To Whom it May Concern,

Q: My daughter wants to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. She is only thirteen, but has been sailing solo since she was six and began dreaming of sailing around the world when she was 10.

She was born while her mother and I were on a round-the-world sailing trip and spent the first four years of her life on the ocean. We have since divorced, and my daughter lives with me. I am still a keen sailor.

At first her mother and I were deeply worried about her plan, and actively discouraged it. But her passion and determination has since convinced us that we shouldn’t stand in her way. She is mature and committed to her dream and we think to deny her the right would make for bad parenting on our part.

But since she announced her intentions, the child protection authorities have asked the court to grant it temporary custody so they can halt the trip. They say we will be breaching our duty of care if we let our daughter set sail. Are we bad parents for our decision to let her go? Isn’t she old enough to make her own decisions? How do we encourage our daughter to fulfill her dreams while protecting her at the same time?

A: These are some of the terrible questions that face us as parents, and I am grateful to you for raising them here. I don’t know that your questions can be answered from afar. They are things that only our children can answer, and sometimes these answers come far too late to help us to be better parents.

One of the reasons people tout parenting as a relationship that helps us to grow up, is precisely because our decisions on behalf of our children ask us to confront the difficult truth that rights always come with responsibilities. You seem to have come up against a golden opportunity to explore this with your daughter. She is willing and able, but of course her risk will come at a cost, perhaps to her, and certainly to you and her mother. For it is you who will inevitably bear the weight if any harm comes to her.

There is also, as with any question of rights, the constraints of the outside world. I may believe I have the right to take a certain action, but am I willing and able to accept the consequences of exercising that right? In this case, are you and your daughter prepared to risk not only her death, but also the experience of children’s court and the possibility of temporary protective custody? Like it or not, you must shoulder the burden of having the final say here. I understand from your question that you would prefer to function by consensus rather than as a dictatorship.

One of the difficult tasks of consensus is to truly put ourselves in the process and to own our own power. Otherwise, our decisions are cowardly and lack the ability to stand up in the face of criticism and tragedy. Can you engage with your daughter in a decision making process that allows both of you to face the rough seas of uncertainty rather than staying tethered to the mast of what seems ‘right’?

Safety is a never-ending and circular concept. Living is never safe, but life is much more meaningful and enjoyable when we take the time to truly check the weather and face our choices. Don’t blindly accept psychological generalisations about parenting and childhood development, but don’t dismiss them out of hand either. Turn them over together and genuinely look to see if they fit. Accept the new information that comes with them if they do, and gently place them aside if they do not. With this as with all parenting, you will need to be flexible enough to bend in the wind, but strong enough not to let yourself be blown over.

Peter Fray

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