It is a truth universally acknowledged that every little girl dreams of being a princess. And, for 7-year-old Emily Heaton, that royal wish just came true. Her attentive/overly indulgent father marched off to a remote part of Africa, stamped a makeshift flag into the ground and declared Emily princess of the land. A remote, unpopulated empire, sure, but an empire nonetheless.
The idea first struck Jeremiah Heaton last winter, when he was playing with his daughter. "She has a fixation on princesses," he explained. "She asked me, in all seriousness, if she'd be a real princess someday. And I said she would."
Now, telling a 7-year-old that she's in line for the throne is surely one of those century-spanning, globally accepted affirmations that everybody knows is wildly untrue (second only to "no, your butt doesn't look big in this!"), but papa Heaton ignored the basic requirements of sane parenting and made Emily's dream a reality.
After undertaking research into as yet unclaimed areas of land, he stumbled across Bir Tawil: 800 square miles of desert sandwiched between Egypt and Sudan that neither country has ever confirmed as theirs. Heaton made several attempts to secure ownership of the area online before deciding to cross the continent and do so in person -- by driving through the desert in a caravan for 14 hours and planting the family's home-designed flag on site.
Entitled the Kingdom of North Sudan, their arid enclave is "beautiful," in the words of Heaton. Attractive as it may be, the land could actually be owned by one of its neighboring countries. Shelia Carapico, professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond, remains somewhat unconvinced by the Heaton clan's claims. She said the true ownership of the land could not be known, and that laying down a flag somewhere was no guarantee of securing the area's political control.
Undeterred, the Heatons are excited about the prospects their land grab may afford, particularly their aspirations to transform the Kingdom of North Sudan into a mecca for regional agriculture. Indeed, as is the dream of all 7-year-old princesses, Emily hopes to establish the country as an agricultural hub in a bid to bolster conditions and cultivate a populace in the area. "That's definitely a concern in that part of the world," her father adds. "We discussed what we could do as a nation to help."
But the most puzzling part of all this (and there's really no shortage of that, what with letterheads bearing the country's "seal" already ordered, Heaton's references to his family as a "nation" and the fact Emily keeps a crown permanently atop her head) is that he believes his actions are a reasonable response to a child's musings about joining the monarchy. Literally promising your kid the earth -- specifically that between two troubled countries -- is a pretty risky bar to be setting on a number of levels, and one that will surely shatter any normal expectations of life they'd have from here on out.
If Disney movies come under fire for presenting unrealistic images of adult life, Heaton's actions are surely on another plane entirely. It's sweet that any parent would feel so strongly about fulfilling his child's desires, but creating mini-empires around the globe is a touch extreme. Telling a 7-year-old she can have whatever she wants, whenever she wants it, is a dangerous game to play.
And, crucially, how will Emily's fellow schoolmates react? Imagine a classroom of small children being told that one of them is now a princess-in-training thanks to daddy, and that the other mere mortals will have to endure a life of castle-devoid drudgery. Forget Barbie; there are going to be a whole lot of disgruntled 7-year-olds this Christmas if Santa doesn't put the deeds to a previously unclaimed territory in their stockings.
Provided nobody follows suit, Heaton's venture can just be marked down as one bizarre blip for the parenting handbook's blooper reel. We've surely got enough civil wars going on without dads doing battle over land for their spoiled kids.
Charlotte Lytton is a London-based journalist, and has previously written for CNN, the Daily Telegraph and the New York Observer. Follow her on Twitter @charlottelytton