Using Children as a Means to an End: The Biking Vogels
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 dont 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:
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 childrens necks on dangerous stretches of road
camping in badly sheltered areas
forcing the children to bike up hills that would discourage adults..
and pushing them onward even when they are sick
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 Vogels 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, dont play tambourines, and use bicycles
instead of a wagon.
You have to admit, its 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,
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 the all the rest of the site:
(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. Its 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 arent 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, thats really cool. But I wonder if, years from now, Davy and Daryl
wont 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.
The Ethics Scoreboard thanks Eve Harrington for her research and assistance
on this article.