As 13-year-old fights to sail the world alone, other parents are left to navigate balance between helping and hovering

Ever since she was 10, Laura Dekker has wanted to sail around the world. Now that she's 13, she says she's ready to do it.

Alone.

For some reason, her parents agreed.

While other parents worry about leaving their middle school students alone after school, Laura's are fighting the Dutch Council for Child Protection to let her launch her dream of becoming the youngest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe.

She planned to shove off in her 26-foot boat Guppy in September. But social workers in the Netherlands say that's too risky. They asked officials to grant them temporary custody of Laura so they can stop her trip.

This week, as Laura and her dad sat in court in The Hague waiting for a decision, parents across the world struggled over judgments about much more modest journeys:

Should you let a 13-year-old ride her bike to school? Stay home alone after dark? Get dropped off at the movies?

When does protecting become over-parenting? And how do you know when helping is really hovering?

Lenore Skenazy, a New York City mom of two boys, found herself embroiled in the debate a couple of years ago after she let her 9-year-old ride the subway alone. She wrote a column about it, and more than 500 readers called her the world's worst mom — or bravest — or both. Later, she wrote a book: Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry.

"I'm just your average confused parent trying to figure this all out," says Skenazy, whose sons are now 11 and 13. "But I know we have to give our kids roots and wings to fly. Roots alone just aren't enough."

Part of our job as parents, she says, is to show our children they can navigate their world. By limiting them too much, and not letting them learn to fall — or fail — we deprive them of their sense of empowerment, she says.

College administrators, she says, have a name for the new crop of kids who have been hovered over incessantly: "They call them teacups because they're so fragile."

When it comes to setting limits, Skenazy tries to follow a single basic rule: What did I do?

"If my parents let me walk to school alone in first grade and ride my bike to the library at 10, that's good enough for my kids," she says.

Crime rates, she says, have dropped back to the level they were in the '70s when she was growing up. "Statistically, our children are as safe as we were," she says. "It's just that we see these tragic cases now unfolding on our cable news 24/7. We know the names of kids who get abducted and we hear their stories over and over again."

But we don't see news about the thousands of kids who make it home safely every day.

• • •

"I debate with my friends about this all the time," says Judy Anderson, a St. Petersburg mom whose daughters are 9, 12 and 14. "I let my oldest daughter go to the movies as long as she's with a group. But other moms have major issues with that."

This summer, Anderson also let her 14-year-old begin riding the beach trolley with friends.

"I tell my girls, 'There are plenty of scary people out there,' " Anderson says. "But I don't want them to be afraid."

Dr. Peter A. Gorski, USF Professor of Public Health, Pediatrics and Psychiatry, just sent his youngest son to college.

"Parents need to know how to encourage their child's independence and help them stretch beyond what's comfortable. That's the only way we grow. At the same time, it can become extremely dangerous, so we have to know how to show our children their limits. We have to balance that freedom with limit-setting."

Shelly Ash, a St. Petersburg mom, says a neighbor told her she could be arrested for leaving her then-9-year-old daughter home alone for an hour. Ash called Florida's child protective services and found out there is no legal age limit on when a child can be left unsupervised. (Some states do have such laws, and ages range from 8 to 14.)

But even babysitting classes take children as young as 11. If you're old enough to watch someone else's kid, surely you're old enough to look after yourself?

"It all depends on the kid," says Ash. "Age shouldn't determine a person's level of capability."

Like the Dutch girl who wants to sail around the world alone, Ian Lineberger grew up on boats. He first soloed in a johnboat at 8 and was steering his dad's 52-foot sailboat when he was 10.

Lineberger, now 54, has a 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. He would like to let them ride their bikes outside the neighborhood. "We used to get all over the place when I was their age," he says. "But I learned where to look for traffic and how to look out for myself. My kids, they're not as street savvy."

He pauses. "But that's probably our fault because we don't let them do it enough."

He says he wants to give his kids more freedom, so they'll be ready for when things go wrong. And he, too, has a simple rule when it comes to drawing that line: "What would my wife say?"

Lineberger coaches teenage sailors, and has known some 17-year-olds who "probably could make it around the world on their own. But a 13-year-old girl alone in a boat like that, for that long?" he says. "I think that's crazy."

She might be the world's best sailor, he says, "but when bad things happen, she wouldn't have the physical capability to get up there and fix a broken mast."

Skenazy, the New York mom who lets her sons traverse the city by subway, agrees there has to be a limit — and letting a 13-year-old go to sea alone for two years is definitely over the line.

"Even Melville went with a crew."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed. Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com.

As 13-year-old fights to sail the world alone, other parents are left to navigate balance between helping and hovering 08/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 11:02am]

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