It is one of the tougher calls of parenthood. What do you do when your child seems to show an aptitude or talent for something at a young age? Do you encourage them? Do you rein them in, and force them to keep their skills in check until they are older? Do you allow them to pursue activities that fly in the face of most conventional measures of good parenting?
That’s a question Abby Sunderland’s parents may be asking themselves as they wait anxiously for any news about their 16-year-old daughter. Abby Sunderland was attempting to become the youngest person to sail on a solo mission around the world. This morning, she lost contact with her parents during a storm in the Indian Ocean, and a hour later, the Sunderlands received news that Abby had set off her emergency beacon locater devices, which are used when a person is either in the water, or in the emergency life raft. She has yet to be found. The last few days, Abby has been sailing seas with waves of 60 feet, so even if she is in the raft, her situation is incredibly perilous.
With any luck, she will be found and will be okay. But the question remains: was it bad parenting that put her in the water in the first place?
No matter how you slice it, Sunderland is a 16-year-old. There has been a lot of evidence that the developng brain of a teenager is less able to handle distractions, calculate risk, and understand danger—all skills that a sailing venture of this magnitude would depend upon. It’s one reason we don’t allow kids to drive a car until they are 16—and why many states are instituting restrictions on young drivers, restricting them to a certain number of passengers, or setting a curfew on the hours they may legally drive. That most of us wouldn’t let our teenagers drive across country alone would seem to indicate that the Sunderlands’ decision to let Abby do this was insane.
Ironically, it was just last year that Zac Sunderland, Abby’s older brother, became the first person under age 18 to sail around the world alone. So the decision to allow this type of venture is one they have made before. And of course, the Sunderlands aren’t the first parents to let a child’s gifts cloud their judgment. Many parents of Olympic athletes let their children move far from home at a young age—sometimes as young as 9 or 10—to train with a prominent coach. But figure skating and tennis aren’t life threatening. By any objective measure, sailing a 40-foot sailboat alone for six months is.
What do you think? Should they have let her go? Or should they have made her wait until she was older?