After all, it was risky when, at 14 months old, we took Maia across Canada. Shivering in a remote northern campground in the autumn cold, we woke her after midnight to show her the Northern Lights. When she was 4, she climbed her first mountain. She insisted on hauling herself up the steep summit under her own power and pumped her fist mightily when she made it. We crossed the Pacific when she was 9, part of a Puddle Jump fleet that included more than a dozen “kid boats,” as we call them. In the Tuamotus we took Maia snorkeling and once inadvertently jumped in amid a school of timid reef sharks. I lifted her legs to the surface to keep her from kicking one as we sputtered in astonishment. A short while later she swam alone with a giant manta ray.
I know this life isn’t for everyone. But it’s also not a life that needs to exclude children. Risk can be balanced by skill and knowledge. Like most boat parents, we’ve spent years educating ourselves about everything from remote first aid, to weather forecasting, to homeschooling, to emergency management, and even to shark behavior, all while amassing a savings, outfitting a boat, and reading bedtime stories.
How much risk is too much risk is a question that we all ask ourselves and a calculation we spend every day trying to solve. I suspect parents in the suburbs do the same. I know a lot of people think we’re selfish—unable or unwilling to give up our adventurous lifestyle to do what’s best for our child. But most of us boat parents chose to embark on voyages with our kids not because they’re inconveniently along for the ride but because we’ve made an intentional choice to share the journey with them. Even when they’re very young, like the night we woke Maia and bundled her up to look at the Northern Lights, the experience wasn’t wasted simply because she was too small to remember. I recall the moment when Maia reached to the sky in awe. She showed the first glimmers of the well-developed sense of wonder she looks at the sky with today.
And we’re not just developing wonder, here. There is research to suggest that early childhood experiences are, as Harvard University researchers put it, “biologically embedded in the development of the brain and other organ systems and have lifelong impacts on learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.” Not to mention that older kids experience very real and measurable benefits from their travels, which range from increased self-esteem to a greater sense of independence.
One online friend, Daphne Stuart, became a boat kid at 17 months and says a childhood filled with wonder made her decide her kids should have the same experience: “The dolphins playing in our wake, the orcas swimming by, the bald eagle scooping up a fish, the beautiful sunset, the people in remote locations. ... This was a gift my parents gave me and the gift I want to give my boys.”
Sara Johnson, one of a trio of authors that’s written the upcoming book, The Complete Guide to Cruising With Kids, crossed the Pacific in 2012 with her husband and children Holly (then 3) and Leah (6). She found that not every benefit was planned, and recounts on her website how her kids have played with dozens of children they didn’t share a common language with and have picked up smatterings of Spanish, French, Tongan, and now Māori as they go to school in Auckland, New Zealand.
As for Maia, we’ve watched her grow from the little girl who taught her grandmother how to haggle for clothes in Mexico into the almost teenager with a firm grasp on world events and a strong belief that she has a role to play as a global citizen. During a stint of being a “normal” kid in Australia, she campaigned to have recycling at school and it was her choice to redirect her Christmas money to Kiva, not just to help struggling business people in need but to help her friends. She’s met so many people.
The simple answer to those who accuse us of putting our daughter in danger is that this life is the best gift we know to give her. It is wondrous to slip into a foreign country at first light, arriving as ancient seafarers did, the land slowly revealing her secrets as our boat ghosts unnoticed into an unfamiliar harbor. We are letting our daughter discover what it means to explore. Yes, there is risk involved in daring to show her the world—but the alternative, the one where we never share our passions with our child and never show her the value in pursuing her own, seems far more dangerous.