SimplySailingOnline.com shows by example how easily you can eliminate stress, become more independent, raise your children in a safer environment (while spending more time with them, instilling values not based on the mighty dollar) and avoid the traps of commercialism. Because we live and sail simply, we have been wandering for 11 years with no intention of stopping. This is not a trip for us; it is our life, and I hope to share our success with stories of laughter and tears, as well as how-to tips and DIY projects for preparing, sailing and making a boat a home, so that others can join us.

Should you Cruise with Kids?

October 26, 2015

Because we raised three boys on a 34-foot boat, would-be cruisers are often asking about the logistics of cruising with kids. How do we keep them entertained? How do we keep them safe? What are the options for homeschooling? How do we store all their stuff? How did we keep from killing three teenage boys on such a small boat? But only recently did a mother ask a question that only a mother is likely to worry about enough to ask a stranger. How do you know you are doing the right thing by taking your kids cruising?

A mother's guilt can be both a heavy anchor, preventing us from pursuing our own passions (or continuing a career, or even moving out of the state once our kids are grown) and a powerful motivator, challenging us to push ourselves beyond what our pre-maternal selves would have thought possible. Having kids changes you, making every life decision no longer a question of what you WANT to do, or CAN do, but now including the anxiety of "Is it what's best for the kids?"


Saba field trip

In our experience, growing up cruising foreign lands turns kids into adults who display less bigotry, less racism, more tolerance, and more acceptance of people who are different in any way from their perceived "norm." Cruising exposed our kids to people living in different socioeconomic circumstances and of different nationalities than they would have encountered in our land life. For middle-class white kids, I don't believe there is a better education than living where you are a minority, such as our kids were in the islands for most of their childhood. As adults, they returned to their majority status with an affinity for how the minorities around them feel, the pain inflicted by prejudices, and the realization that we are all members of the human race, regardless of the god you worship, the color of your skin, the language you speak, or the disability you bear.


Finding fun in the boatyard

Besides making kids better members of society, sailing also exposes them to situations of unusual responsibility. Before our kids could legally have been left home alone in the States, they were in full command of their house, everything their family owned, even their family's lives. On watch, alone, hundreds of miles from the nearest dirt, in the dark, what an incredible responsibility that must have been for them. They had to decide when that squall line was close enough to warrant a reef, whether those lights on the horizon were getting closer and we should alter course, and (hardest of all for a young teen) stay awake for their entire watch. But they shouldered all this responsibility knowing that we were right there. At any point, they could knock on the cockpit or shout down to one of us and we would be on deck in seconds. They accepted only the amount of responsibility they felt capable of and passed the buck as soon as they got freaked out and needed their safety net. By giving our children the opportunity to develop their self-confidence in this manner, they never felt alone, they were never more scared than they forced themselves to be, and they developed the feeling that the world was theirs if they were willing to work for it.


School

Living in 280 square feet with two brothers and two parents, taught our boys the respect for others' privacy and belongings. Because they didn't have much, they shared what they did have, but were always conscious of how important their brothers' belongings were to them and treated them accordingly. They got to know each other (and us) better than most families in our old neighborhood because of both proximity and the incredible amount of time we all spent together. It was easier for us to keep track of where they were, who they were hanging out with, and what they were doing, while giving them more freedom than we would have elsewhere. Once we had cleared into an island and checked out the general vibe, the boys were usually given free reign, with the directions to stay together (until we got a better feel for the island, at which point they could venture out alone) and be home by sunset. I believe this freedom to explore helped make them the adventurous young men they are today. Or maybe that was just in the genes.


Nick and David offshore pulling a watch together.

If it sounds like I'm a complete proponent for cruising with kids, let me add a giant BUT. I do NOT believe that cruising with kids is right for everyone in every situation. Before you decide if it's right for you and your children, you must first be honest with yourself about your own skills, capabilities, and reasons for wanting to sail away.

Just like cruising will not "fix" a bad marriage (HA! It actually puts enormous strains on even the most solid ones.), it will not "fix" problems your children may be having, or your bad relationship with your kids. Cruising is not easier than life on land, for you or your kids. It's a lot of work that requires everyone's cooperation, obedience to some specific rules, and amazing tolerances for uncomfortable situations. An unruly child will not suddenly become an angel when you put him on a boat. Cruising won’t correct previous poor parenting skills (only YOU can do that), it can only offer you the time, space, and opportunity to help you succeed.


Garrett fishing while we were under drifter through the Bahamas

I believe there are a few circumstances in which cruising with kids is a down right BAD idea. If you are not a solid, respected disciplinarian, cruising can be more than unpleasant: it can be dangerous for your kids, because there are some rules that MUST be adhered to at all times, by everyone onboard, regardless of their degree of spoiledness. What those rules are will differ for each family based on where you cruise and the age of your kids, but here are a few of ours.

Until a child could swim all the way around the boat without stopping, they had to wear a lifejacket when on deck AT ALL TIMES, even when anchored, moored, or docked. This rule was necessary for a very short time before all three boys were excellent swimmers.
When offshore at night, EVERYONE wears a harnass.
Offshore, if someone is on deck alone, even during the day, he MUST wear a harnass.
If the person on watch leaves the cockpit when they are on deck alone, even during the day, he has to let someone in the boat know he's going forward AND when he gets back in the cockpit.
And the biggest land rule was that the boys be home by sunset. (One of our boys' friends asked them, "What happened if you weren't home by then?" They looked at each other, confused, until one of them admitted, "I don't know. None of us ever tried it.")


Nick coming home from a day of surfing in Dominican Republic

Having a disciplined crew has always been necessary on any ship. This doesn't change just because a crewmember is a minor. If you can't control your kids on land, you might want to reconsider cruising with them. It is not safe, for anyone, for the cruising life to be considered a free-for-all, anything goes experience.

If discipline is not your thing, there is a good chance that your children's homeschooling experience will suffer, as well. Most parents realize that their child's education is their most important responsibility, but a few can rationalize poor decisions. I've heard cruising parents say things such as, "We don't really have a formal school day. You know, they are learning so much about history and culture just being out on the islands that I think that's good enough." Bullshit. How is your child going to learn algebra by visiting islands? Yes, children learn a lot through exposure to other cultures, BUT this should be in addition to a formal/structured education, not in lieu of it! There may be a time when your child will be expected to fit back into a traditional educational setting. (I homeschooled through high school graduation, but our oldest is currently getting his PhD, so he has had PLENTY of expectations placed on him for a formal education. He could meet these because of HOW he was homeschooled.) At that time, how much fun he had snorkeling BVI is not going to help him at all. Decide on a homeschooling program and set rigid expectations of your child (and yourself) for his education.

Even if you think you have the discipline to ensure that your child receives a good education aboard, you must also be honest about your capabilities of teaching him. Not everyone can teach. And reliance on an on line program is not necessarily the best option, either. If you are homeschooling, YOU are responsible for your child's education, regardless of what program you purchase. If your teaching skills and/or patience are not sufficient to meet the challenge, consider waiting until your children are grown to go cruising. The mess you may make of their education cannot be countered by all the positives I listed above.

Included in the teaching skills, is a willingness to let your kids struggle in order to learn. I had a cruising mother tell me once, "I had to take Johnny's math test for him. It was just too hard. He couldn't do that! So I took it and got an A. Now he can go on with the next lesson." See what I mean about cruising with kids isn't for everyone?

The health, well-being, safety, and education of your kids is more important than your own dreams of cruising. Before making the jump, be honest with yourself and realize that cruising with kids is a great idea, as long as it is what is best for ALL of you.

We were recently asked about our retirement plans. MONDAY we'll share our version of sailing your way INTO retirement, rather than AFTER it.

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