Thursday, June 10, 2010

Kids have parents for a reason...

I ordinarily wouldn't comment on a story like this one, a story that's still developing with a child in danger:

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...


Kindred Spirit said...

I am in perfect agreement with you, Erin. I pray that this young girl will be rescued and safely returned home. Our Lady, Star of the Sea, pray for her.

Anonymous said...

You've made some good points, but I tend to disagree. Many young men from our grandparents' generation lied about their age so they could join the military and go to war at 16 or 17. Seminary high schools, teenage saints, Our Lady married to St. Joseph at 15-ish. Etc, etc.

I celebrated my 18th birthday on a mission trip to Central America. I was engaged at 20. I would resent being forced to delay a sailing trip until some arbitrary "age of reason".

Prolonged adolescence or young adulthood is a recent invention, and it's getting out of hand. I've heard you can even stay on your parents' health insurance until age 30 under Obamacare. I'm not advocating child labor or arranged marriages, but if I see in my child an exceptional talent and maturity, I like to think I would let them pursue a dream.

Okay, maybe I'd go with them, just in case. But I don't criticize the parents who encourage these young men and women to live life to the fullest.

Liz said...

When my daughter was in college she was recounting to some friends the fun she and her best friend had having an Indian hut complete with campfire in our front yard when she was around 10. One of the guys told her that her parents were irresponsible. I suspect he would have thought that allowing her to trim her own sheep with huge sheep shears at 6 was irresponsible as well. We attempted to encourage our children's competency, but we encouraged it under our watchful eyes. My husband was nearby, although not intrusively so, when the girls had their fire, and one of us supervised the sheep trimming (although more to make sure that there weren't huge gouges in the sheep's fleece than out of any fear that she'd cut herself.

I think that encouraging competency in our children is a very good thing, encouraging recklessness is something else again. One of our favorite books when my kids were growing up was Arthur Ransome's We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea where 4 young people end up in a boat that accidentally ends up getting sailed from England to Holland. It's a celebration of competency in an emergency situation, but not a celebration of an attempt to garner publicity.

Even adults are not immune to this sort of thing, hence the disappearance and probably death of Amelia Earhart. When people do things for the sheer joy of the doing it's one thing, when they do it in an attempt to make a name for themselves it's something else again.

Part of the job of parents is to teach skills, to encourage interests, to celebrate competency. The other part of the job is to put on the brakes from time to time. David Elkind in his book The Hurried Child talked about the dangers of letting children grow up too fast. I don't think he was talking about children becoming competent too quickly, I think he was talking about children taking on some of the trappings of the adult world before they were really ready to do so. When children married early there was a whole social structure supporting that, just as there is in Amish communities today. When 16 year olds went into the army they were being led by men who were older and acted in a semi-parental role. That's very different from trying to do something dangerous all on your own as a publicity stunt.

freddy said...

Liz: well said!

I agree with you, too, Red -- my husband and I have been talking about this, as well as praying for the girl and her family.

I don't get some parents.
Oh, and my older boys are in Boy Scouts -- they've had the opportunity to do some interesting things. The biggest difference, in my opinion, is that the risks they've taken have been age appropriate, supervised, and don't require massive search and rescue operations if things go wrong.

Anonymous said...

Try a google search for "boy scouts lost rescue"

Any other men going to weigh in?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Erin in that you should know who your kids hang out with, where they are, and having curfews, but the "helicopter parents" go much further than that to the point of detriment.

I am in awe of this young girl that would brave the seas alone, thousands of miles from shore, traveling to foreign lands. It's phenominal. But if she were my child, she wouldn't be doing it until she were an adult. Not that the two years is a significant difference, but I could not in good, even in mediocre conscience, let my child take a chance such as Abby is taking while I had any parental control.

I'd think that having sailed solo around the world would be an enormous enough accomplishment without having the words "the youngest person to" in front of it.

Anonymous said...

Oops, "phenomenal."

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I'm not sure what goes into a sixteen year old actually feeling they can get in the boat and sail around the world -- I couldn't have done it at sixteen. I think adults who die doing similar things are taking unnecessary risks. But I'm not sure I would try to stop them, or pass laws about it. People who want the challenge are going to go for it, and its their risk, its not mine. I just can't see my way to forbidding it. The parents could, but they didn't. Liz has some good points.

When I hear "helicopter parents" I think of long lines of cars lining up outside of middle schools. I started walking to school by myself the second day of kindergarten. I also think of social workers trying to severe parental rights because the child was outside playing, fell down, and skinned their knee, and neither parent was within eyesight and within ten feet. Life happens.

But parents do need to exercise judgement. I came home from junior high once talking about how my friend and I were going to sew two old weather balloons together, generate hydrogen gas by electrolysis, and sail up into the sky. My father said no. Again, I'm not sure I would actually have done it. I'm kind of lazy about big projects. But he was right to say no.

Geoff G. said...

I'm put in mind of this story, where a woman got castigated for allowing her 9 year old son to navigate the NY MTA and get home.

In most states, 16 year olds are permitted to marry (with parental consent). Personally, I think that's too young for a lifetime commitment, but it is a holdover from a time when people were considered adults at a much earlier age.

The point being that we are not in any position to judge this young woman's skills. I've seen teenage prodigies in all kinds of fields, from music to mathematics. Why not in sailing?

And if a 16 year old is killed in an accident, is that any more tragic than if a 21 year old is? Or a 30 year old? Or a 50 year old?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I notice most of the comments the mother got for her article praised her good judgement. I agree. When my niece was three I took her downtown on the NY subway, and carefully showed her how to recognize the color, number and direction for the train home. Of course I didn't let her try it on her own at age three. I don't know when her mother did. But now she is sixteen, and she's been navigating on her own for a year or three.