June 11 (Bloomberg) -- Abby Sunderland, a 16-year-old U.S. sailor attempting to circumnavigate the world, has activated an emergency beacon in the middle of the Indian Ocean, triggering an international rescue attempt.
Sunderland experienced trouble after her Wild Eyes vessel encountered winds of up to 60 knots and seas reaching 25 feet (7.6 meters), according to her website. Her team hasn’t been able to contact her since she launched emergency and personal locator beacons yesterday, her father, Laurence Sunderland, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in Perth today.
As I write this, aircraft are due to reach the boat's general location, but boats diverted toward her for a possible rescue won't reach her until tomorrow afternoon. I do pray that she'll be found alive and well, and wouldn't in any way wish to increase her parents' obvious suffering at this time--which is why I hesitated to write this post.
But it needs to be said.
People today do a lot of sneering at the so-called "helicopter parents" of the world, the parents who actually know where their kids are each day, check in with them when they're away from home, know who their friends are, limit some activities or forbid others, all with an eye to the safety and security of their families. And, sure, the helicopter parents can take things too far--the parents who spend a couple of weeks at a hotel in their child's college town just in case any difficult registration or class issues crop up are probably overdoing things.
But in this, as in every aspect of parenting, balance is key--balance, and knowing your child, and knowing your situation. A person in a small, friendly town may feel quite comfortable letting a ten-year-old walk to a local ice-cream shop with a friend; a person in a bigger, more crime-ridden city might not allow such a thing until a much later age, and for prudent and responsible reasons. Some teens may do very well and be responsible about informing parents where they'll be and when they'll be home; others may need a curfew and restricted driving privileges until they can handle the responsibility.
Each set of parents has to make these and thousands of other decisions about each child, hoping that they are doing the right thing and helping the child grow toward mature adulthood while not exposing the child to a great many unnecessary risks.
Risks, like letting your sixteen-year-old attempt a solo circumnavigation of the globe that will put her in the unpredictable Indian Ocean in that ocean's wild winter.
Am I being unfair, here? Possibly--but I was just as unfair, years ago, to the parents of this little girl, one of whom died in the plane crash that killed her, too--during her bid to be the youngest person to fly a plane across the United States.
This article from last year tells of another would-be superkid, a Dutch girl, then thirteen, who also wanted to try the solo circumnavigation that Abby Sunderland is presently trying. Just a few weeks ago Australian Jessica Watson became the youngest to sail around the world alone (though not officially, as records are no longer being kept in this category)--but Abby is sixteen, too. And there are probably plenty of fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, even twelve-year-olds who would like the attention and publicity of being the youngest to do something like this.
The thing is, kids have parents for a reason. Parents are supposed to be the ones who put on the brakes, to share the benefit of their own wisdom and maturity. Parents aren't supposed to get caught up in the allure of capturing global attention and praise for being the youngest ever (till next week) to shatter some record or perform some dangerous stunt.
I know some people are already shaking their heads, thinking the problem is that we coddle kids too much these days, that sixteen-year-olds are regularly engaging in activities that could be as dangerous or potentially deadly as a solo circumnavigation of the globe (just add alcohol to any vehicle driven by a teen, for example). That's not really the point, though. The point is that the reason so many of these young kids want to do whatever it is now, now, now is because we have a culture that worships and celebrates youth to a disastrous level.
Would any of these young teen sailors have learned just as much, experienced just as much, enjoyed just as much if they'd waited until they were twenty-one to take the trip? Would they have also learned, experienced, enjoyed if an older person, possibly an experienced sailor-parent, made the trip with them? Would the pressure to get to a goal by a certain time have been gone, making it easier to decide to wait for easier weather in harsh seas, or to stop the trip altogether if conditions deteriorated?
I think there's no real question, here. But the one thing that would have been missing in such a milder, less famous, less record-threatening trip would have been the dazzling glare of media attention, the mirage-like allure of wealth and fame, and the admiration and respect of the general public. A quiet trip by a father and daughter, perhaps, to celebrate the daughter's twentieth or twenty-first year of life is the sort of thing a thoughtful and engaging book could be written about--but it probably wouldn't be a bestseller, and there would be none of the instant gratification of instant fame.
I truly do hope Abby Sunderland will be found safe and well, as I said. I also hope that parents everywhere will take the opportunity to reflect on their role to safeguard their minor children, and will consider seriously whether allowing one's children to pursue the goal of breaking a record in a dangerous sport is consistent with that role.
UPDATE: I'm glad to spread the news that Abby is alive and well. I still think it's time for parents to go back to being parents, and to ask sixteen-year-old would-be circumnavigators to wait a few years...