All the girl wants to do is sail alone around the world. What's wrong with that? Nothing, says her nautical Dad. Nothing, says her nautical Mom. Plenty, says the Dutch Council for Child Protection, who have successfully sued for temporary guardianship. So Laura Dekker's not going anywhere, not yet, not at 13 years of age.
Now, if this story didn't push a lot of buttons from back in our homeschooling days, I wouldn't write about it. It's all the way over in Holland. What business is it of mine? But it does push buttons, for with the exception of the sixth grade and post-secondary, our two kids never saw the inside of a school. We came to know much about child developmental authorities - more than we wanted to know - and their confidence that they alone knew the best way.
In Laura's case, they're fretting about dangers on the open seas. "She simply does not have the experience to anticipate the problems and possible crises that await her," wrote the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, joining in the fray. Actually, she probably does, and she certainly does in comparison with any journalist or child agency self-appointed to protect her. Laura was born on a yacht and spent her first four years sailing the oceans. She's been sailing solo since she was six, and conceived an around-the-world trip when she was 10. Nobody debates her sailing skills. She'd planned for her voyage to take two years, putting up in ports along the way to dodge bad weather.
Still, if those Dutch authorities had limited their concerns to physical dangers, we could live with that. Sure, it smacks of imposing mediocrity on all young people - uncomfortable to the point of denial that some might develop special abilities or possess special gifts. Having said that, I admit that oceans are wet and deep. Winds kick up a fuss. Pirates make trouble. Mean animals swim around - did you never see Jaws? Thirteen is pretty young. It's not as if one can't see their point. And what's this fixation about being the youngest person ever to do this or that? Someone or other brought up the case of Jessica Dubroff, a seven year old who crashed her plane taking off in rotten weather, attempting to become the youngest person to fly cross country U.S. (though her on-board flight instructor and dad approved the bad-weather takeoff, which suggests that adults should be banned from these activities, not kids).
Moreover, terms of the Court's decision are not especially unreasonable, surely more balanced than anything I can imagine here in the States. Nobody has said she can never go. If a Court-appointed army of child development specialists conclude she'll be okay, she'll get their seal of approval, perhaps in just a few months. And they're not removing her from her home - at least so long as everyone behaves. The family’s own lawyer was satisfied. The decision “supports the idea that you are not a bad parent if you try to help your child fulfill her dream," he noted. And, regarding Laura, "she is happy with the ruling, and now we can prepare this (journey) in a mature and responsible way." Yes, if those child protective people had limited their concerns to physical dangers on the high seas, we could all get on with life.
But they don't limit their concerns to physical danger - they're also worried about Laura's social skills! "A 13-year-old girl is in the middle of her development and you don't do that alone -- you need peers and adults," said Micha de Winter, a professor of child psychology at Utrecht University. Adults can make choose to be alone, he added, "but for children it is not good....Particularly the absence of parents at such a crucial time of the child's development ... the risks are serious." It doesn't occur to anyone that self-esteem from such a feat, and interaction with repair, supply and regulatory personnel at ports around the world, might offset the temporary draught of run-of-the-mill peers and grown-ups. "Two years out of school will have an impact on her normal development," another expert said. "It is wonderful to have dreams, but they have to be realistic." And, suggesting that the Netherlands is a nation of busybodies, the Dutch Prime Minister [!], Jan Peter Balkenende told a weekly news conference that Dekker's schooling must be taken into account. ("Where do you learn more, on a 2-year trip or at high school?" the family lawyer responds.)
Of all the objections we faced homeschooling, the most patronizing, smug, asinine, and exasperating were those dealing with socialization. Exasperating on two counts: 1) in assuming social skills would not develop under homeschooling, and 2) in assuming they would under traditional schooling. What about Columbine? What about Albertville? What about their social skills? In fact, how many socially-inept deviant misfits are there among young people today? Yet they all went to school.
My pal Bob the architect homeschooled some but not all of his kids. That topic came up the other day, before the Laura Dekker story had broken. He reflected that the social skills of his homeschooled kids far outstripped those of the traditionally schooled, who’d been mostly confined to that tiny sliver of humanity – those of exactly their own age. Students one grade above or below may as well have been from another planet - and adults another universe, a universe where they exist only to instruct and supervise, not to befriend or interact. Where does that artificial grouping find any counterpart in the real world? On the other hand, the homeschooled kids I observed, my own included, freely interacted with all in the community, of all age groups, and grew up without self-consciousness of those around them.
The trouble with child protective agencies, as with many agencies, is that they are seldom content to fulfill their original mandate. Instead, they seek to expand it. Didn't they once confine themselves to issues of maltreatment and abandonment? John Holt of Growing Without Schooling used to decry how, under the guise of protection, children are banned from the adult world - a significant contributor to delinquency, he maintained. A few years back, in East Rochester, parents were cited for underage employment of their child. They were dumbfounded. They owned a small deli - it was the family livelihood - and it was nothing for a youngster, returning from school, to take a turn behind the register. Can the kid's life really have been improved by forbidding his participation in the family business?
Showing that socialization concerns, not the physical dangers, are really the only ones that matter, the Court plans to have Laura interviewed by a team of child psychologists. If she passes muster, she may yet sail off when she is 14. So be it. This girl has handled ships alone through international seas. She has interacted with all and sundry port personnel. The psychologists, on the other hand, have read a lot of books, sat through college courses, and earned degrees asserting they are child experts. My sneaking suspicion is that Laura is far better equipped to analyze them than they her.
Unfortunately, degrees are really all that counts in the world today. It might be a better place were that not so.
Aha! Laura Dekker has her own website here. Now you can follow her adventures with the high seas and high government. You can even sponsor her, if you like.
9/8/2009 update: Whoops. I take it back. Looks like Mom doesn't support the trip after all. Sigh....seems like my Mom also used to tell me I couldn't do stuff I wanted to. And most of my scheme's were less ambitious than Laura's. That's a Mom for you.