By now you’ve read dozens of news stories and blog posts about Abby Sunderland, the 16 year old who was planning to be the world’s youngest person to sail around the globe.  Her parents have been excoriated as irresponsible.  She has been accused of being too young for the task. The whole venture has been deemed too risky.

But global sailing for teenagers aside, are we teaching our kids to take enough risks?

One of my big concerns as a parent is the rise of organized sports teams for the very young. On the one hand, the practices and games are fun. On the other, they require mobs of parents to drive, coach, cheer and supervise. The kids are never left to their own devices after school. When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx, a group of my friends and I would get together on the playground that was in between our apartment buildings. Our mothers could see us from the windows up above. Or maybe one or two moms—not necessarily our own–were in the park chatting on benches. We were on our own until someone called us home for dinner.  We devised our own games, our own rules, and cheered each other on.  We developed a sense of independence. We had conflicts, of course, and resolved them ourselves.  Could we have been taking some unforeseen risks? Probably so.  Were our parents crazy? I don’t think so. I grew up, attended Yale, and have run several successful businesses.

Risk-taking for kids doesn’t just take the form of playing games on the playground or sailing around the world. There’s significant ground in between. Including trying a different kind of book than what we usually read. Experimenting with a college course outside our major. Working in the Peace Corps. Taking a “gap year” between high school and college to travel or work.

Some parents are legitimately concerned about these kinds of ventures. On the college front, there is an understandable concern about taking courses that have no “purpose” for future jobs.  Post 9/11, travel for kids across the U.S. or around the world without us nearby is truly frightening.  But without taking these risks, how can our kids develop their own sense of mission and the pride that comes from self-reliance? And chalk up some failures–probably the single most important part of risk-taking.

As Abby wrote on her blog yesterday, from the deck of the fishing boat that rescued her: “Storms are part of the deal when you set out to sail around the world.”

The question for those of us who are parents, educators, or supporters of same, is this: what kind of preparation are we giving our kids to be prepared for life’s storms?  And how can we give them the confidence to remain undefeated when an unexpected storm breaks their main mast?

The debate rages on as to whether all students should go to college. Graduation rates vary widely by state, from an abysmal 22% (Alaska) to a more promising 69% (Massachusetts) [NCHEMS]. So that means somewhere between one third and three quarters of college attendees don’t graduate with a degree.  As The New York Times recently pointed out in the article “Plan B: Skip College,” that’s a lot of money to end up without a degree. College isn’t for everyone. More vocational training and 2-year degrees should be available.

That said, I’m still a fan of college.  And since my 25th Reunion is fast approaching, I’ve ruminated on several reasons why.

  1. Time to Grow Up.  College gives you wide berth and time to mature. Honestly, who is ready for a career at 17? ‘Nuf said.
  2. Roommates.  Dealing with strangers up close and personal is a serious challenge, especially for those of us who grew up without siblings. But it’s an ideal course in inter-personal relations and negotiation. Not to mention setting boundaries.
  3. Professors. Learning how to navigate the power relationship of professor-student, particular in the smaller courses where one sees them as individuals, is an excellent primer in dealing with clients or bosses in the future.
  4. Lack of Sleep. Surmounting an often self-induced lack of sleep to deliver a term paper or passing exam grade is excellent preparation for working motherhood or fatherhood. There is nothing like a baby with an ear ache all night to make participating in a morning meeting a serious feat of super-human strength.
  5. Friendships. There are some friends you just know are there, no matter what, and many of these bonds are fired in the furnace of collegiate life.
  6. Extra-Curriculars. There’s nothing more extravagant and wonderful than the smorgasbord of activities offered at college. From the college radio station and newspaper to the medieval club and frisbee team, these choices offer lifelong memories, friendships, and ongoing interests.
  7. Connections. OK, for those of you who yearn for me to cover some “practical” side of college life: I have thousands of connections at my fingertips through my college alumni office as well as my own friends. And yes, connections help in life and work.
  8. Research.  If you don’t know how to learn something new, then you’re stuck recycling the old. It’s amazing how many people don’t know how to find out something, even with the crutch of Google and Wikis. College teaches you how to research information, and more importantly, how to assess the veracity and biases of your sources.
  9. Ideas.  College is not just about book learning or a list of facts to absorb or “career preparation.” It is about the world of ideas and the people who have them, including you. Engaging in the world of ideas is important preparation for life, promoting civic participation and a richer life, regardless of career.
  10. I couldn’t think of a 10th benefit of college, but I’ll bet you can!