What happens to your children's social life when you set off sailing for a week, a month, a year, or longer? This is a question many parents ask themselves when contemplating a family cruise, especially an extended one. Will the only child be lonely? Will siblings clash constantly? Will the children make friends, and if so, how will they handle the partings? Will they be happy and content in the comparative isolation of a transient sailboat after experiencing the social stimulus of school, playgroups, neighborhoods, and extracurricular activities? These are valid considerations and ones that a little forethought, planning, and exposure can do much to alleviate.
Given a little encouragement, young children can be marvelously versatile regarding what constitutes their social criteria. Very young children adore and emulate their parents above all. Beyond that, most are happy to play with any age child, often thriving in the company of someone slightly older or younger when they can either follow or lead. As sailing parents are usually on the look-out for potential playmates for their children, this flexibility in age opens the door to multiple playmates. As my young daughter recently said, "I just want to play. I don't care who I play with." Little children of about eight years and under are the most flexible, with a very limited sense of activity preference. Pretty much anyone who is nice to your young child will quickly be labeled a "friend," a term that identifies anyone from a toddler to a young adult. You as parents can help achieve this by encouraging your children to view everyone, regardless of age, as a potential playmate. Because time together is of short duration, sailing friendships tend to develop quickly and keep their positive momentum until departure day.
By the time our twins were nine, we noticed that a number of sailing couples without children of their own (of which there are many) indulged in what we called Borrow-A-Child. Eager to experience a child's presence, they would lure ours aboard with activities like kite flying, board games, water balloons, etc. Not only did the boys enjoy the fun, but they learned that adults can have as much to offer in the way of friendship as other children, a valuable lesson that refutes the more prevalent modern attitude of peer group exclusiveness.
Finding and meeting boat children as you travel is rarely difficult, as families with young children tend to make their presence felt. Simply look for the boats with laundry festooning the foredeck, a tell-tale noise level, some suggestive dinghy activity (young children are forever getting in and out of dinghies), and a general air of benign confusion. Shy children will need an extra boost of confidence while making the initial contact, something you can provide yourself. Invite children from another sailboat over to play, or offer to take them to the beach or on a hike. If the connection works, that's great. If not, then don't worry about it. Children don't need playmates and a social life all the time, plus there will be other opportunities at other anchorages.
The downside to these interactions is limited. Occasionally youll find that you run the risk of having other children on your hands too often and for too long. Not every sailing parent is apt to be as responsible as you are, and a number of times we've found ourselves like adoptive parents. Children from other families occasionally show up in the morning, make themselves at home all day, and finally leave reluctantly at bedtime. This needn't be a problem provided you and your children all really enjoy the visiting child. At other times, however, you might find yourselves under assault by children you don't really want to have underfoot all day.
We've experienced everything from a baby that was dropped off for the night (along with her two very young sisters) to a somewhat irritating 10-year-old who showed up at dawn and assumed she would be with us all day every day. That's when a trip over to the parent's boat becomes necessary to work out a few important ground rules. If you still find that youre overwhelmed, its time to pull up anchor and leave. Conversely, make sure your own children are sensitive about how much time they spend on other people's boats. I always find it helps to be pleasantly outspoken with the parents so they will feel comfortable telling my children when to go home.
A handful of creative toys can also greatly enhance your children's ability to make friends quickly as well as provide a positive activity for them to enjoy. After numerous years of traveling with young children of both sexes, we still find Legos and matchbox cars the best choices as traveling toys. Children of all ages and nationalities love them and will quickly join in any Lego building or matchbox car activity.
Travel offers a wonderful opportunity for broadening your children's social horizons within the family as well as outside it. While many families today are fragmented, the sailing family functions as a cohesive, supportive whole, with mutual respect and intergenerational participation playing key roles in the success of your venture. Family can play as big a part in your child's social life as friends, particularly if you lay the groundwork with fun family group activities before heading off on your cruise. A friendly family atmosphere, plus the inevitable contact with people of all ages as you travel will more than make up for whatever social activities and friendships your children have left behind.
The Benefits of an Onboard Childhood by Kevin Jeffrey
Juggling Offspring and Boats by Kevin Jeffrey
Sailing with Children, the First Day by Michelle Potter
Buying Guide: Rollerfurlers