America was just introduced to the biking Vogel family, as they embark on a charm offensive seemingly with a potential reality show in their sights. They appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Labor Day, and expect to get a boost in publicity thanks to a typical softball interview by a beaming stand-in for George Stephanopoulos. (Video taken and selected by the Vogels themselves accompanied the interview, further allowing them to present their trip in the most favorable light.) It would be have been both responsible and right, however, if the Vogels had been asked more pointed questions, probing the serious issue of whether John and Nancy Vogel may be exploiting and even abusing their children in pursuit of fame, fortune, and an “Easy Rider” life-style that being parents of young children ought to preclude.
The Vogels, a pair of former school teachers, are in the midst of a perpetual cross-continental bike tour with their twin pre-teen boys. They may be the embodiment of the national spirit, eschewing traditional, hide-bound conventions and tradition to live a life of adventure and discovery; that is certainly the image they want to project. But there is evidence that John and Nancy Vogel are the latest example of high-profile parents compromising the safety, welfare, comfort and emotional development of their children for selfish motives.
If so, the exploitation is certainly cleverly disguised—Fresh air! Exercise! Education!—and almost impossible to stop, since the under-staffed child welfare agencies of the states they race through are not inclined to track them down to check on how the Vogel children are faring. What are the Vogels, then: a real life “Swiss Family Robinson” on bikes, or a cycling make-over of the Gosselins and Octomom, parents willing to rob their offspring of a stable and a healthy upbringing to collect a check? For the sake of the Vogel twins, that question needs to be answered, and had “Good Morning America” been interested in doing its job, rather than filling air time with a standard human interest puff piece, the show would have launched a serious inquiry into the short and long-term health, safety and socialization of the children John and Nancy haul along with them on their endless journey.
For more than four years, the Vogels have relied on cheerful representations of their travels to attract contributions over the internet and on the road: the perpetual bike trip is the family business now, and the children are critical employees. Nancy Vogel, the Homer of their odyssey, frames the journey in her web posts as a home schooling enterprise, knowing well that people will give money to keep children fed, schooled and sheltered even if they have doubts about their parents’ motives. As she wrote early in the first trip, in 2006:
“Children have a way of worming their way into the hearts of others, and you will be richly rewarded for your efforts!”
Whenever children become essential to a family’s income and chosen lifestyle, there is a lurking conflict of interest. Though the parents might say that the children are following their dreams, it is often the parents’ dreams that are threatened if the child wants to do something else. This may be the stressful dilemma facing the Vogel children. They are now an irreplaceable component of their parents’ personal life goals, whether they like it or not.
The Biking Vogels, contrary to Nancy Vogel’s subsequent efforts to revise history, did not begin with an innovative teacher couple deciding that their two boys could best be raised on bicycle seats, but with a scene right out of Albert Brooks’ “Lost in America.” John Vogel came home after a frustrating day at work, and announced his personal desire to “drop out,” Sixties-style. As Nancy tells it:
“Nancy,” he said. “I can’t do this. I need to get away. I want to buy a triple bike and take off. Just me and the kids – out exploring the world. We’ll be the three musketeers… We’ll be Superman and Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk rolled into one!” He stopped his reverie long enough to look at me. “Oh yeah – and you can tag along too.”
Two months after that strange beginning, the Vogels pulled their boys out of school and began their first trek, funded by home-schooling supporters and on-line contributors whose hearts had been thoroughly wormed by Davy and Darryl. Nancy’s guileless accounts of the first trip raised alarm in some readers, as well it should have. A year-long family biking trip may sound like the plot of a Disney movie, and that is good enough for most casual followers of the Vogel’s experiment in child-rearing. The reality is somewhat different, however.
The trip’s diary described periods when the family was forced to stay in abandoned or half-finished buildings. They were sometimes reduced to begging for money, water, or gasoline. Sometimes the family was short of food; “the kids were starving!” Nancy writes at one point. Darryl wrote:
“ I know I’m going to be tired. We’re getting a really late start because it is so cold. I’m going to be crying because it’s so cold. We don’t have any food!”
Clearly, the boys’ nutritional needs have not always been always met. Nancy wrote in 2006:
“We hit a new low in our culinary pursuits this morning. We have eaten peanut butter and jelly for breakfast many times in the past few months…PB & J sandwiches, PB & J on tortillas, PB & J on crackers… But this morning we had only PB & J.”
Reading the trip journal, one might conclude that the whole family frequently subsisted on tortillas, peanut butter, and candy. That wasn’t the dangerous part, however. The journal describes the Vogel parents absent-mindedly allowing their children to ride off in cars driven by strangers, or sending one of the 10-year olds on a solo errand in unfamiliar territory. John describes peddling in dangerous circumstances, with both boys in tow, writing:
“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.”
In one interview, the boys are asked what they fear most, and one replies, “Getting hit by a truck.”
There are definitely educational opportunities on the trip, though anyone who has found it challenging to effectively homeschool a boy in a stationary home, with good light, temperature controls, a home library and regular internet access without having to travel 25-40 miles a day on a bicycle might question how effective Davy and Darryl’s education could possibly be. One gushing interviewer asked the boys what they did when they weren’t biking: Davy answered, “Play or sleep most of the time. Sometimes we work on math or do journals.’ That sounds about right, to me, though homeschooling experts I consulted regarding the Vogels cautioned that the boys might be receiving a good education. There is no way to be sure.
Still, I would be inclined to regard a one-year family adventure on bikes as more Disney than Gosselin, except that as soon as it ended, the Vogels hit the road with another forced march. From Nancy Vogel’s blog:
“By the time we headed back home we had pedaled 9300 miles and knew we wanted more. Much more. As a family we made the decision to cycle from Alaska to Argentina, and set about preparing for a much longer tour than any of us had ever attempted – three years through extreme conditions.”
Is it really and truly “we”? This is a key feature of the revised Vogel myth, that the decision to spend a life on bikes is a “a family decision.” Of course, in the typical responsible family, if a child says, “I think we should chuck school, rent out the house, and live on contributions from strangers while we bike to Argentina!”, one or both parents would end the discussion with, “Uh-huh. I think you should finish your homework and go to bed.” I strongly suspect that in the Vogel family, when the father says,”I don’t want to go back to work; I want to go on another trip, and you all are coming with me,” the kids say, ”Yes, sir!” That Nancy Vogel recasts this probable scenario as “the kids following their dream” smacks of wishful thinking or outright misrepresentation.
In her journal, Nancy explains how the boys were made excited by the prospect of the second trip by the idea that it could qualify them to be in the Guinness Book of Records…as would, for example, cycling backwards while playing the violin, or having snails crawl on one’s face for more than 10 seconds. Among the life lessons being taught in the Vogel School of The Open Road is that it makes sense to sacrifice health, safety, time and stability in pursuit of pointless notoriety. This, like much of the Vogel saga, does not bode well for the future of Daryl and Davy.
The second trip, from Alaska to Argentina, is ongoing now. As with the first, Nancy Vogel’s account raises questions about the twins’ safety and their parents’ judgment. For example, there is the incident of the drunk doctor and the infected toe, from last fall. It seems that Davy, now 12, had been cycling for some time with a painful ingrown toenail:
“ I had talked with the doctor that morning and he assured us that he could cut out the end of the root so Davy should never get an ingrown nail again. I wondered if the doctor had been drinking as soon as I got there, but it was hard to tell since I couldn’t talk with him. He was shaking a bit and it sounded like he was slurring his words – but since I didn’t understand anything anyway, I wasn’t sure. After he started cutting, I got close enough that I could smell the alcohol on his breath – and almost walked out right then. But by then, he had Davy’s toe all numbed and was cutting, so I stayed. I’m not sure what he did – hopefully he did the surgery right!”
“The bad news is that he only did one..Even though only the one is ingrown and infected right now, it won’t be long before the other one is bad again – and we don’t want to deal with this again. I thought the doctor understood that we wanted both done, but he only did the one that has trouble now. Bummer!”
Later, Davy finally gets his other toe doctored (by a sober nurse), spurring Nancy to reveal how much he had been suffering—though her emphasis, significantly, is on the inconvenience this caused during the trip:
“We’ve been dealing with these ingrown toenails for so long, it’s hard to imagine a life free of toe pain. No more searching and begging for hot water to soak the foot, no more bandaging up with antibiotic ointment every morning, no more racing against the clock trying to get help before infection sets in.”
And it is never going to end. This is what is so misleading about Nancy Vogel’s “dream” argument. The pattern is set; the boys have lived their lives on bicycles since 2006, when they were eight years old. The Vogels are already discussing another trip after the current one ends in 2011. The supposed dream may be a nightmare. One concerned follower of the Vogels writes,“If one assumes that one’s memories start from approximately age 3 onward, these boys have spent 35-40% of their lives on bikes on the road, missing out on socialization, friends, sports, etc. If and when they ever decide to resume an American life, they will have a hard time relating.”
The ordeal has other possible physical consequences too. Steven M. Schrader, Ph.D, a specialist in reproductive health assessment for National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, was asked about the long-term effects of unusually frequent cycling on the bodies of young boys like Davy and Daryl. As with adult cyclists, Dr. Schrader says, the twins are at increased risk of genital injury and future sexual dysfunction. Simply stated, the human body was not designed to spend months on a bike seat.
Dr. Kathleen Platzman, an Atlanta psychologist who specializes in child development, has this to say about the Vogels:
“While there’s nothing to prove that child neglect or abuse is definitely happening within the “Bicycling Vogel” family, there is at least a possibility, given what we know, that it could be occurring. Much has been written about the basic needs of children. There are physical survival and safety requirements. Additionally, there are social and emotional needs such as a safe, nurturing and predictable environment inside a stable context of family and community. I think there is legitimate concern about the Vogel children, enough to warrant scrutiny about how these children are coping with their life and whether their needs are being adequately met.”
Before the Vogels make America more complicit in what may be the exploitation of their children, it would be reasonable and prudent to have them examined by competent professionals to ensure that the boys are as happy, healthy, well-educated and well-adjusted as the family claims. “Good Morning America” did neither its research nor its duty, irresponsibly allowing Nancy and John Vogel to burnish their credibility without actually establishing it. The news media will have other chances, however. Here are some of these questions the Vogels should have to address in their next television appearance:
- What do your children eat on a typical day on the road?
- How much educational material do you carry with you on the bicycles?
- How much actual schooling do they get?
- Do they have any friends?
- How much time do they get to spend by themselves?
- Will the bike trips ever stop? When? What will the family do then?
- How much does the family get in contributions?
- How is it spent?
- Do the boys have regular dental check-ups? Medical check-ups?
- If one or both twins announced that they were sick of biking, would it make a difference?
And most important of all:
Will you allow your children to be interviewed by a child psychologist not hired by you, as well as a child welfare specialist? And if not, why not?
Doing their journalistic duty by asking these questions may not give interviewers the warm, inspiring feature they crave, but it could end the exploitation of two young boys, and change their lives for the better. Or, quite possibly, it could prove to critics and doubters that the Vogels really are the bold but responsible parents they say they are.
Either way, the questions need to be asked…and answered.
[Ethics Alarms want to give special thanks to Eve Harrington, without whose guidance and research this post would have been impossible.]
Note: To avoid a tedious theme already showing up in some comments on this post here and elsewhere, let me clarify some facts. I do not lack for time with my own child, Grant, who is 15. I work in a home office, and Grant is home schooled. I see him every hour of most days, except when I am on the road. Sometimes, if he wants, he accompanies me on trips. Grant is not, as has been speculated on some threads begun by Nancy Vogel, a “fat couch potato who isn’t allowed to leave the house.” He is a road and mountain biking enthusiast—surprise!– who often takes off with his friends or by himself on bike trips of 40 miles or more—when he wants to do so. He is slim, muscular, and fit. He has his own room, and he has privacy when he wants it…which is often.
My wife and I have hardly mastered the mysteries of parenthood, and we have as many doubts about our choices as any parents. What we have done has been in response to our assessment of our son’s needs, and we are very aware that there are infinite approaches to child-rearing that can or do work, and that many of them might have even worked better for Grant, though that may never be known for certain. The attacks on my questions about the Vogels that include the assumption that I have some rigid concept of the “right” way to care for children is just wrong, and, I think, desperate. Also wrong is using one’s children as a means to an end, and there are justifiable reasons to suspect that this is what the Vogels are doing.
I’m not sure I like all of my son’s dreams, but they are his, not mine. And I will do what I can to help him follow them, if he’ll let me.