The Current

What Qualifies as Dangerous Parenting?

When children end up in harm's way because of their parents, do positive intentions matter?

Parenting is a risky business before you try to do it on a mountain.

Parenting is a risky business before you try to do it on a mountain.     Photo: Serge-Kazakov/ThinkStock

"In six days I can’t possibly describe the range of emotions I have felt so far: anger, joy, sickness, exhaustion, exhilaration, wonder, awe, contentment, peace."

So wrote Charlotte Kaufman in her blog on March 25 (Day 6 out at sea) from the cabin of her 36-foot sailboat, the Rebel Heart.

By now many of you have probably read of the dramatic rescue of Charlotte, her husband and two daughters, ages 1 and 3, from their failing vessel—900 miles off the coast of Mexico, out in the Pacific Ocean; a rescue that involved the California Air National Guard, the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard. The cost of the rescue, and the fact that it was spurred by the sickness of their one-year old, has triggered a lot of debate about parenting. Their choice to sail from Mexico to New Zealand with young kids has been called anywhere from "child endangerment" to "tantamount to child abuse" by folks posting comments on a New York Times article about the incident.

For me it also raises lots of questions, but maybe different ones.

  • When is it okay for others to judge, even intervene in one's parenting?
  • How do we as parents give our kids experiences that stretch their conception of what's possible?
  • How do we as parents combat the potentially numbing effects of a cushioned life? How do we give our kids experiences that help them learn to assess risk for themselves?
  • How do we help our kids feel the wide range of emotions that make them uniquely human: the "anger, joy... exhaustion, exhilaration, wonder, awe, contentment, peace" that Charlotte writes about. The "sickness" I guess we mostly try to avoid; though even that is a question for me. What do we not do for fear of getting sick?

Before we cast stones, let's look at the choices we've made ourselves. I, at least, can't say I haven't made some that endangered my children, but like the Kaufmans I'd stand by them, mostly. And, by odd coincidence, I've also had a window into the business of accusing parents of incompetence and taking their children away.

When our daughter Molly was two, she and my husband, Peter, and I flew up to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories of Canada. From there we hired a car to drive us the 150 kilometers out the ice road to the tiny Inuit village of Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. It was winter. It was cold. It felt very exposed.

After three days of snow and wind and dropping temperatures we were told the ice road was closed. We now had two choices, fly out or stay indefinitely. I had a New Year's Eve dance performance to produce back in my hometown of Missoula, Montana. I felt I had to be there. I wanted to get out.

Luckily for us, the next day we got news a small plane would be coming in and we were told we could get on it, if we'd be willing to escort some kids bound for Inuvik. Why not! Sure, we said.

That Christmas Eve, the dim twilight that passes for day had slipped back into darkness. We stood by the chain link fence that delineated the airfield, a short strip of asphalt in a patch of windswept tundra, beneath the single light. We were bundled in all the winter gear we had but were chilling down fast, our eyes tearing in the bitter wind. Then everything seemed to explode into chaos.

An unmarked van pulled up and three small kids were lifted out and thrust into our arms. The pilot, appearing out of nowhere, was shouting,

"We have to get out of here! Now!"

I ran toward the small propeller plane, with Molly hanging onto one hand and a small boy, maybe four?, holding onto the other. Peter was ahead of me with a baby in his arms, pulling along a trundling toddler.

"Strap your seat belts on painfully tight. There're hundred-mile-an-hour winds ahead. It's gonna be a rough ride!"

The plane was used for the transport of goods, so had only a few seats bolted haphazardly into the floor in no obvious pattern. As soon as all our buckles were fastened the plane was bumping down the runway. The small boy dropped his own toy plane and watched unhappily as it skidded away, clattering over the metal grate of the floor, and crashed into a bulkhead in the back. I couldn't reach it, as we slanted up, bouncing into dark sky, but tried to reassure him that we'd get it. The baby began to cry. These kids' mom, we were told, had been found drunk in a snow bank.

When we landed in Inuvik, Molly and I got to head for a B&B, but Peter had to accompany our charges to their new homes. They were being split up. On this Christmas, these Inuit children would start a new life with white families, in a new town—without their mom, without their brothers and sisters, without their extended family, without their community, without their culture. When Peter returned his face was ashen.

It's a big debate: when are parents judged unfit for parenting, and by whom, and what then, and will that be better? Certainly there are terrible parents who physically and sexually abuse and are drunken, drugged and neglectful. The Kaufmans out sailing on the Pacific, however, with their love of adventure and hopes, I imagine, to raise their daughters to feel that much in their lives will be possible, even crossing an ocean, would not seem to fit into this category.

On that plane, bucking and dropping in the night, the needs of my dance performance suddenly seemed ridiculous, compared to endangering our daughter. We could have crashed. In the best-case scenario we'd have been the beneficiaries of an expensive rescue, like Charlotte and her family out on the Pacific. In retrospect, I would say we made a stupid choice. But I'm not talking about the choice to go way out. I'm talking about the choice to allow our grid-locked, time-clocked world, our world of career ambitions, run our lives, rather than listening to nature. Nature will always outdo us in the end.

But then we all make poor choices, for the wrong reasons; or sometimes, good choices that have risks attached and go awry. Hopefully we learn something and figure out how to make a better choice next time.

Charlotte's blog, Rebel Heart, March 26 (Day 8 at sea—clearly she's already letting go of the time-grid because her dating is funky): "I stepped out into the cockpit and turned slowly in a complete circle. All around me is water. Not still-standing water, like in a bathtub. The waves are alive. They are on a mission. They roll heavily southward, determined to get to an equatorial shore somewhere, or even further along towards Chile and the Antarctic. And the waves provide no exit or short cuts; we cannot get off this boat. There are no rest stops. No Holiday Inns. We can’t stop at a friend’s house. No Grand Slam breakfasts at Denny’s or Blizzard cones at Dairy Queen. We can’t walk into the waves. The only way to move is forward, or in our current trajectory, westward. If something breaks, we must fix it. The girls have no one to talk to but each other, and me and Eric."

Now there's an experience that would instill wonder, inspire awe, and teach resilience. I would hope I could offer my kids those kinds of experiences, if not in exactly that way. And yes there's the risk. Most of us aren't going to take a risk that big. But the fact that others do, helps us push our own boundaries, if only a little bit. 

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