The state is like the proverbial camel with its nose under the tent. Pretty soon the beast will be living with you and likely shoving you out.

The Kaufmans need an education, but don’t need to lose their kids. They need to learn to differentiate their own need for adventure and “self-imposed isolation” from the needs of their children. As countless parents have said countless times, parenting is about putting your children’s needs ahead of your own. The Kaufmans show every sign of not having absorbed that basic lesson. Hey, give it 12 years or so when the girls are of high school age. The Pacific Ocean will still be there, but Cora and Lyra will be more able to fend for themselves and appreciate the type of risk involved. In the meantime, take them on short voyages to get them used to the boat, the feel of the ocean and their jobs as deckhands. Give them experiences on the water that’ll make them want to come back for more.

And try not to paint another target on your backs for those who would use you to encourage ever-greater state intrusion into families.

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