YouTubers vilified for making six-year-old son finish a 42km marathon in US

Photos of the family on the marathon shared to their Instagram
The parents have come under fire for allowing their youngest son to join the rest of the family on a 42km marathon. Photo credit: @fightfortogether / Instagram

A mother and father are facing widespread condemnation after photos of their six-year-old son completing a 42km marathon were shared on social media.

Kami and Ben Crawford, who have amassed large followings on Instagram and YouTube by chronicling their family's active lifestyle, reportedly promised their "struggling" six-year-old a tube of Pringles if he continued to persevere after seven gruelling hours. 

Earlier this month, the parents shared photos of their brood participating in the Flying Pig Marathon, a race held annually on the first Sunday of May in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is the third-largest first-time marathon in the US.

However, the photos quickly drew backlash as people levied criticism at the Crawfords for allowing such a young child to participate, with many raising concerns for the boy's health. For reference, 42km is the equivalent of running from Whangaparāoa in Auckland's north to the CBD, a distance that would take between eight and nine hours to walk.

Adding her two cents to the scandal in a furious tweet last week, American long-distance runner and two-time Olympian Kara Goucher wrote: "I don't know who needs to hear this but a six-year-old cannot fathom what a marathon will do to them physically. A six-year-old does not understand what embracing misery is. 

"A six-year-old who is 'struggling physically' does not realise they have the right to stop and should."

In a follow-up tweet, Goucher added: "I'm not questioning motivation or saying it is bad parenting. But as an Olympic athlete, I promise you this is not good for the child."

The Crawfords, who are parents to six children aged between six and 20, routinely share videos to their more than 13,000 Instagram followers and nearly 50,000 YouTube subscribers, documenting their family's day-to-day life. 

The family showcase an active lifestyle and often document their long-distance runs and hikes, including their journey along the Appalachian Trail - a marked hiking trail that passes through 14 states and is about 3500km long. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy describes the track as the longest hiking-only trail in the world.

A spokesperson for YouTube told local media the family's videos documenting their son's training for the marathon did not violate its rules and terms of use.

In a post shared to the family's Instagram a day after the marathon, the Crawfords admitted their son was "struggling physically" throughout and "wanted to take a break and sit every three minutes". The parents added that they had promised him Pringles as a reward - if he "kept moving" about seven hours into the race.

"On the marathon course, Rainier [their son] knew they usually hand out Pringles around mile 20. He was struggling physically and wanted to take a break and sit every three minutes. After seven hours, we finally got to mile 20 and only to find an abandoned table and empty boxes," the Crawfords wrote, alongside a photo of the six-year-old happily clutching his Pringles.

"He was crying and we were moving slow so I told him I'd buy him two [tubes] if he kept moving. I had to promise him another [tube] to get him in the family pic at the finish line. Today I paid him off."

The family said they took eight hours and 35 minutes to finish the marathon.

Despite being widely vilified on social media, Ben and Kami Crawford have defended their decision, claiming on Instagram on Wednesday (local time) that their six-year-old had "begged" to be included.

"We asked him numerous times if he wanted to stop and he was VERY clear that his preference was to continue," they wrote. "We did not see any sign of heat exhaustion or dehydration and honoured his request to keep on going."

While physical activity is encouraged at all ages, an article published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine in 2003 said children should not run long-distance as they are not fully developed physically. Scientists also agree that children are more susceptible to injury when running long distances.

The organisation behind the marathon, Pig Works, has since issued a statement admitting the decision to allow the six-year-old to participate was "not the best course of action".

According to 7 News, Iris Simpson Bush, the president of Pig Works, said in an emailed statement that it was her decision to allow the entire family to participate - including making an exception for the six-year-old.

The event is typically for adults aged 18 and up and in the future, Bush said the age limit would be enforced.

"This decision was not made lightly because the father was determined to do the race with his young child regardless," Bush said. "They had done it as bandits in prior years before we had any knowledge and we knew he was likely to do so again."

The term "bandits" refers to people who join official races without registering.

In a post to his Facebook on Sunday, Ben Crawford claimed that most of his children have run a marathon underage with the help of organisers, specifically Bush. The parents have also written an open letter following the backlash, titled: "An open letter about allowing our children to run marathons."

In a video uploaded on Saturday, the Crawfords claimed they had been visited by Child Protective Services after the agency allegedly received seven reports in relation to the race.