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Parenting: What risks are too risky for families?

Monday - 4/14/2014, 6:59am  ET

Sailors from the frigate USS Vandegrift assist in the rescue of the Kaufman family with a sick infant on the ship's small boat, as part of a joint U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard rescue effort. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, File)

Is a risky adventure risky behavior?

WTOP's Randi Martin reports


WASHINGTON -- Last week, Eric and Charlotte Kaufman and their two young daughters were rescued as their attempt to sail around the world ended.

The baby was ill and the boat was sinking -- and surviving dangerous waters wasn't the end of it. Public backlash from the parents' decision to sail with their two young children labeled them reckless and irresponsible.

But how risky was their behavior?

"Obviously there is some risk involved when you take a baby out on a boat, but you know there is also some risk involved if you take a baby out in the car," says Anne-Marie O'Neill, editor of parenting website

"I think as a society, and unfortunately as parents, we are very swift to judge other parents without knowing all the facts."

The San Diego-based Kaufman family lived on their 36-foot sailboat, Rebel Heart, for seven years. Both parents are seasoned sailors and Eric is a licensed Coast Guard captain. They started their journey in 2012 on a ship stocked with food, safety equipment and medications.

But 900 miles off the coast of Mexico, everything went wrong.

"Look, the ocean is a very big place. When you compound that by saying, ‘Let's go take a trip around the world in a small boat,' there's a much higher risk there," says CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg.

Eric and Charlotte Kaufman with their daughters, Lyra, 1, and Cora, 3. (AP Photo/Sariah English. File)

The boat lost steering and communication abilities, and 1-year old Lyra developed a severe rash and fever and was not responding to medication. A distress call was sent, launching a huge rescue effort involving skydiving National Guardsman and three federal agencies.

While some criticized the Kaufman's journey with their two young children, others took their side, saying children benefit from worldly adventures.

"First of all, if a family wants to take its kid on vacation to Somalia, I would have to question that," Greenberg says. But it's really a matter of parental responsibility across the board, and any safety precaution is better than none."

So were these parents reckless? Would you take your children on risky vacations? Let us know in the comments section of this story, on Twitter or on the WTOP Facebook page. Until then, a local parent shares her take on worldly adventures with children.

Risk is relative
By Melissa Reitkopp

When I was 8, my parents took me, my younger brother and younger sister to live in Thailand. This was in 1971, just as the United States was "winding down" its involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

At the time, this was considered either a risky adventure or an amazing, eye-opening cultural experience that could expose the family to another language, different foods and a whole new way of life.

Some people never heard of Thailand; others wondered why my parents would take three kids to a foreign country on the other side of the world. My dad was moved by his employer, the Peace Corps, and we were housed and schooled in Bangkok.

We played soccer barefoot in the streets with the neighbors. During the rainy season, we climbed on the bus with our socks, shoes and a towel in our hands -- all after trudging through knee-deep water with swimming fish. I can still speak a few Thai words and love the spicy food.

Fast forward to 1992: I'm married, with a 14-month-old and a 2.5-year-old. A mover dropped off a 40-foot container in front of our apartment. Fifteen preschoolers were inside, jumping up and down, listening to their voices echo. It was a field trip farewell to my son because we were moving to Guatemala on a USAID project.

"What language do they speak there?" we were asked.

"Aren't you scared?" others queried.

We left the comforts of the U.S. for unknown places. A house and an American school waited for us. We also received 10 percent danger pay and lived behind barbed wire-topped walls.

We were immersed in Spanish and all became fluent after five years. Visitors went home with small parasites in their intestines 50 percent of the time.

Was it risky to take kids to either of these places? Did the opportunity to experience the world or live an alternative lifestyle and expand our horizons put us in unnecessary harm? What does "unnecessary harm" even mean?

Most parents wouldn't place their children in situations where they wouldn't be safe themselves. Hopefully when we, as individuals, make a decision, we do it after considering our options. Sometimes we make decisions impulsively. Sometimes we plan our activities to avoid any bumps. The reality is, regardless of whether we do or don't plan, often the outcome is decided by forces outside our control.

Yes, my parents' decision to move us to Thailand was risky. But as an adult, I volunteer my time to raise funding for at-risk women/immigrants/refugees to take intensive training to launch micro-enterprises. My entire family plays soccer. We all speak Spanish. We love food and cultures from all over the world. We are members of the world community.

Much of that came from that early childhood experience. As parents, I think exposing young children to all sorts of sometimes risky situations enables them to be open to other, newer experiences. I wouldn't change a thing about my childhood, and hopefully my kids say the same about theirs.

Editor's Note: After 20 years as a "headhunter" for quantitative researchers, Melissa decided to embrace some other passions, including writing and community service. As a board member of Empowered Women International, she shares her expertise with women entrepreneurs- to- be. And when her mind needs a break, she turns it off and practices yoga, goes climbing and plays soccer. Read her blog Maverick Mel and follow her on Facebook.

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