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Family Travel Blunders: WWYD?

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By now I’m sure you’ve heard about Connecticut couple Elana and David Barnes, and how they let their 5-year-old daughter swim with sharks on a recent family vacation.

One of my colleagues here at Parenting blogged about the incident here, and it’s been all over the Internet as well (for the ABC News story, click here; to view the now-infamous YouTube footage, click here).

Much of the fallout from this story has focused on the Barneses for putting their kid in a “potentially unsafe” situation. The Barneses say they researched the risks and decided they’d let their daughter swim with the (typically passive) nurse, lemon and Caribbean reef sharks to nurture an adventurous spirit in the girl.

“There [are] always risk assessments in life every day,” David Barnes told Good Morning America.  “I’m more concerned that they don’t put seatbelts in school buses.”

The incident raises a great question about risk on family vacations, and how far we should be comfortable going to give our children new and exciting experiences when we travel away from home.

Obviously the answer to this question is going to be different for each of us. Heck, it’s probably different from one day to the next. For me, finding an answer also is harder than it seems.

On one hand, I’m all for paving the way for L and R to see and do new stuff, and am a firm believer that one of the biggest benefits of travel is the way it exposes kids to things they’ve never seen, heard or even considered as reality before.

I also appreciate the Barnes’ desire to foster an adventurous spirit in their girl.

On the other hand, I understand the dangers that come with being a stranger in a foreign place, and strive to protect my girls as best as I can. (There is, for instance, a vast difference between a moderate level of risk and negligence like the kind I highlighted in this post from last month.)

Where do you draw the line? Were my wife and I bad parents last month when we took our kids on a hike down a trail susceptible to rockslides? In the Barnes' case, if the sharks had been Bottlenose dolphins—animals that get better press than sharks, but still are known for committing infanticide—would the girl have been “safer” in the eyes of the general public?

I’d like to think most of the decisions Powerwoman and I make on vacations steer our girls away from potentially dangerous stuff and toward new experiences that will broaden their perspective on the world.

That said, we all are fallible; I’m sure my wife and I have erred before and likely will err again.

With all of this in mind, IMHO the best approach on the road with kids is to seek new experiences constantly, and evaluate each situation for risk as it arises. When you see what you perceive to be risk, act accordingly. Say what you will about the Barneses, but their daughter ended up being safe.  Whatever choices we make on our family trips, the rest of us should be so lucky.

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