Teen sailor Abby Sunderland found, but are quests like hers wise?

Rescue boats are on their way to the 16-year-old who was attempting to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo. Sports and child development experts see red flags in stories like hers.

Richard Hartog/AP/File
Abby Sunderland, 16, looks out from her sailboat, Wild Eyes, as she leaves for her world record attempting journey at the Del Rey Yacht Club in Marina del Rey, Calif. in this Jan. 23, 2010 picture.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority via the Sunderland family/AP
"Wild Eyes," the boat of 16-year-old Abby Sunderland, is seen i this photo provided by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. Searchers in an airplane spotted her vessel in an upright position and made contact with her via radio late Thursday.

As a French fishing vessel crosses the Indian Ocean to rescue 16-year-old Abby Sunderland stranded in her quest to circumnavigate the globe, debate has been sparked worldwide: Was this a sound project in the first place?

With more and more teenagers attempting record feats such as circumnavigating the globe alone and climbing Mt. Everest, the questions pour out: How young is too young? What are the roles of society and parents in this growing phenomenon? Are kids making their own decisions? When are they mature enough? Who says?

Sports psychologists and development experts say Ms. Sunderland's case is a welcome opportunity to wrestle with these questions and raise consciousness.

Abby is the younger sister of 17-year-old Zac Sunderland, who made history last year by becoming the youngest person to complete a solo global circumnavigation, setting sail at just 16 years old. Starting from Marina Del Rey June 14, 2008, he sailed a 36-ft. sloop 28,000 miles, braving storms, equipment failures, close calls with freighters, and a run-in with suspected pirates. He arrived back in Marina Del Rey July 16, 2009 to worldwide acclaim.

Abby set sail in January in a 40-ft. boat to best her brother’s record.

Sports development experts see red flags in stories like the Sunderlands'.

“I don’t think that record breaking is a bad idea in and of itself,” says Dave Czesniuk, director of operations at the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University. “What must be asked is whether or not this achievement is coming at the expense of normal development in other endeavors, academically, emotionally, socially. The entire context of the youth in question needs to be weighed.”

Mr. Czesniuk and others say one key issue is whether or not a child is making up his or her own mind.

“I am more interested in what the adults are thinking than the kids,” says Dr. Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas, Arlington's Sociology department. He says the younger a person is, the more the danger that it is the parent running the show and not any motivation of the child.

Many parents put their young children in sports with dreams not just of college scholarships, but major-league careers the moment the child shows the slightest aptitude.

More troubling than Sunderland's case, says Mr. Agger, is that of Jordan Romero, the 13-year-old that became the youngest ever to summit Everest,

“How could he possibly know what awaited him in the death zone above 26,000 ft.?” asks Agger, who recently released a book about today’s accelerated childhood, “Fast Families: Virtual Children.” It documents the rise over recent decades of what he calls “performativity” – a society focused on measurement and evaluation and achievement based on getting into college and maintaining job security in the future.

“Much more so than when I grew up in the 60s, kids today are subject to far more relentless evaluation and constant grading,” he says. “Kids lose the opportunity to blossom and play and make mistakes because they are so concerned with activity that will go on their resumes. We have to step back and ask why we as a society expect kids to become adults earlier, how and why we are harboring adult expectations of them.”

Such questions are complex and individual and hard to answer until many years later, say many analysts.

“While the daredevil achievers have achieved, their inner story is still not told,” says author, radio host and fitness manager Debbie Mandel. “How will they fare when they are older?”

Boston-based family therapist Carleton Kendrick says one key parental responsibility is safety.

“As long as children possess the considerable, extraordinary mental, physical, and emotional skills and capabilities necessary to engage in such adventures and challenges, and their parents have taken all measures possible to guarantee their safety and well-being throughout the entirety of these adventures, I have no strong objections to these talented, highly skilled teens going after their dreams,” he says. But if parents can't guarantee their adventurous children's safety, he says, they are "gambling with the very lives and well being of their children.”


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