The Young Girl and the Sea

I'm speaking of this girl. We talk a lot in the mommy-blogging world about parenting choices, parental judgement, parents judging other parents...Abby Sunderland has been a lightning rod for these issues. I've been thinking a lot about this, every time another article or editorial appears, especially in the hours when she was out of contact before she was found safe. I purposely didn't google what other bloggers were saying, because I wanted to try to figure out what I really think, whether or not it's a popular opinion.

A lot of people have expressed the opinion that Abby's parents are crazy, neglectful or some combination of the two to let their daughter attempt this. I don't remember the same kind of rhetoric or publicity when Abby's brother Zac sailed around the world alone in 13 months when he was 16 -- I'm not sure that there really wasn't any, but I don't remember it.

Would I let my sixteen-year-old sail around the world alone? My gut-level reaction is 'not a chance'. But I don't have a sixteen-year-old. Abby Sunderland has been sailing large boats for years. Her interviews make it clear that she is strong-minded and independent. In a couple more years, she could have made the decision to do this on her own. We all know that some eighteen-year-olds are nowhere near mature enough to undertake something like this, while some fifteen-year-olds could probably do it. Is it possible that her own parents are a better judge of her fitness for something like this than the strangers who have suggested they should be 'whipped like mules' for allowing it?

An editorial in my local paper compared Abby's situation to that of Jessica Dubroff, a seven-year-old who tried to fly a plane across the U.S. and crashed and died in the process. I really don't think this is a fair comparison, because...well, jesus, she was SEVEN. The same editorial (entitled 'Bad Parents') says we all want our children to achieve but someone has to know 'the difference between having adventures and sending out children out to risk their lives'. Well guess what? Everyone risks their lives just by leaving the house every morning. Cripes, people risk their lives by NOT leaving the house in the morning. When I make the decision to start allowing my kids more independence by letting them walk home from school alone or go to the park with a friend, I'm running the risk that something terrible will happen and everyone, including me, will think that I should have been protecting my child. So much of how an event is viewed depends on a totally arbitrary outcome. Yes, there are levels of risk, and young people exhibit varying degrees of adventurousness. Letting your child sail around the world alone is a few steps up from letting her walk to Grandma's (and even that, it must be admitted, went horribly wrong that one time). The fact remains that simply being alive is a fatal condition, and we can't protect our kids from everything.

I don't know Abby Sunderland's parents. I think some of their comments about Abby being 'in God's hands', and God controlling the waves etc. are a little naive. But I don't believe that they thought they were sending their daughter out to risk her life unreasonably. I believe that they were terrified when their daughter was missing and relieved and jubilant when she was found safe -- which corroborated her father's claim that the safety features of her vessel and her own knowledge and competence would mitigate the risk.

I've talked before about trying to be non-judgemental, and how difficult it is. I know it's hard not to speak up when it looks like parents are being careless and risking their children's health or safety. It's also easy to be immmoderate and somewhat ill-considered without considering the nuances of the situation when you don't have to put anything behind your comments.

So what do you think? Is it refreshing that, in a culture that could be said to infantilize young people to an alarming degree, these parents allow their child this degree of self-determination? Or are they cuckoo Christians who deserve all the lambasting they get? Or something in the middle? (I thought I should talk about something other than my birthday for a change. I went for a 5k walk this morning. My feet don't hurt any more than they did when I was 39).


Magpie said…
I think there is something refreshing about it. That's not to say that I'd let my kid do it, but maybe? Think of all the other crazy things 16 year olds do...skiing in the Olympics, white water kayaking...plenty of other things offer opportunity for disaster.
Betsy B. Honest said…
Interesting questions. My gut reaction is, not my daughter, no way, never! But I really hate the idea of telling a girl she can't do what her brother did. Reading the article you linked to I think her parents seem very respectful of her as an autonomous person. The unhealthy thing about it all I'd say is the media angle -- the need to be in the spotlight as the youngest person ever to sail around the world is definately not, I would say, the healthiest reason to do something. I, however, could be called unambitious.
Ms. G said…
That is difficult. I can't say what I would do in the parents position. My first reaction would be no but I have always encouraged my girls to pursue their dreams even if they are far out. I think you would have to take into account skills and maturity levels.

I would have to say I would rather my oldest had done something like that than the adventures she chose instead.
I think there's a good chance that she was very mature for her age. I know that at 16 I was much more mature than some people I know in their late 20s. I used to joke that I was on my 10th life around whereas many people are on their 1st.

That said, I probably wouldn't let either one of my kids sail around the world on their own at 16. Even if they were the best sailor ever. Sailing is inherently dangerous and I'd make the kid wait until they were of legal age. The only point to rush it is to sell a book or make the news - that's not a good enough reason for me to let my kid risk it. (In case you're wondering my response would be the same for a boy or a girl.)
Pamela said…
It just seems like such a daunting thing to let a 16 year girl (or boy for that matter) do all alone. I'm all for adventure & letting kids discover their passions in life, but I think it was a tad irresponsible, especially the cuckoo Christian part of "leaving things in God's hands".
Anonymous said…
Since I had my own kids, I am far less clear on these situations. As you say here, any of us can do things that seem stupid in retrospect. Any of our children can meet terrible ends, in spite of our good intentions. Any of us can be seen to be lax when we look back over a situation that went wrong.

I am not sure where I fall on whether or not it's a wise choice for her parents. I would say it's the same for a son or a daughter. I would say that I can't see doing it, but I've never sailed myself. But does that make it wrong? Probably not my call.
Mary Lynn said…
I feel much the same way...I have trouble seeing myself let me own kid do it, but then I'm a more cautious person so I'm not as likely to have the sort of kid who, at 16, is going to have that sort of an independent streak. Though who knows...maybe I'll be surprised in 10 to 12 years, eh?

I think it depends on the kid. Teenagers can range a lot in terms of maturity.

I do agree with Betsy B. Honest, though...the media angle is troubling.
Alexandra said…
I don't think it's safe, especially for a girl. Not safe.
Julie said…
i was actually following abby on her blog for the whole trip and felt a mild sense of panic when she went silent for such a long time and then i started to hear the media reports.

when i started to follow her blog i too wondered how any parents could let their child (i'm not putting a sex here) do something like this. but they know her and her capabilities and i would hope that they wouldn't have let her go if they didn't think she was able to do it.

i agree with magpie. we let 16 yo do all sorts of crazy things in the name of sport. sailing is a sport, so why is this one different?

as for the media angle, i believe that this was not the motive for the attempt. her and her family went out and got a lot of sponsorship, yes. but sailing around the world on your own requires a lot of equipment and support. i think she just wanted to beat the record her brother set. what's wrong with having ambition?

i don't question the parenting abilities of abby's parents. i do wonder if i will have the courage to recognize the talents and capabilities of the jellybean and let him attain his goals and dreams.

i think the same "bad parenting" could be applied to the gloucester soccer club that decided to punish teams that were good. man, was i ever glad that was recinded. nothing like breading mediocrity.
Patti Murphy said…
I guess it depends. She's a child prodigy. Her brother did it. The risk was great, but calculated--the parents tried to control what risks they could with the safety features in the boat.

Sixteen year olds die from driving under the influence or overdosing on drugs and alcohol. Often, these are events that parents have little or no control over. As you said, we take risks leaving or not leaving the house (earthquake anyone?).

I liked this line from your post:

"It's also easy to be immmoderate and somewhat ill-considered without considering the nuances of the situation when you don't have to put anything behind your comments."

Explains a lot of the asshole-ism on the web. (Not here though. This is an exceptional place for thoughtful discourse).
SuziCate said…
It's so easy to judge. I can say I wouldn't have let mine do it, but mine are not skilled in that area. I'm sure I've allowed mine to do things that other's have questioned. I'm just glad that she was safe. I was so afraid it was not going to be a good ending...but see, I didn't know her capabilities. Very good post, thought provoking.
Kelly Miller said…
I don't think I'd allow my children (either of them) to do it, but their training, ambition, and commitment could change my mind. Therefore, I withhold judgment and just feel thankful that Abby was okay.
alison said…
Would I let either of my children do that? Most likely not. Fortunately neither of them is showing any ambitions to do anything other than the youngest children to bicker non-stop for a week.
Anonymous said…
While I'm not sure I would "let" my daughter do the same thing you make the very valid points I've been thinking - only you said it much better.
Lynn said…
I find it very hard to make a call like this because my kids are so young. Right now I can't even imagine them walking to school alone, but I'm sure the day will come when I feel they are ready. So although my gut reaction is to say that I wouldn't allow my own kid to try something like this, maybe when I actually have a 16 year old, I'll feel differently.

The thing with Abby is that no one seems sure if she did this (or her family pushed her to do it) just for the media coverage, i.e. to get a book deal and TV show and what have you. If so, I have to say I'm disappointed in the parents. I'm happy to read Julie's comment that she was following Abby's blog and it didn't seem like she was angling for fame. I guess we'll see how this plays out in the media, and maybe we'll get a better sense of whether this was an honest attempt by the parents to let their daughter find herself, or media whoring at its worst.
The Mayor! said…
I'm with you on this one...having had FOUR kids, I can categorically state that each & every one of them is a completely different animal...The Diva is exactly the kind of child who could, & would, attempt something like this. I have also learned, after 4 kids, that you just can't stand in their way. It's THEIR life to live. Yes, we have a responsibility to guide & protect, but sometimes, what's best for them, is to get the hell out of their way. Some kids just aren't "kids" Diva is one of them, from the earliest age, & is still only 7. But I already allow her (she just does??) things her older siblings never did at her age. And in this house, I just don't allow for the double's not about age or sex, it's about personality, maturity, & ability. Only herself & her parents can be the true judges of that. Who are the rest of us to decide she should be denied her dreams?? As Magpie said, look at the amazing teens the world has produced thus far, a gift is a gift, no matter their age sometimes.
KLZ said…
I don't know that I could have let my child do that...but I also know I let my child learn a lot more by doing than some other parents. I believe he's going to fall down. I know he's going to do it so I try not to hover too, too much.

That said, he's less than a year old. Who knows what I'll think when he's 15.

Crazy Town Mayor referred you and mentioned she thought you'd be interested in this Word Up, Yo! challenge.

Off to check out your other posts.

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