“Irresponsible” and Praiseworthy – Abby Sunderland’s Parents

Posted by Irresponsibility

It feels weird to be this enthusiastic about Americans but I have to say, to the parents of 16-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland, well played!
Abby Sunderland

Contrary to the over-protective, blame-culture tendencies of their nation in general and state in particular, the Californian couple have shown themselves to be parents of a rare and praiseworthy order. First, for giving their teenage daughter exactly the same due as her older brother Zac, who set sail at 16 on a solo circumnavigation. How many parents, even in this age, manage to treat sons and daughters with equal respect? How many successfully resist the urge paint nurseries pink and blue; to treat their daughters to tutus and their sons to superhero costumes? To avoid gender stereotyping and raise a teenage girl to believe she can do exactly anything a boy can do – and do it better – is laudable.

More impressive, though, is their unselfishness in allowing Abby to undertake a risky voyage. It must be wrenching to not see your child for a year or more, and know for every minute of that time she is alone and potentially in danger. To set aside parental selfishness and worry in deference to a child’s wishes is the ultimate self-sacrifice. The press is quick to brand the Sunderlands “irresponsible” but I think they’re heroic. In supporting Abby’s dreams of sailing round the world they did the single most important thing a parent can do: they acknowledged her as a fellow human being. They showed they respect her as a unique spirit, entitled to her own aspirations, competent to make her own choices. Their attitude is a robust rebuttal of superficial, smothering, Victorian-style parenting that posits children as the lawful physical and emotional property of their parents. Truly bad parenting involves suffocating children, forcing them to be dependent and neurotic, allowing them to be afraid of the dark.

The press totally misses the point. Janet Street-Porter’s latest Independent column is titled “Children Need Good Parents”. After musing at length on the slackness of British parenting (“My partner, a teacher, finds that many kids don’t even have one person willing to be a proper parent, let alone two”) she proceeds – without apparent irony – to take Sunderland’s parents to task, scolding: “why was she allowed to sail across the Indian Ocean in the stormy season?” Apparently the concept that good parenting means giving children the space to challenge themselves, take risks, and face obstacles is too complex for her to grasp.

Say what you like about Abby Sunderland, but this is a girl who will never be unreasonably afraid of anything. She has the chops to face total isolation, 30-foot-seas and relentless physical demands. Whatever she decides to do in life, she’ll do. Having looked death in the eye, there is nothing society or circumstance can throw at her that will derail her. How many 16-year-old girls can say the same?

2 thoughts on ““Irresponsible” and Praiseworthy – Abby Sunderland’s Parents

  1. Amen! It’s hard, as parents, to allow our kids to reach for the stars. Doing that, however, is the best thing we can ever do for them.

    Although our children didn’t travel alone, we spent nearly 3 years riding our bikes from Alaska to Argentina together as a family. We watched our twin sons, age 10 when we left Alaska, rise to face whatever challenges were in their path. They were determined to pedal every single mile of that long, lonely road and they did! They now know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they can do anything.

    And, by the way, we’re American too 🙂

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