Family Cruising and Healthy Child Development

By Ann Saitow

Family cruising presents a set of environmental conditions that contribute to healthy child development. The affirmation of family values is expressed through shared experiences that provide opportunities to live among people from other backgrounds. Theories of human development explain intellectual and emotional behavior as predispositions of age in relation to a child’s surrounding environment. These milestones in maturation have become the guidelines driving school curriculum, as well as the expectations for social acceptability.

The positive psychological and emotional outcomes of family cruising potentially challenge the findings drawn by many human theorists – with cruising children exhibiting mature and compassionate behavior beyond the expectations defined in their literature. Conclusions reached in child development research appear to be more relevant to conventional school experiences and social communities where children are arbitrarily grouped together by age – rather than immersed within a heterogenic environment like a cruising setting.

Enriching a Child’s Understanding
Family cruising experiences enrich a child’s understanding of the world through the daily interactions that characterize the lifestyle. Arriving at a new destination becomes a chance for families to reach out to others in the sailing community, replenish provisions at a local marketplace, make boat repairs, and venture ashore to become familiar with their surroundings – each endeavor results in direct contact with the cruising and indigenous cultures. Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) determined that “the ecology of human development involves the scientific study of the progressive, mutual accommodations between an active, growing human being and the changing properties of the immediate settings in which the developing persons lives, as this process is affected by relations between these settings, and the larger contexts in which the settings are embedded” (p. 21). The cruising family experience encompasses a broad range of relationships and circumstances that build self-confidence and healthy child development.

Widening Cultral Awarness
Cruising families become part of a larger communal network that re-forms at each new anchorage. The nature of a cruising environment inherently provides a child with a multiplicity of social and cultural resources. The access to a variety of people and situations form a basis for scaffolding – the collective structure that contributes to healthy child development. Gardiner and Kosmitzki (2005) concluded that scaffolding is an effective way to acquire specific cognitive skills. Scaffolding refers to “the temporary support or guidance provided to a child by parents, older siblings, peers, or other adults in the process of solving a problem” (p. 104).

Cruising families report improved communication between parents and children, as well as more tolerant and supportive relationships among siblings. This phenomenon is brought about by the close proximity of living aboard, and the need for cooperation in order to fulfill family endeavors. There are responsibilities associated with family cruising that are critical to the safety and well-being of each member. These everyday tasks shape a rearing environment that is founded upon a deep commitment to keeping the family together, and at the same time, allowing children to experience a broader world perspective. Super and Harkness (1986) suggested that a developmental niche defines a child’s place in the world. These researchers believed the forces that influence a child’s development are related to “the physical and social settings in which the child lives, the culturally regulated customs of child care and child rearing; and the psychology of the caretakers” (p. 522). The child’s cultural context is formed by these subsystems.

Cruising immerses children in a series of experiences that require social and physical interaction with their immediate environment. Their desire and ability to emotionally and intellectually engage as they enter a new situation becomes a basis for adjustment. Piaget (1950) described human intelligence as a type of evolutionary biological adaptation that enables a person to interact successfully with the environment. He theorized that the ability to adapt to environmental change led to cognitive development.

As mentioned above, a cruising life presents opportunities to reach out to people as a way of becoming acclimated to a new place. By developing skills in forming these connections – cruising families become engaged in communal exchange, and subsequently learn to accept differences in cultural values. Erik Erikson (1950) endorsed a perspective on human development that was grounded in psychosocial research. He wrote that each stage of development entails a crisis in which the ego tries to find a balance between new ideas and previous assumptions. In order for healthy development to occur, the series of psychological crises require resolution. Cruising children learn to initiate friendships as a way of adjusting to an unfamiliar place. These socializing skills build self-confidence which enables them to forge new connections with their changing environment.

Cruising families returned to conventional life with perspectives and sensitivities that connected to the people and places they spent time. Often their travels took them to places where people lived at standards below their own. This direct exposure to different lifestyles nurtured an understanding of how people survive adverse conditions. Greater tolerance for what was initially unfamiliar became a basis for moral development and greater self-awareness.

Long-Term Benefits
In addition, some cruising parents shared observations about how their children adapted to conventional life upon returning home. Cruising pre-teens and teenagers did not participate in destructive or irresponsible behavior most commonly associated with adolescence. They retained a high level of motivation to succeed and remained focused on achieving their goals – rather than engage in “typical” risky behavior patterns. Kohlberg (1987) developed a theory of moral development that classified stages in terms of “(a) what is right, (b) the reasons for upholding the right, and (c) the social perspective behind each stage” (p. 283). Kohlberg explained that these stages show more sophistication and complex orientation toward justice and moral principles. Cruising children had the advantage of rich, life experiences to steady their transition through adolescence.


From the multiple theories of human development – in conjunction with feedback provided by cruising families, my study revealed that the intellectual and emotional benefit children derived from their travel experiences was directly related to the social communities in which they lived. A significant aspect of family cruising that contributed to healthy child development can be attributed to the efforts of parents – who remained dedicated to opening their children’s minds to the infinite possibilities that existed beyond their lives back home. “Living the dream” was a rare gift that cruising parents shared with their children, and the positive outcomes were evidence that the experience left a sustained, meaningful impression.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Gardiner, H.W., & Kosmitzki, C. (2005). Lives across culture: Cross-cultural human development (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Kohlberg, L. (1987). Childhood psychology and childhood education: A cognitive- developmental view. New York: Longman.

Piaget, J. (1950). Psychology of intelligence (M. Percy & D.E. Berlyne, Trans.). London: Routledge.

Super, C.M., & Harkness, S. (1986). The developmental niche: A conceptualization at the interface of child and culture. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 9(4), 545-569.

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