We are about to go on our sixth family cruise. Cruising happens to be a good fit for my family for many reasons, so we continue to book cruises.
I belong to a few cruising groups on social media and online cruise forums. One controversial topic that continues to surface is the amount of freedom that parents give kids on a cruise ship.
Ranges of Freedom for Kids on a Cruise Ship
In my personal onboard experiences and by reading others’ experiences, I’ve seen and heard the whole gamut of freedom ranges. First, let me clarify that there is no right or wrong answer here. Every child is different, and parents make the best decisions for their families. I’m not going to persuade you into give your kids more or less freedom.
On the one end, I know parents that won’t allow their kids to go into the kids’ club on a cruise ship. Some don’t completely trust the kids’ counselors, and some just want to maximize their family time together on the ship. They don’t allow their kids to be without them at any time.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen kids as young as 5-6 years old roaming around with no adult supervision on a cruise ship. Sometimes an older sibling is in charge of them, and most of the time they are in groups. Maybe their parents are nearby and we just don’t see them.
And of course, there are lots of freedom ranges in between. On Disney Cruise Line, parents can choose to give their kids sign-out privileges from the kids’ clubs starting at age 8. But, parents can also choose to still require a parent to sign out their children at that age.
For the tween clubs on Disney, which are ages 11-14, there is no signing in or signing out by either kids or parents. Kids are free to come and go as they please. I know some parents are not comfortable with that arrangement, and will either not allow their tweens in the club, or they will escort them there and have them text them to pick them up.
What Can Happen on a Cruise Ship?
I think for the most part, cruise ships are safe places for families. However, they are not crime-free utopias.
In the past several years, there have been a few children who have drowned in the pools on family cruises. In at least a few of those cases, the child was supervised but escaped in the crowd.
There have also been a few cases where a guest or a cruise ship employee molested or assaulted people. These instances are rare, but they do happen. Cruise ship employees do have extensive background checks performed on them, but guests do not.
I’m least worried about my kids falling overboard. It’s actually pretty difficult to fall overboard from the main outdoor decks. The railings have glass on the inside, which make them hard to climb. I feel children are more at risk on stateroom balconies, where they could climb up on the tables/chairs to fall overboard.
My Family’s Choices on Past Cruises
We have always allowed our kids to experience the kids’ clubs without us present. After all, one of the main reasons we go on a cruise is to have a little bit of adult time as a couple. We don’t have free family babysitting, so the kids’ clubs are something we look forward to.
Several years ago when my oldest was 8 and we were registering him for the kids club, the employee asked us real loud, “So, he is old enough for self-checkout. Do you want us to add that for him?” And we were like “Hush hush, no no!” We hadn’t even told our kids that was an option, and we didn’t feel like he was ready for that at age 8.
However, when he was 10 years old, we did give him self-checkout privileges. But, we put some strict limitations on him.
He had to wear a watch, and we would allow him to stay in the clubs later than his siblings. We would pick them up and put them to bed, and give our oldest a set time to leave the clubs. He was under strict orders to only walk from the club to our stateroom. Under no circumstances could he go into anyone else’s stateroom.
My son proved to us that he was responsible and could handle that freedom, because he arrived back in our room on time every single night. He loved having that freedom, and it gave him confidence and self-esteem.
On our last cruise, he was 11 years old, which was old enough for the tween club (see his review of The Edge). We allowed him to come and go there, but he had to always text us before leaving (Disney Cruise Line has an app with free texting). He was very good about communicating with us. We still did not allow him to go into anyone’s stateroom or just randomly roam the ship, but we did allow him to go to the fast food places and the ice cream station on his own or with friends to grab a bite to eat.
My middle son was 8 years old on our last cruise, and we did not give him self-checkout privileges. However, we did allow him to excuse himself early from dinner and check himself into the kids’ clubs a few times. We always stopped by the clubs a few minutes later to make sure he made it there. And he made it there, every time.
One thing we have never wavered on is that we won’t let our kids wander the ship in their swimsuits. Even though my kids can swim and there are lifeguards at the pools now, I’m super paranoid about child safety at swimming pools.
Decisions for our Upcoming Cruise
We will be boarding Disney Cruise Line again in a few weeks, and we will have to decide again how much freedom to give our kids. Our oldest will be 13 and still in the tween club, so his freedom will be the same as the last cruise.
The harder decision will be with our middle son, who is now 9 ½ years old. He doesn’t have a phone, so we can’t be texting back and forth on his location. Also, he’s a little more distracted than our oldest was at his age.
My husband and I have really waffled on how much freedom to give him on our upcoming cruise. I’m leaning towards giving him self-checkout privileges for the kids’ club. We would make sure he is wearing a watch and give him a time to leave the club to return to our stateroom. If he doesn’t arrive on time or we find out he’s making detours, we can always revoke the privilege.
If you are planning your first family cruise, I recommend you think about these options ahead of time. Discuss your wishes with your kids ahead of time so that they know your expectations. That way, there will be no unexpected tantrums if they have less freedom than they thought they would have.
If we were cruising in the ‘70s, I have no doubt that there would be no sign-in process for the kids clubs. All kids would be free-roaming the entire cruise ship. Times have sure changed!
For my kids, I see how they blossom with extra responsibility and freedom. Sometimes, giving them just a little bit of extra freedom is such a confidence booster. I hope my sons don’t take that responsibility lightly on our upcoming cruise.
Do you have any horror stories or success stories regarding kids’ freedom on a cruise ship?
Nancy lives near Dallas, Texas, with her husband and three kids. Her favorite vacations include the beach, cruising and everything Disney.