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Personal Freedom Device

PFDs give kids independence and parents peace of mind
Story by John Janowiak • photo by Steven J. Conway

For young Lexi and Jamie Oberheide, donning a life vest is a no-brainer, as routine as brushing their teeth before bedtime and almost as fun as wearing their favorite outfit. But it wasn't always so simple. When their dad, Jim, purchased the family's first boat, a Sea Ray 320 Sundancer, he made the mistake of buying inexpensive vests with itchy seams that pinched and poked the kids. Jim learned his first lesson about getting kids to wear life jackets: Let them choose their own - their favorite style, colors and fit - and they'll wear them happily.

"It didn't take me long to go over to Gordy's and buy a couple of higher-end life vests," said Jim, who lives in Lake Forest, Ill., and boats in Lake Geneva, Wis. "The kids selected them, and they were perfect."

Today's life jackets (technically, personal flotation devices or PFDs) come in a range of styles and a rainbow of colors, some even adorned with popular characters like Barbie or Elmo. At ages 12 and 8, respectively, Lexi and Jamie consider themselves a bit mature to decorate themselves in cartoons, but they gravitate toward cheerful reds and blues. They also prefer what are known as Type III PFDs, which comfortably encase the whole torso. Since these fit just like a vest or jacket and can look quite stylish, they're likely to be worn all the time, which makes them well worth the investment.

When shopping for a child's PFD, check for the "Coast Guard approved" label and make sure it fits snugly but not too tightly. For children under age 4, the PFD should have a strap that is secured between the child's legs, fastened to the front and back, to keep it from slipping off. Head support is important, too, especially for younger children. A well-designed PFD will feature a headrest or collar to ensure that the child's head remains upright in the water.

Requiring children to wear PFDs is more than just common sense; it's the law. Most states have life jacket laws in effect, and for those that don't, a federal law requires all children under 13 to wear an approved, properly fitting PFD while under way in any recreational boat, except when the child is below deck or in an enclosed cabin.

From the get-go, Jim and his wife, Lisa, established a rule for their kids: "They can run around the boat and play like a bunch of monkeys as long as their life jackets are on," he said. "They picked up on it really quickly. They were just so thrilled that we had this new toy, they pretty much listened to Dad."

Jim and Lisa's strong-willed 2-year-old, Frankie, is another story. Unable to see the logic of wearing his safety vest, Frankie requires outright bribery to keep his jacket on. He also is not immune to the charms of Elmo, and the Oberheides are willing to graduate him through the cartoon pantheon to buy his compliance. "It's worth it to help make it a habit," Lisa said.

Lexi and Jamie no doubt set a good example for their little brother, and for their friends, as well, according to Jim. Plenty of extra PFDs are stowed on board for guests. Rarely have Lexi and Jamie forgotten to put on their own, and they never put up a fight. "The only children I'm reminding are our guests," Jim said. "The parents are not always clued in to the fact that it's important." He finds himself constantly hammering the point to parents as much as the kids themselves. "That's part of boating, I guess, and one of the risks inherent in being the captain of the boat."

Laying down the law has given him a sense of security. Because his kids always wear their PFDs, he can relax in the knowledge that they'll always be safe on board. "Jamie could be fishing off the back of the boat, Lexi could be walking up the side to the front of the boat, and I'm totally confident and comfortable. The nice thing is that they enjoy the boat so much, the most basic rule-the life vest-is easy."

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