Abby Sunderland, 16, on her cell phone as she departs Marina del Rey, Calif. on Jan. 23, 2010.
Photo: Richard Hartog AP

Recently we wrote about Jessica Watson, the 16-year-old Australian girl who sailed around the world on a solo voyage, making her the youngest person to ever complete such a journey. Abby Sunderland, a slightly younger 16-year-old American girl, set off in late January of this year, trying to complete the same feat. On the 10th of June, however, she ran into a severe storm in the Southern Indian ocean, which knocked the mast off her sailboat and caused Abby to activate her emergency distress beacons. Two days later, she was rescued by a fishing vessel and her sailboat was abandoned. You can read about Abby’s side of the story (and her parents’) on her blog.

Abby’s voyage has garnered controversy on several fronts. There have been concerns about her age, the time of year, and weather while Abby was in the southern hemisphere, and if her parents should have allowed her voyage at all. Additional controversies have sprung up over the cost of Abby’s rescue and the recent news that a reality show about the Sunderlands and Abby’s voyage was discussed prior to her setting off, though it was later scrapped. Though it is clear that Abby was and is in fact mature enough to handle a solo circumnavigation of the globe–as shown by how she kept her head when her boat was disabled–there are some valid concerns raised.
Of biggest interest perhaps is the role her parents played. I don’t question their overall fitness as parents or Abby’s ability to handle the challenge, but it seems as though parents, in general, are allowing their children to take bigger and bigger risks at younger and younger ages. Though I believe that everyone should follow their dreams and be encouraged to strive for these dreams, it is also the responsibility of parents to keep their children safe. With children like Abby Sunderland and Jessica Watson, it can be very difficult to walk the fine line between nurturing and encouraging a child’s dreams and protecting them from unnecessary risks.So where does that line get drawn? How do you determine if a child is mentally, emotionally, and physically ready to take on certain challenges and tasks? And how do you separate your ambitions for your child from theirs? Abby, Jessica, Abby’s brother Zac (until recently he was the youngest person to sail solo around the world), and the countless others who strive to be the “youngest to ever” do something are not alone, and it seems the list is growing year-by-year, and the ages are getting younger all the time. On the 22nd of May this year, 13-year-old Jordan Romero became the youngest person to summit Mt. Everest; he’s also climbed six of the seven highest mountains on the seven continents.

Don’t get me wrong; I applaud these dreams and goals and am in awe of the discipline, dedication, and determination that is needed to achieve them. But I am forced to wonder if the kids striving for these goals are under pressure from parents or coaches. I also have to question if these kids are always prepared to tackle these challenges; at 13, for example, I have a hard time believing the human body is really ready to withstand the extreme conditions of Mt. Everest. At what point does “young” become “too young?”

-Katie Weidmann
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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