Allow children to take safe risks, but protect them from great harm

What would you do if your young teenager asked you to let him or her sail around the world?

Me, I’d say no.

Recently, we heard of a 16-year-old girl who had to be rescued from her attempt to navigate the globe alone, at a great cost to perhaps everyone except her parents. Now, a 14-year-old has been given the green light to sail her boat “Guppy” across the oceans.

Sailing around the world is no small undertaking. Imagine leaving your young teen completely alone anywhere for a year, let alone where he or she will likely face gale-force winds, swells several metres high, with possibilities of capsizing, and/or having to reckon with pirates. This is not even addressing absolute reliance on an autopilot system while sleeping, risks of malnutrition or dehydration, and the psychological effects of no human interaction for that long.

Regardless of their skill level, there are reasons why children aren’t allowed to drive after dark, rent a car, drink alcohol, or vote at those ages. There are reasons why risky activities, such as bungee jumping, skydiving, and tattooing have age minimums. There are even special airline rules and procedures for unaccompanied minors up to age 17 that make sure they get safely to their destinations.

What are these parents thinking?

It makes me ponder my role as a parent; when I should let go and when I need to hold on for dear life. The latter statement, though a colloquialism, is also literal for me and a clue as to my thoughts on the subject. If great harm could come to my children, I believe it is my duty to stop them — especially if I think they may die.

We are supposed to provide our children opportunities for taking safe risks, which is perhaps an oxymoron, and often a grey line difficult to discern. How much risk or pain is too much?

I won’t allow my children to run headfirst into traffic, even if they are in a hurry to catch a bus, but I will encourage my children to cycle even knowing they might hurt themselves falling off the bike. Falling in love in Grade 11 isn’t likely to lead to a happily ever after, but I’m not going to stop them from going out on dates. Similarly, I wouldn’t stop them from cooking bacon in their bathing suit if they refused to listen to my warnings.

I guess that means I endorse the potential for some minor pain, especially if a life skill or life lesson is involved. But boating the world all alone?

If parents want to be a child’s buddy or friend so badly instead of being a parent, why wouldn’t they go along on the trip? What a fantastic bonding experience for parent and child to have an adventure like that together. The parent would also be there to provide emotional, mental, and physical support, through the ups and downs of the waves and expedition.

The only reason not to have a parent there might be if the child is seeking to break some kind of world record. To that I say, parents best not be living vicariously through their offspring (or profiting financially from their heavily publicized exploits) and therefore allowing their kids to take inappropriate risks. Especially if it is a fame-driven misadventure, it is unacceptable for a parent to succumb to a child’s unreasonable request, even if they beg.

We all know kids can nag us into letting them do things that aren’t necessarily in their best interest — such as asking us to buy them Lucky Charms cereal, or insisting that they stay up way past their bedtime to watch the end of a movie — but we also know that allowing those behaviours occasionally is highly unlikely to kill them. We are allowed a little latitude to spoil our offspring, or give in to their whims. But an important part of parenting is setting boundaries, and enforcing them. Our primary role is definitely not to be their friends.

No one said parenting was easy, and there is no definitive instruction manual or training/ licensing process, but one thing should be relatively obvious. Parents, not children, have to be the ones who critically look at the potential good and bad that can come from a ridiculously risky move, and decide if the gains are worth the possible pains, permanent injuries, and/or death.

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