Adventure or child abuse?

The debate about a 13-year-old sailor girl who wants to go around the world solo.
The debate about a 13-year-old sailor girl who wants to go around the world solo.

I'm fascinated by this story of 13-year-old girl Laura Dekker who wants to sail solo around the world. She was born and raised on a boat by her parents while they were on an around-the-world trip. She's an accomplished sailor, but the Dutch authorities are trying to prohibit such a voyage. Can she even make a rational decision, at her age, about the risks?

Youthful sailors are part of our history and literature. Huck Finn was 14 or so when he escaped his alcoholic dad and headed down the Mississippi River on his raft. Huck was fleeing parental abuse. Is a parent allowing someone to take a Huck Finn-style voyage in real life guilty of a different kind of abuse?

A British teen just set the record of being the youngest to sail solo around the world. He was 17.

The youngest person to climb Mt. Everest was a 15-year-old Sherpa girl.

Kids often used to have much more freedom earlier than they do now. Parents these days are often leery to send their kids to summer camp without Internet supervision. On the other hand, kids now are often sexualized and turned into "adult" celebrities at a very early age. The whole "tween" phenomenon is about pushing kids to shed childhood as soon as possible, at least when it comes to fashion and sexual mores. Is it more or less abusive to turn your kid into the next Miley Cyrus (who has recently added pole dancing to her repertoire) or a world-class sailor?

My former father-in-law used to take off for weeks and sail Puget Sound on his own when he was in his early teens, trips that safety-conscious Boomer parents would likely have never have allowed their children. He'd be out of all contact for weeks at a time, traveling with the winds and tides. I was also allowed a greater level of freedom than I allowed my own kids (or my parents allowed my sisters). I drove across the USA and Canada with a pal, completely unsupervised, when I was 17.

An around-the-world solo sailing adventure is, of course, in a completely different league, and 13 is developmentally a world apart from 17. The Dutch court has ordered the girl to be evaluated by a child psychologist to see if she is capable of undertaking the trip.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.