Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

When Bad Parenting IS Our Business

I can imagine few things more horrifying than living for months on a 36-foot sailboat with a 3-year-old and 12-month-old.

You’d have to pay me, oh, about 20 million bucks to step foot onto a small sailboat with two young kids.

And even then, I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't even take kids that age on an ocean liner cruise ship. For the simple reason that I would be endangering the lives of two small people who depend on the health and wisdom of responsible adults to keep them alive.  Taking physical care of young children and keeping them safe is the first commandment of parenthood.

But two weeks ago, after a year of preparation, romantically and lovingly cataloged on husband and wife blogs [1], a young couple named Charlotte and Eric Kaufman did just this.

Didn’t they watch The Perfect Storm?  Jaws?  Even Nim’s Island, for Chrissakes?  The ocean is no playground, even for adults. Much less two little girls.

The Kaufman plan was simple and sweet and whack-job crazy: sail together from Mexico to New Zealand on their sailboat, The Rebel Heart, over the course of several months [2].  Eric was the captain, Charlotte the crew.  How old-fashioned! How quintessentially American!  Just like Pa and Ma Ingalls, setting out into the American wilderness.  What a best-selling book and movie the Kaufmans’ adventure would surely one day make.

But what Little House on the Prairie never mentions is that Caroline Ingalls gave birth to all five of her children alone in the isolated wilderness.  Both she and later, her daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, lost infants and toddlers [3] to death and disease in the wilderness 

So much for the romance of motherhood on the prairie.

Adventure can be wonderful for adults and children. 

But sometimes, adventure can be dangerous enough to kill you.

Two weeks into the Kaufmans’ sailboat odyssey, 900 miles off the coast of Mexico, disaster struck.  One-year-old Lyra was dangerously ill.  The seas were rough, and the Rebel Heart, which measures only about twice as long as a Yukon XL, was in trouble.  The pretty little sailboat had lost its steering. The Kaufmans were in danger of losing everything, including their lives.

So they called upon the village for help. Fortunately, sophisticated world-class assistance was available. The California Air National Guard, The United States Navy and the United States Coast Guard rushed to the Pacific Ocean to rescue the beleaguered family of four. Lyra is in the hospital recuperating, and all four Kaufmans are expected to recover physically from the ordeal.

Their rescue made the front page of the New York Times, and was featured on hundreds of national and local California television segments. Not surprisingly, the blogosphere has also weighed in -- burning with defense and damnation of the Kaufmans’ decision to take two vulnerable children to the ocean. 

Most parents, including myself, wouldn’t take our kids into the ocean’s maw for an hour, much less the better part of a year.  But to me, the debate is not so much the ethics of good vs. bad parenting here. To me, that one is easy.

The bigger question: why do Americans think the Kaufmans’ parenting decisions are our business?

From writing this blog, I know unequivocally what most moms suspect in the back of our minds:  everyone in America is judging how we parent.  One of the unique aspects of motherhood in America is that every single person in our country believes staunchly in her or her right to condemn every parenting decision ever made.  Pediatricians, newspaper editors, babysitters, your mother-in-law, the kindergarten aide, your mailman, the President of the United States, even most likely your dog, has a view about whether you are mothering rightly or wrongly.  Politicians without kids, policy makers and academics and researchers who may not have spent a single afternoon alone with a toddler allocate funds and make laws dramatically impacting American mothers, fathers and children every single day.

In many ways, this is great news: we care deeply about how children are raised in our country.

But the bad news is that we, as a nation, have no sense of perspective when it comes to parenting.  We rail against small decisions - how long to breastfeed, whether to toilet train at two months or two years - as vociferously as we do big decisions like whether to vaccinate against polio or to handout free condoms to teenagers.  As a country, we need to establish categories: what is parenting’s public domain, open to debate; and what must remain private, 100% restricted to immediate family.

In the case of the Kaufmans, their decision to put two young girls in a boat smaller than many hotel bathrooms is clearly public domain -- everyone’s business.  For two incontrovertible reasons.

First, what they did directly endangered the lives of two little girls.  Putting children who cannot swim onto a sailboat and planning to cover almost 7,000 miles undeniably increases the risk to their lives.  Just as clearly as handing the girls two loaded Glock 9MM pistols would.  There should be laws preventing this kind of child endangerment; however the decision is so idiotic, I doubt there is a specific statute prohibiting sailing from Mexico to New Zealand with two kids under age three.

Second, we all paid the price for the Kaufman’s romantic “rebellion.”  The carefully coordinated rescue effort involved over 180 sailors and rescue personnel. Estimates range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to over a million dollars.  All paid for by us good old taxpayers.

The last way to evaluate the Kaufmans’ decision is from their kids’ view. Surprisingly, I find almost no parenting decisions are made this way.  However, putting ourselves into our children’s little Crocs, imagining life from their view, puts everything in perspective.

What was the upside for Lyra and Cora Kaufman?  How much does any child remember before age four or five?  How does spending months lashed to a boat (in many blog pictures, a yellow leash secures the girls to the boat) count as a happy or productive part of one’s childhood?

The answer is chilling.  Eric and Charlotte Kaufman made the death-defying decision to sail alone exclusively for their own gain, to satisfy their own sense of adventure, to bond as a couple. To enrich two lives and to endanger two others. 

Just a few days before their rescue, Charlotte wrote on her blog: “Trust me, we have no one else to blame for bringing a 13-month-old to sea than ourselves. I keep telling myself that Bora Bora will be worth it, worth what I’m now calling ‘extreme parenting.’”

Simply put, that kind of extreme parentingModernMom [4]

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