That’s the Dutch fourteen year-old who’s been blocked by a Netherlands court from attempting to sail around the world solo – she’d been aiming to set a new world record for the youngest sailor ever to manage the feat. After she managed to run away to the Caribbean last week, defying a court order, she’s facing not just occasional monitoring by childcare authorities – they’re actually talking about taking her into protective custody.
Ever since I heard of Dekker a few months back – when her attempt was first postponed, while she was still just thirteen – I’ve been trying to sort out my feelings on the case. On the surface, the whole thing seems absurd, a clear over-reach on the part of Dutch authorities: After all, she’s an experienced sailor, and her primary guardian, her father, is entirely behind the effort. (Her mother is against it.)
But then questions start to pop up. For instance: Is it really that far beyond standard levels of government “interference” in child-rearing?
We accept, every day, that the government has a right to impose mandatory education on children – generally, this is seen as a good thing. Parents aren’t allowed to pull their kids out of school and put them to work, so why should Laura Dekker’s parents be allowed to pull her out of school for two years of sailing? We also accept that governments, both foreign and our own, have the right to impose controls on minors crossing international borders unescorted by their guardians – again, particularly when it’s applied to child trafficking concerns, this is viewed as a good thing. (And, for that matter, Laura’s still a long way from her driver’s license, too – but she wants to pilot an 8-meter yacht through major international shipping lanes?) That Laura’s case is quite different from the ones these laws are aimed at doesn’t change the fact that the laws do exist, and are accepted by the general public. So can we really say the government is overstepping any major boundaries here? Misapplication, maybe.
I also find myself wondering about Laura’s motivations, and her father’s. In the year of Jon and Kate, Balloon Boy and the death of Michael Jackson, it’s easy to be cynical about children in the public eye. I question the value of something so arbitrary as a world record – this particular one has been broken at least twice in the last year or so, by a pair of teenage boys, and there’s another attempt in the works by a 16 year-old girl. Besides which, Laura’s father answers nearly every objection raised by the Dutch authorities by noting that he’ll be following along behind her in a separate boat, ready to pitch in at any step of the way. So what does it even mean, exactly, to sail around the world solo?
Beyond all this, though, I can’t escape one thought that keeps coming back: There is a truly astounding amount of privilege wrapped up in this story. We’re talking about a fourteen year-old girl who owns her own yacht and apparently has the means to spirit herself from the Netherlands to St. Maarten undetected (that means a credit card at minimum, and probably access to some hard cash, too), whose single father is willing and able to take up to two years to follow her in pursuit of her dream, and who – from the little I can glean from the news reports – appears to think that being thwarted in her desire to sail around the world is about the worst thing that could ever happen to her. Seems to me that everyone – the Dutch government, Laura and her father, and all of us readers who feel as though this story says anything larger about government’s role in protecting at-risk youth – could use some perspective.
A single parent who pulled her fourten year-old out of school and sent him to work at McDonald’s to help out with the rent would almost certainly be accused of child abuse. But I can’t help wondering if that teen’s time on minimum wage wouldn’t, in its own way, actually be a more noble effort?