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When Adults Help Kids Flirt With Death
Posted on Jul 18, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
Regardless of how they are enforced, more than a few laws regulating interactions between adults and children are on the books. Also, there are many laws designed to protect minors from themselves. In the U.S. and elsewhere there are age restrictions on buying or using booze, tobacco and other potentially dangerous items and substances. These laws center on the notion that at some young ages, a person is not equipped to make good decisions regarding potential danger. The laws say, in effect: Later, youngster—you can do dangerous (but legal) things later if you decide to. The impulse behind the laws is found not in sophisticated interpretation of legal intricacies but instead in the common-sense, day-to-day experiences of personal, familial and societal life.
Last year, a court in the Netherlands stepped in to prohibit a 13-year-old girl from attempting to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Laura Dekker, now 14, was made a ward of the state to prevent her from setting out on the voyage, a proposed exploit supported by her father. Dutch judges extended the state supervision of the girl last month, just days after Abby Sunderland was rescued.
Laura Dekker’s father obviously had found a way to justify to himself his support of the child’s plan. Similarly, Abby Sunderland’s parents apparently managed to convince themselves that nothing was amiss in agreeing with their teenage son and then their teenage daughter that circling the globe alone in a sloop was a worthwhile endeavor for a minor.
The father, Laurence, told the L.A. Times, “It’s about a passion for sailing and loving your kids so much you want to be part of their dream.”
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That same week the elder Sunderland appeared on television’s “Larry King Live” and in response to a question from King rejected reports that Abby’s voyage had been aimed at getting a reality show. “That’s absolutely ridiculous,” the father said. “My passion is first and foremost for my children and their endeavors. And [the claim is] absolutely, totally ridiculous and totally unfounded.” He did say that five cameras had been aboard Wild Eyes and that Abby had been filming herself.
Understandably, the Sunderland family has not taken kindly to some of the criticism it has suffered. The parents issued a statement saying: “To hear the intensity of the personal hatred spewed by some in the media and on blogs was shocking to us. Abby should not be subjected to these hurtful attacks against members of her family, especially as what was being said was based, at best, on twisting facts out of context and, at worst, on total fabricated lies.”
Certainly this family—admired by many for being close-knit and professing born-again Christian values—does not deserve to be a target of hatred. But neither should its heavily publicized actions (Abby has hired a PR/talent management firm) be above question or well-grounded criticism.
Under a rain of disapproval that includes being named “worst sports father of the year” by one website, Laurence Sunderland says he went along with Abby’s plan only after opposing it initially. An excerpt from the Larry King show’s transcript:
Message to parents: If your teenager keeps pestering you, telling you that you just gotta let her do something that could kill her, it’s fine to knuckle under. Saying “no” might cause unhappiness.
Several months ago, I was taken aback by a film documentary that I saw on a cable network. It concerned a 15-year-old engaged in so-called extreme skiing on a French mountain. One approving article on the movie finds no fault with what the boy did, maybe because, as it notes, he had “the help and guidance of an exclusive circle of big mountain skiers.”
One more case of adults colluding with a child to expose him to extreme danger.
I don’t doubt that the “help and guidance” the adults offered reflected great wisdom about skiing and mountain safety, but I suspect that their words would be of little benefit if an avalanche were a few yards away or after a skier had started to tumble down a thousand-foot, nearly vertical slope.
In the case of the young “extreme” skier, his dad couldn’t be criticized for not acting to stop the teenager from venturing out on rock-strewn inclines that would give nightmares to most people: The father, a celebrated skier, had been killed at age 30 while doing his thing on the same French mountain nine years earlier.
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