November 3, 2008
It is a classic ethical principle that human beings should not be used as a means to an end. Its logic is sound and difficult to contest. Exercising power over the fate of another human being for the purpose of accomplishing a personal objective, however worthy, is an offense to justice, fairness, respect, and autonomy.
How do we assess the conduct, then, of parents who use their young children as tools, props, or assets as the parents pursue their own personal desires and goals? Too often, we don’t assess the conduct at all. Children do not have legal autonomy, so we are conditioned to give the benefit of the doubt to their parents’ decisions about their lives, even when those decisions approach exploitation…or abuse. A few brave and perceptive souls among us possess well-tuned perception when it comes to the mistreatment and the endangerment of children. Prominent among them is Paul Petersen, the former TV child star turned advocate, crusader and agitator as he alerts the media and somnolent consciences in the entertainment industry to child labor abuses and reckless treatment involving blindly ambitious parents and their vulnerable, trusting, meal-ticket kids.
Petersen sounded the early ethics alarms on “Hounddog,” the independent film that required a pre-teen Dakota Fanning to play the victim in a violent and realistic rape scene, and “Kid Nation,” the CBS reality show that paid parents to abandon their children to long hours of work, physical danger and embarrassing public exposure in the hopes that the kids might become “stars.” Lately, he has taken on the popular reality show “Jon and Kate + 8”, which chronicles the daily travails of a family, the Gosselins, with eight young children. As always, where most of us see entertainment, Paul Petersen sees the reality, the violations and the looming harm beneath:
“…Our concerns stretch beyond the real-time involvement and inherent risks of the work place, to the distant and uncertain future of children who, denied the power to disagree with risky parental decision-making, will have to bear the unique and sometimes deadly consequences of fame, often involving circumstances where they were not adequately compensated for the unintended distortions that will, please believe us on this score, last a lifetime. The images never go away. Never….
“…Are there work permits, limited hours, due consideration for actual or potential harm, and protection of the minor’s income? Is federally mandated education in place? A Court-Appointed advocate must be appointed; an advocate independent of the parents and the production company with the power to actively intervene, if necessary.”
But the thrusting of their eight children into the disrupting chaos of constant cameras, media attention and unpredictable influences by Jon and Kate Gosselin is innocence itself compared to the brilliantly despicable project of former teachers Jon and Nancy Vogel, who are, as they describe themselves on their website, “just your normal, everyday, American family who happens to be following our dreams and chasing rainbows.” The Vogels decided to pull their twin 8-year-old sons out of school and set them peddling on a twelve month, 9300 mile bicycle trip through nineteen US states and four Mexican states. Their on-line diary makes it abundantly clear that the children were often poorly fed, uncomfortable, unhappy and endangered as the Vogels, who were cross-country biking enthusiasts before having children, followed their “dreams.” This often required risking their children’s necks on dangerous stretches of road…
“…The route was very rugged and hilly. At the end of the ride my shoulders, arms, and hands were sore because I was gripping the handlebars with all my might as I was petrified when we rode on the side of a shoulderless road inches away from a 500 foot drop-off. But all is well and we’re in Big Sur….
…camping in badly sheltered areas…
…Because the mountains were barren, the campground had no shelter and the ‘campsites’ were slanted and the ground was similar to a hard-packed gravel road. My second thought was that I was going to have a sleepless night. Fortunately there was a forest service maintenance shed that was closed on 3 sides, had a roof and a concrete floor. We spread out our tarp, laid our mats and sleeping bags in it and slept fairly comfortably that night (except for the occational insect who for some reason decided to crawl across my face). It’s a good thing we decided to take refuge here because the wind howled violently all night and there were several sustained torrential downpours….
…forcing the children to bike up hills that would discourage adults..
…And then we looked ahead to the California section and those 1000-ft or 1500-ft climbs left us shaking in our boots. So when someone told me yesterday that we had a 2500-ft climb to the Grand Canyon and I simply shrugged and said, “That’s now too bad.” I was stunned. I’m looking forward to the day when I can shrug my shoulders and say, “Eh!” to a 5000-ft climb.
…and pushing them onward even when they are sick…
…Davy has been complaining about being “hungry…just so hungry” for the past couple of hours. I gave him some carrots and he devoured them. When he arrived to the campsite he still complained about being hungry, so I have him more carrots while we got organized. I finally made him a peanut butter and jelly tortilla – and he threw it all up after taking one bite. It’s interesting how we learn things – he knew his tummy hurt, but didn’t know the difference between hunger and an upset stomach. I suppose now he knows. As we sat by the fire, Davy would occasionally jump up and puke more carrot soup…hope he has emptied his stomach as we all want a good sleep tonight….
Flushed with the success of this trip, the Vogels set out in June on an even longer journey, from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the tip of Argentina. This 20,000 mile trek will take about thirty months, two and a half years. To read the Vogel’s breezy and cheerful accounts of their endless travels, one would think this is recreation—but it is, in fact, a business. The Vogels accept direct on-line contributions to their “educational quest,” have corporate sponsors, and frequently persuade those they meet on their journey to give them money and food. The only differences between the Vogels’ lifestyle and the Gypsies portrayed in old movies and operettas are that the Vogels have a website, don’t play tambourines, and use bicycles instead of a wagon.
You have to admit, it’s a clever act. The Vogels move through the states quickly (“Peddle faster, boys!”), so no jurisdiction is going to enforce its various laws relating to the care and treatment of children. The website, familyonbikes.org, is bright and professionally designed, with the characteristic look of home schooling sites across the web. The children look healthy and happy.
But there is this tell-tale sentence on the home page that may reveal more about the Vogels than all the rest of the site:
“…And traveling on bikes with your family is an even more incredible, more rewarding experience. You see the world through the eyes of your child, and experience life in the fresh, uninhibited manner of children. Children have a way of worming their way into the hearts of others, and you will be richly rewarded for your efforts!”
(The Gypsies understood the marketing value of children too.)
Americans, most of them anyway, will be reluctant to criticize the Vogels and their employment of their young boys to help them achieve the personal dream of a life on bicycles. It’s their family, after all. And the Vogels are teachers (although they do not know how to spell “occasional”): who is to say, with certainty, that the boys aren’t being educated and socialized as they peddle away for the next two years?
Maybe they are. But it appears far more likely that Davy and Daryl are simply useful tools for self-absorbed parents who are unwilling to make the necessary lifestyle sacrifices parenthood requires, or to be responsible for creating a safe, secure, stable existence for their twins during their formative years, allowing them to make friends, be part of a community, and to experience something resembling a normal life. “When we reach the southernmost tip of South America,” the website crows, “Davy and Daryl will become the new Guinness World Record holders as the youngest people to cycle the Pan-American Highway!”
Wow, that’s really cool. But I wonder if, years from now, Davy and Daryl won’t wish their parents had allowed them to have, in place of that record, a home, and a warm place to sleep at night, and a childhood.