When An Ethical Parent Must Veto a Child’s Dream

It looked grim for a while yesterday, when the media was reporting that the sailboat carryingAbby Sunderland, the 16-year old seeking to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo by sea, had been lost. Now it looks like she may be safe after all, as a rescue of her crippled craft is underway in the Indian Ocean.  That a tragedy may have been averted, however, doesn’t mitigate that unethical abdication of responsible parenting and trust by Abby’s parents that set the stage for a calamity.

Had the ill-conceived adventure ended fatally, it is certain that we would have heard her heart-broken parents eulogize their daughter as intrepid,  courageous and mature beyond her appearance, who lived a full life in her sixteen years, and perished “living her dream.”  All true, but those aren’t the facts that matter.  What matters is that she is a dependent, trusting, sixteen-year old child who desperately needed her older and supposedly wiser parents to say “No. Being the youngest woman to sail around the world is good, living long enough to go to college, have a family, have a career and experience the joys of life over many decades is better. Sorry. It’s too dangerous. When you understand a little bit more about life, you may be capable of deciding when to risk it.”

They failed her, and the fact that she isn’t dead as a result is only luck.

The 13-year-old boy whose parents let him climb Mt. Everest—another useless record—survived. That doesn’t make his parents’ actions any less deplorable and irresponsible. He was probably was no more qualified for his dangerous quest than Abby Sunderland was for hers. Neither sets of parents should have allowed their young children to wager their remaining seventy years or so to set pointless records that they could lead wonderful lives without. The usual explanation by parents with precocious offspring (or, in other cases, talented offspring whose early entry into the workforce is too lucrative to pass up) is that children should be allowed to pursue their “dreams.” Sure they should—when their dreams aren’t likely to kill them, maim them, or rob them of their childhood.

Abby Sunderland, a 16-year-old girl with courage, skill and ambition, shouldn’t have been alone in a boat in the middle of the ocean. Her parents, and if not them, someone else in authority, should have made certain that she would have a chance to apply her courage, skill, and ambition to a lifetime of challenges and achievements, and not throw it all away on publicity-seeking stunt. Kids have lots of dreams, including some nightmares. It’s one of a parent’s jobs to teach their children the difference between dreams and reality, and the danger of not knowing the difference.

8 thoughts on “When An Ethical Parent Must Veto a Child’s Dream

  1. Fully agreed. Besides, what kind of goal is it to be the youngest person to sail around the world? What does it truly accomplish and is it a goal worth dying for… at 16? All it would have done is spur some other clueless child into trying to do so at an even younger age. And there are always, it seems, clueless parents who will allow them to try. Let children live a happy and educational life until they’re ready to pursue their own goals with mature decision.

  2. ..clearly jumping the gun somewhat with these pessimistic comments. Be optimistic and celebrate the joy folk get from striving to meet challenges not Job-like grouching!

    • Pessimism has nothing to do with any of this. Parents who would tell a 16-year-old she couldn’t go on a date with a college senior and stay out all night will let her put her life at risk—beyond question—to, what, “celebrate life”? This is indefensible. Whether she lives or dies, her parents have risked her life with sheer irresponsibility.

  3. Happy news! She has been found, safe, though her boat is destroyed. Per WTOP this morning, a fishing boat was on its way to rescue her.

    That having been said, it was a POOR decision to allow her to go. A parent’s job is to protect his/her children from the dangers that the children don’t know exist, and 16-year-olds are famously ignorant and self-confident.

  4. We’re all happy that Abby Sutherland was found alive and well. But it should also be noted that it has since been discovered that she had but in to Cabo San Lucas for repairs to her boat which were described as “makeshift”. Still, she proceeded ahead with the utmost imprudence. Kids will do that. That’s why they need parents who can supply a little wisdom! It should also be noted that, when stunts like this go wrong (as they so often do) it falls upon others to risk their own lives in a search. Kudos to the Australians who carried out this search so well and, thankfully, without mishap to themselves. God’s been working overtime on this one! I hope Abby and her late-maturing parents have learned a vital lesson from all this.

    • They haven’t. And the refrain I keep hearing is “this wasn’t based on her age; it was based on her skill and experience.” ARRRGH! She is still only 16, with the inevitable deficits of wisdom, life experience and judgement that ALL teeneagers, even the most precocious, have. Her parents duty is to get her through these years alive and ready for life. This was an unnecessary risk, with too much life unlived. How capable she may be has absolutely nothing top do with it. Why oh why is that so hard to comprehend?

  5. Jack- this is the Hollywood Answer. Everytime I hear about some child celebrity being used in some new and exploitive manner that adults would cringe from, the publicists’ and journalists’ answer always includes the “her-parents-were-good-with-it-she’s-mature-for-her-age” mantra, along with a few other such insults to the public intelligence. Kids have been legitimized as tools of adults’ agendas, no matter how perverse or dangerous the means. Their erstwhile guardians play on their egos and ambitions and let them destroy themselves in the process… the precise opposite of an adult’s duty.

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