I recently met Helen Denton, the personal secretary who typed up General Eisenhower's orders for D-Day. What a fascinating and intelligent woman she is! Helen's grandfather moved with his 12 year old son (Helen's father, eventually) from New York to North Dakota and built a sod house on the prairie. He left the 12 year old there by himself and returned to New York to retrieve the rest of the family. The boy spent the long lonely nights playing his violin while the local Sioux population listened outside. In the dead of winter, the native Sioux would leave meat and wood for him, and one time, a buffalo robe. After more than five months, the family arrived to join the 12 year old boy. Years later, when Helen asked her father how he had survived 5 months of winter alone as a 12 year old, he replied, “I was a man.”
A 12-year old man? Unheard of these days. Compare the story of Laura Dekker, the 13-year old Dutch girl who wants to become the youngest person ever to sail around the globe solo. Laura has grown up on the water, having already sailed around the world with her parents, and having spent the first four years of her life at sea. Laura is able, accomplished, and courageous. Her parents have nervously, but proudly, approved her venture.
Laura has been sailing solo since the age of six. She has been planning this trip around the globe for over three years. For now, however, the trip has been put on hold.
What's the problem? The government. Dutch officials have stepped in to prohibit Laura from making the journey, citing her age and the potential dangers that might await her on the high seas. Government trumps parents; government trumps accomplished, courageous, risk-taking teen. Government knows all but knows no boundaries.
Caroline Vink, a social worker at the Netherlands Youth Institute in Utrecht, a research organization that advises the government on youth policy, said ultimately, “the state and society had a moral obligation to intervene when the safety of a child was at risk.” Laura Dekker is now under supervision by the state. She will be evaluated by a state-approved child psychologist. A “moral obligation” in spite of the girl's obvious skills? In spite of her parents' approval and blessing? To what end?
Observers like myself have long noted that we live in an age of hovering, helicopter parents. Overweening parents monitor their child's every move, seeking to eliminate all risk (as if that were possible) and endeavoring to manipulate every circumstance for their child's success. Too many parents now believe that each time their child leaves parental eyesight, that child must be accompanied by a security detail.
Laura Dekker seeks to outdo Mike Perham, the 17-year old British teen who recently circumnavigated the globe solo and unsupported. Her parents approve. The Dutch government seeks to squelch the idea. Granny Government needs no invitation.
Lenore Skenazy cultivates her “free-range parenting” philosophy in New York City at considerable risk. She encourages her son, Izzy, 10, to ride the subway and train by himself, in order to foster independence and competence. Every so often, Izzy encounters an excitable conductor on the train, or an overzealous police officer on the platform, who deems it necessary to call Lenore to excoriate her for not supervising her son at every turn. Officials like to remind Lenore that Granny Government has an eye on you and can take your children.
Parents in Wisconsin and Oregon choose not to seek medical aid for their children, instead trusting their faith to bring healing from disease. The children die from their parents' decisions and exercise of religious liberty. The government prosecutes the parents for reckless homicide. Granny Government second-guesses parents after the fact, and punishes those whose religious beliefs lie outside the general consensus of accepted beliefs.
Good government is not rocket science, nor is it parenting. Good parents are authoritative, not authoritarian nor irresponsibly laissez-faire. Good parents make decisions to grow their children into healthy, independent adults. Government cannot take that role, nor should it try.
Any strong society is dependent on healthy families as the location where healthy citizens are reared. As my grandmother often reminded me, “You raise pigs; you rear children.” Government has no ability to engender love, to cultivate responsibility, to encourage risk and reward, and to foster ambition in children. Government can provide a framework where those parental functions (and rights, I might add) can more easily occur, but government can never replace the family.
Good parenting involves risk. Life involves risk. No amount of Granny Government can alter those facts. However, an overbearing Granny Government can create the new risk of so gutting the role of parent, and so weakening the life of a child, that a new generation will fail to launch. Any such generation then become a directionless, listless amalgam of paranoid, dependent children walking around in adult bodies. For a good example, see Russia.
When that occurs, we need not worry about ever conquering another new frontier. And the likes of Helen Denton will never be met again.