What We Can Learn from Abby Sunderland

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?

0 replies
  1. Sally Reed
    Sally Reed says:

    I am all for raising adventurous, resilient, competent, self confident kids. Especially girls! However the Abby Sutherland story is a mixed bag for me. The symbolic message is great: take a chance, spread your wings, be undaunted. However, when we get to the the specifics, I have a problem. And not just with Abby Sutherland. I am a sailor, and there’s nothing I love better than to be far offshore at night surrounded by black ocean and a sea of stars. But, the first rule for the prudent mariner is: always keep a lookout. This is impossible to do on a solo voyage because the skipper must sleep, and thus it is unsafe and puts other vessels at risk. Please think of something less foolhardy but still exciting, Sutherlands!

  2. Meredith Mengel
    Meredith Mengel says:

    Are some ventures so inspiring that they’re worth supporting, no matter how risky? Consider human space-flight: It’s terribly expensive and its usefulness is arguable. But people love it so: NASA.gov is a fixture among the top-ten most visited government Web sites.

    Abby’s story echoes humanity’s earliest explorations beyond safe boundaries. As a human, I find her courage–and her family’s–inspiring. As a woman and a mother, I hope I will be able to support my now-5 year old’s wildest adventures–no matter how much they terrify me!


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