Sailor Abby Sunderland's Parents: Brave Or Bad?

Leonard Pitts, Jr., syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald
Bruce Barcott, contributing editor, Outside Magazine

16-year-old Abby Sunderland tried to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. She had to be rescued, after her boat became crippled by storms in the Indian Ocean. Now, many ask why her parents allowed their daughter to take such a dangerous trip in the first place.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now for the Opinion Page. Last week, a French fishing boat rescued 16-year-old Abby Sunderland after storms crippled her sailboat in the Indian Ocean. The California teenager was trying to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. And after she was reported safe, a lot of people wondered what her parents could possibly have been thinking. Her father, Laurence Sunderland, said the issue was not age, but competence. Abby has sailed her whole life, he said. And her older brother completed a circumnavigation of his own just last year.

In an op-ed that ran in the Los Angeles Times, Bruce Barcott cheered what he described as bold parenting. Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts argued that Abby's parents allowed her to risk her life in search of a dubious and ultimately meaningless record. Both join us in a moment.

We want to hear from you. A brave bold, blow against the nanny state, or narcissistic self-indulgence? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Bruce Barcott joins us now from member station KUOW2 in Seattle. He's a contributing editor at Outside Magazine. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. BRUCE BARCOTT (Contributing Editor, Outside Magazine): Thank you. It's great to be here.

CONAN: And Leonard Pitts joins us here in Studio 3A. Leonard, nice to have you back.

Mr. LEONARD PITTS (Columnist, Miami Herald): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And, Bruce Barcott, let me start with your argument. Why is it bold parenting to send a 16-year-old off to attempt something so dangerous?

Mr. BARCOTT: Well, I think - first of all, obviously, the Sunderlands are outliers. I mean, they're sort of - they're extreme examples of what I call brave parenting. But I think that they help us reflect on the boundaries that we put around our kids. I mean, I have an eight-year-old son, an 11-year-old daughter, and as I put in the article, you know, raising kids today is like working on a construction site with an overzealous risk manager. Everywhere you look is a big sign that says: Safety is job one. You know, we're told to cut up hotdogs so they don't choke on them and never let them out of sight at the park.

And I think that mindset has seeped in a little too heavily in America today. I mean, in our obsession with safety, I think we've lost the upside of risk and even minor injury. You know, I think we ought to keep an eye on the good parts of raising bold kids that are prepared for adventure and eager kind of to embrace an unfamiliar world.

CONAN: Being isolated in a crippled sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean is not skinning your knee.

Mr. BARCOTT: It's not, but, you know, I wrote a - I spent a few months last year writing an article on a number of these teenagers who were working on these extreme projects, including a number of kids who have climbed Mount Everest at age 17, and now just recently, age 13. And I went out pretty skeptical, you know. I wanted to know whether their, you know, the parents were pushing them, whether they were in it for fame and fortune. And I was actually pleasantly surprised. Just about, you know, I can say pretty much all the kids I met were amazingly poised and articulate and had really trained for these activities their entire lives. One kid I met who climbed Mountain Everest at age 17 had been climbing with his family since he was four years old.

CONAN: And Leonard Pitts, who's with us here in Studio 3A - Abby had been sailing her whole life, 16 years old, apparently quite accomplished. What's wrong with testing her abilities in a circumnavigation - solo circumnavigation?

Mr. PITTS: Well, I believe that there is a world of difference. I mean, I agree with, you know, the idea that we are in era of helicopter parenting and parents who are too eager to sort of wrap their kids in bubble wrap before they send them out into the world. But I think that there is a little bit of a gulf between, okay, let's overcome this over-parenting and let's send our child out on to the middle of the Indian Ocean with essentially no help.

I think that - it seems to me that there's a happy medium somewhere in there that is being lost, a happy medium where we can, you know, raise these bold kids but not send kids out on narcissistic quests like this one that, when she gets in trouble, require, you know, the help of a foreign maritime association and, as I understand it, French sailors who risked their lives to pluck her out of the ocean.

CONAN: And narcissistic - you mentioned fame and fortune, apparently, was, at least, peripherally an issue here.

Mr. PITTS: Yes, fame and fortune in the sense that the father - at least prior to his daughter's trip, I believe it had been called off by the time she actually set sail - but was shopping a reality program, "Adventures in Sunderland," you know, based on this idea that he had these daredevil kids, these thrill-seeking kids. And I think that's the twist that adds an extra hint of reprehensibility to me. It reminds me of Jessica Dubroff, who was killed, I guess, about 10 years ago - age seven, as I recall - trying to become the youngest person to fly across country.

And what's fascinating to me about that particular story was that her parents were anti-television, didn't own a television and thought television was bad, but they were doing this for the benefit of, as I recall, CNN and I believe, ABC television news cameras. Something's wrong with that picture.

CONAN: Well, let's see if get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Terry's on the line, Terry calling us from Miami.

TERRY (Caller): Hi. I was - my opinion is that I err to the side of caution with Leonard Pitts. I'm a teacher, and I know helicopter parents exists, but there has to be a boundary. Just because kids can do something doesn't mean they should do something. In an era of Internet, where safety is so paramount, kids have so much access to things that they don't have the maturity or the brain development to handle. And it's incumbent upon parents to make that - those kinds of choices for their children to guide them to making decisions to take risk within safe boundaries.

CONAN: And Bruce Barcott, to be fair, you did say bold parenting is not necessarily wise parenting.

Mr. BARCOTT: I did. I did. And that - you know, I will make this point, that once reality TV enters the picture, I swing over to the Leonard Pitts camp, as well. Reality TV, once that comes in, then you've got producers who are sort of pushing the people doing this to do things that they might not otherwise do. And that's a problem for me. But, you know, there are a lot of teenagers who are doing these things completely out of the eye of the media and aren't doing it for fame. You remember the teenagers who have climbed Everest recently - last year. You know, you never heard of them, John Collins, out of Utah, John Strange, who lives down in Malibu. You know, they got a few lines in an L.A. Times sports blog, but that's about all they got.

And I - you know, in thinking about this, I've gone through that myself in terms of, you know, how developed are these kids' brains, and what can they handle? And for me, there exists a bright line at the age of 16.

We've worked over about 100 years to figure out that 16 is the age that we let kids drive. And I think younger than that, that's where I have some difficulty in terms of letting these kids do what they do.

CONAN: Leonard?

Mr. BARCOTT: I would just question, even the kids who climbed Everest, and I don't know the story, so you can correct me. But I would be willing to wager they probably didn't climb alone.

I would be willing to wager there was somebody there, some organization or some group or some Sherpa or somebody who was a - who provided a safety net for them. And I'm not as worried in that case if we're talking about experienced climbers, and there's somebody there to sort of look out for them.

The whole idea of Abby Sunderland, to me, is a qualitative or - leap from that, because we're talking about a child who'd not only try to circumnavigate the globe all by herself, but did so apparently as the child of a family seeking reality show fame and fortune.

And that, to me, is just the thing that makes us just unacceptable.

CONAN: Terry, thanks very much for the call.

TERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Blake in San Antonio: Setting Jamie - he meant Abby Sunderland - off on a journey around the world is small potatoes compared to the journey large numbers of youngsters set off on every day in the public housing projects of the United States. Risk was a physical danger she and everyone else understood and was offset by her skills. I think he may be overstating the danger of public housing projects, but...

Mr. PITTS: I think he's overstating the danger of public housing projects by a large degree, but also the fact that, you know, he says that she chose to undertake this risk, you know, relying upon her skills. Even if you buy that - and I don't necessarily do that, because I think that at 16, you're kind of below the age of having the emotional maturity to make that kind of decision. But even if you buy that, what about the French sea captain who fell into the ocean and could conceivably have drowned or died rescuing her?

If she chose to take that risk, you might say, okay, fine. But what about him? What about the Australian taxpayers who have to foot the bill for rescuing her?

CONAN: Yeah. Bruce Barcott, that's become an issue...

Mr. BARCOTT: You know, it's interesting, that issue. I think - I really think that issue is a red herring because the larger context of that is search-and-rescue professionals rescue thousands of, frankly, idiots every day out there in national forests, in national parks, in the water. I mean, 10 percent of the Coast Guard's operating budget goes to search-and-rescue costs.

And what we don't hear about are a lot of folks who go out completely ill-prepared. I mean, I've spend a lot of time here on Mount Rainier. And you talk to park rangers down there, and you wouldn't believe the stories of people they see high in the mountain in flip-flops that they end up rescuing.

And you really - you usually don't hear those stories.

Mr. PITTS: But the French - the gentleman who fell into the ocean and could have drowned wasn't search and rescue. He was a captain of a fishing boat who happened to come to the young lady's aid.

CONAN: All right. Let's go next to Lindsay(ph), Lindsay with us from Chicago.

LINDSAY (Caller): Hi. I'm a teacher and I work with younger students. And, you know, what's disheartening for me is that I have students in second grade that go home every day without parents there to watch them, yet they're watching their younger siblings.

And so, to compare, you know, a child that's very well-educated and raised by parents that have taught her the - you know, the ways of life and how to act in, you know, emergency situations to me seems more acceptable than what's happening everyday in millions of homes across the country.

The gentleman earlier has stated that, you know, he's met all these articulate students across the country that are doing exceptional things, and I think as long as they're raised in a household that's taught them, you know, what to do is specific situations that, you know, it is acceptable. Obviously, there's a huge risk to it and...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

LINDSAY: ...I would never choose this for my child. But...

CONAN: Well, obviously, individuals vary, but Bruce Barcott, you said if you had to draw a line, it would be the driver's license line, the age of 16.

LINDSAY: Right. Exactly. You're going let a kid drive a car by himself, why not let him, you know, sail by himself, I guess?

Mr. BARCOTT: Yeah. You know, in interviewing a number of kids, my article focused more on mountain climbing, because that's where my experience lies.

But - you know, I interviewed a number of the teenagers who where 16 and 17 and had done these climbs and interviewed Jordan Romero, who is 13 and had done a number of these climbs. And there was, really, a huge leap in terms of the level of sophisticated thinking about risk that a 13-year-old really just can't engage in, that those 16 and 17-year-olds were able to engage in. And that's one of the reasons that I sort of chose 16 as my line.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Lindsay.

LINDSAY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Leonard Pitts, Jr., a syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald and the author of "Before I Forget." And we're - also with us is Bruce Barcott, a contributing editor at Outside Magazine, who wrote an op-ed that appeared in The Los Angeles Times. There's a link to both of them at our website. Just go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And here's an email from Shoshanna in Oakland. Alexander the Great commenced his first eastern campaign at the age of 16. The young sailor was competent, experienced and adventurous. He also has a sense of purpose. We prolong childhood much too long these days, finding young adults in their 20's and even 30's, floundering without taking on adult responsibilities. These brave parents acknowledged their daughter's talents and commitment and gave her the wings to fly - excuse the wrong metaphor. Risks will always loom in great undertakings, but this young woman is really a better-prepared adult for her efforts. This family has earned our applause, not our censure.

I'm not sure her boat was named Bucephalus, but we'll take the analogy. Leonard Pitts?

Mr. PITTS: Well, I will confess to not being completely up on Alexander the Great's...

CONAN: That's about right.

Mr. PITTS: ...accomplishments, but I will dare to say that I suspect that whatever Alexander went out for at the date of which he was 16, if I'm not mistaken, that there was a necessity for...

CONAN: He also had a very good army.

Mr. PITTS: Yeah, and an army - a very good point - and had an army at his back. Again, part of what riles me about Abby Sunderland was that there was no real, driving necessity. Magellan set forth on the seas to find a, you know, western route to the Spice Islands. Columbus set forth to find the, quote, unquote, "new world." So at least there was some compelling reason for these individuals to undertake these dangerous voyages.

Abby Sunderland was apparently trying to validate a reality show concept, among other things. I shouldn't cut her off like that. I'm sure she had some personal gains that she was going for, also.

CONAN: And her older brother had just done it.

Mr. PITTS: Yes, and her older brother had also done it. But then again, the reality show is part of the mix. And I'm sorry, I have trouble according that - the same level of respect.

CONAN: Bruce Barcott?

Mr. BARCOTT: I think there's an argument to be made that these adventures are done for a good reason, and they're done for the same reason that we played baseball or we create art or fashion. I think adventure is part of the exuberance of life. There are ways in which humans create joy and wonder and experience and hopefully a little wisdom.

I think, you know, in an - in thinking about adventure, to me, it's one of the ways that we really engage the natural world and go out and meet other people. One thing I did want to bring up - and I'm throwing this over into Leonard's camp, as well - is that I do have a problem with these kids going out and doing this to break a record, because I think the idea of an age record, a youngest record, is an absolute loser. It's a trap, because there's just nowhere to go but down.

And especially in mountain climbing, the one thing you've got to have in mountain climbing is the ability to turn back and climb another day. And if you're going for a record, an age record, and you're going to break it by one year, you really don't have the ability to come back next year, because the record will no longer be available to you. So I kind of want to cheer the kids who are going out and doing this and are above the record. They're not going for that.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. PITTS: Well, I would just - harkening back to what you said about we do this for the same reason we play baseball, et cetera - and I agree with you on age, by the way. That's another one of my complaints here. But as far as baseball, the salient difference is baseball, by and large, is not going to kill you.

CONAN: And we do wear helmets.

Mr. PITTS: Yeah. And if you're a Cubs fan, they may make you wish you were dead, but it is not going to kill you on most days.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. Let's go to Michael, Michael with us Burke in South Dakota.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello. Yeah, I might sound a little funny, coming from South Dakota, but I do a lot sailing and - singlehanded a lot through the Caribbean and South America and back from Florida. And I've had a couple of crew members who had never sailed in their life that, after three or four months insisted - I mean, they demanded to be allowed to take that boat and sail a 500-mile trip, in the Caribbean, (unintelligible) island to island. But there's a lot that can go wrong there, too.

CONAN: Hurricanes, among other things. Yes.

MICHAEL: Yeah. While you mention it, well, we went through, two, because this was back in the days before the radios and everything we have today. It was back in the '70s.

CONAN: And did you let them do it on such scant experience?

MICHAEL: Well, yeah. After I had sailed with them and taught them for three or four months, I didn't have any qualms at all about letting them go. I also am a professional pilot and a flight instructor and I've had more qualms about somebody soloing in a gusty wind coming up all of a sudden then I did them on a sailboat.

CONAN: And I hope that nothing untoward happened?

MICHAEL: No. I mean...

CONAN: All right. Good.

MICHAEL: ...you know - and it's the same way with kids. I mean, you can become a private pilot at the age of 17. You can solo at 16. You can fly a glider at 14. So, I mean, what's risk and what's risk?

CONAN: Well, maybe sailing around the world at 16 is another question, entirely. But Michael, thanks very much for relating your experience. We appreciate the phone call. And we'd like to thank our guests, Bruce Barcott of Outside Magazine, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts. Thank you, gentlemen, both.

Mr. BARCOTT: My pleasure.

Mr. PITTS: Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, race, crime and class in America. We'll talk with Charles Ogletree about his new book "Presumption of Guilt."

I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

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