Ethics Quote of the Week: Abby Sunderland

“Since when does age create gigantic waves and storms?”

16-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland, blogging from the ship that rescued her from her failed attempt to sail around the world, and responding to critics of her parents for permitting the adventure,

This may not be an ethics quote as much as it proves an ethics point. Abby’s quote is pure teen logic, and shows that her wisdom and judgment are not sufficiently sophisticated or developed to make decisions that could cost her life. No, Abby, your age didn’t create the waves and storms. It’s just that a sixteen-year-old shouldn’t be placed in a situation—or be allowed to place herself in a situation— where those age-ignorant waves and storms might kill her. Age doesn’t create rapists, drug pushers, unwanted pregnancies, drunk drivers or other perils either, but that doesn’t mean that it is responsible for parents to allow their children to be harmed by them.

When I tell my son he can’t do something that I think is too risky, he is likely to come up with an argument just as naive and irrational as Abby’s. The fact that his mind works like that shows how immature he is, and why I need to fulfill my duty to him as a parent, by protecting him from his own bad judgment.

Abby’s quote doesn’t prove the critics of her parents wrong. It proves them right.

17 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Week: Abby Sunderland

  1. I simply can’t get on board with your assessment in this case. Yes, I agree with the finer points and the overall theory, but I would liken it to “book-smart” opposed to “street-smart”. Education v. Experience.

    For every Abby Sunderland who gets out there too early, there’s a Will Farrell living at home with his mom until he’s 48. There’s definitely something unethical about not kicking your kids out in a timely fashion as well.

    If there is one type of “ism” that this world seems to embrace unfairly, it’s “ageism”. Not the typical “Hey you’re 60, you’re too old.” but the “Hey you’re only 14, you can’t accomplish what I haven’t accomplished yet.

    The blatant discrimination experienced by the young that wish to be excellent is often indescribable by their “non-legalistic” minds. But just because they can’t argue their case in court, doesn’t mean they can’t dunk over Yao Ming, climb to the top of Mount Everest, or sail around the world.

    And I still disagree despite what you say about “Just because they can doesn’t mean they should or should be allowed to..”

    I believe in setting limits on self-destructive behavior (Drugs and Alcohol) but I refuse to aid and abet the setting of limits on when a person can begin experiencing this world in a manner in which they choose. The world is too big to wait. Get out there.

    • With all that said, I think pushing a child to do more than they can handle, coaxing them to do dangerous things is inappropriate. Selling your daughter’s life for a reality TV contract is horrid. If my daughter wants to sail around the world, fine. She just can’t do it for money or fame, it has to be for the experience.

      • Boy—I sure think guaranteeing them a chance to reach adulthood is hardly a burdensome requirement. My parents used to let me body surf the waves at Wellfleet. When I got a little older, I realized that it was much more dangerous than I had realized, and that people were periodically crippled by the waves slamming them into the beach. My parents didn’t know how dangerous it was; that’s the only reason they allowed me to do it. I would not let my son take that risk until he was old enough to 1) have lived a while and 2) make a reasoned judgment about the risks involved.

        Again: what’s the rush? My kid wants to quit school now (he’s 15) and make his way in the world–and he’s just dead wrong. Should I let him try? He’s extremely competent. Or should I make sure he doesn’t make foolish choices before he has enough experience to make them?

    • So, if your brain is a deterrent and keeps you from accomplishing great things, dangerous things, wouldn’t you want to do these things before you are incapacitated by the common human disease that goes untreated?

      There are some things that children can do better than adults. Doing a back flip on a trampoline is one of them. There’s a lot more room on a trampoline for a small person than there is with a fully grown adult. The risk is actually lower for the kid to do a back flip than an adult. If I had been prevented from doing it as a child, I’d never have done it at all. Trust me when I tell you that kids are smarter than they are given credit for and the do know their limits.

      And why does someone “have to reach adulthood”? Whose standard is that? According to Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, and Nicaragua – she’s an adult. What makes the U.S. standard the best? What if she had emancipated herself first, would that have made it ethical?

      Living in Oklahoma is dangerous during tornado season. Living on the Gulf coast is dangerous during Hurricane season. Do parents have an ethical duty to ship off their kids until the seasons change?

      No. It’s their duty to prepare them for living in the world under extraordinary circumstances. When they’re able to walk, they walk. When they are able to run, they run. When they are able to jump, they try out for the track team and start doing hurdles before they even ask for permission.

      If your 15-year old son wants to drop out of school, then maybe you should consider some options. A home-school curriculum. He might even be trying to tell you that he’s bored with the teachers and he’s not excelling as much as he could.

      • Obviously if she’s emancipated, then it’s her own decision, and stupid as it might be, it nobody’s obligation to stop her. If she decides to saw off her foot because she likes to limp, it’s not unethical, just stupid. But if her parents are her guardians and say, “Go ahead, you know best: saw away!”—yeah, that’s an abdication of duty.

        The culture says what is childhood and adulthood. They used to hang children for crimes in England…who’s to say that was wrong? Who’s to say child labor is wrong? We come to a cultural consensus of what is right. Leaving home at 18 is leaving the nest. Culturally, we believe in protecting a child until the child leaves the nest. That doesn’t mean no risk. It means no excessive risk. Trampoline, with supervision: reasonable risk. Lion training: wait until you’re older, kid.

        The more we learn about brain chemistry, the more we learn that teenagers have some of the same issues as the insane. They marry girls at 13 or younger in some of the countries you mention. We call it rape. We’re right and they’re wrong. Sometimes, it’s that simple.

  2. Pingback: Ethics Quote of the Week: Abby Sunderland « Ethics Alarms « Ethics Find

  3. That’s because, by an adult viewpoint, children ARE insane. They lack the ability to make dispassionate and rational decisions. Parents exist to provide this. Of course, a lot of adults lack this, too! But when maturity challenged adults are also parents (and therefore unqualified for their immense responsibility) this is where tragedy can happen. It almost did here.

  4. You guys just kill me. All your navel-gazing on this issue is not only hilarious, but useless and potentially dangerous.

    We know this 16-year old young woman was put in harm’s way through the greed and desire for fame-by-proxy by her parents.

    She deserves more than your liberal vs. libertarian discussion. She deserves a guardian ad litem, an attorney, and all the power of the local child services agencies can bring into play.

    Regardless of that one part of that “great world out there” (e.g. the Indian Ocean), also out there is child prostitution (and definitions vary on this), slavery, and child abuse of innumerable kinds. Ill-used child stars? Female Olympic athletes who don’t menstruate until they’re 20 years old and “out of the games?” Young geniuses who are sent to Harvard when they are 12 years old and are misfits for the rest of their lives? Musical geniuses who play Carnegie Hall when they’re 10?

    Sure. These are their choices. This is their wide wonderful world. Like Mozart, who left a great legacy of music, died penniless and inordinately young, and was miserable for most of his short life.

    Paul Petersen, where are you?

  5. This seems simple to me.

    Michael Jackson holding his infant son over the balcony was less of an abdication of parental responsibility than this.

    The bottom line here is that parents allow their children to take risks all the time. Playing high school sports is a risk, as the several deaths per year nationwide indicate. That isn’t an abdication of responsibility, though — the potential benefits of playing high school sports outweighs the very small risk of permanent injury or death.

    But sailing the world alone is vastly different in terms of risk. It is more along the lines of dropping your kid off in the wilderness and trusting her training to get home safely. That is foolish, unethical, irresponsible. That is the equivalent of what Abby Sunderland’s parents did.

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