Abby Sunderland and parental responsibility — updated

Ever since we first heard the news that 16-year-old Abby Sunderland had lost communications and set off rescue beacons somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean last week, we’ve also been hearing about what lousy, irresponsible parents she has. Mostly from people no sane person would want as his or her own parents.

Abby was attempting to become the youngest person to complete a non-stop solo circumnavigation of the world when, halfway through her voyage, she ran into high winds and heavy seas. Her mast snapped off at the base, leaving her helpless and adrift without communications.

From what we’ve been hearing from various commentators, allowing her to go was the most abusive, reckless thing parents could possibly do. But their commentary says less about Laurence and Marianne Sunderland’s parenting skills than it does about their own.

From one commentator: “I barely trust my girls to operate a blender.” Another says he would “compliment her bravery and then lock her in her room, chain her to a tree or slip sleeping pills into her oatmeal.”

You get the drift. For some biting commentary on these and other child-rearing aphorisms offered up by the Sunderlands’ critics, see Katie Baker’s article in Deadspin. It does sort of make you thankful that the critics aren’t your parents.

The media assault on the Sunderlands began even before Abby set sail, but lately it has reached a crescendo, with some hinting that they should be charged with child endangerment.

One of the most irresponsible attacks I have seen came from Geraldo Rivera on Fox News over the weekend. In his Sunday night show, he had several people (including a filmmaker who admitted he knows nothing about sailing) on who tried to paint the Sunderlands as irresponsible parents. He also had two people on who tried to defend them. I say “tried” because he barely let either of them get a word in edgewise. Here’s the video:

Geraldo is playing the role of an advocate here, not a journalist. He argues with Jeff Casher, a member of Abby’s support team, and refuses to let a member of his own panel finish a sentence.

Most bizarre is the comparison of Laurence Sunderland with Richard Heene, the father of the balloon boy. First of all, the balloon boy episode was a hoax concocted in an effort to get a reality show. Abby’s attempt was no hoax. Second, rumors of a reality show for the Sunderlands are just that — rumors.

Let’s put things in perspective. In my original post I expressed the opinion that maybe Abby and her father had rushed her departure in order to improve her chances of getting in the record books. Now I think I may have been premature in my judgment.

I am not a sailor, but I am familiar with economic history. The route Abby was taking when her boat was dismasted was the main route taken by clipper ships in the 19th and early 20th centuries on the run from Great Britain to Australia. By using the West Wind Drift, the tall-masted sailing ships of that era could make the run faster than steamships could. During the late 19th century there was a legendary rivalry between the clippers Cutty Sark and Thermopylae to complete the run in the fastest time.

Abby actually was taking a more conservative route than the clippers took. To shorten the trip, the clippers used to take a “great circle” route that took them as far south at 60 degrees. Abby was at 42 degrees — about the latitude of Boston — when she met with her accident. (She was not “500 miles from Antarctica”, as Geraldo said in an earlier broadcast; she was 500 miles north of the Kerguelen Islands, which are administratively part of French Antarctica.)

Also, while Abby’s boat was much smaller than a clipper ship, it was probably more seaworthy, and definitely a lot safer. She had all of the most modern navigational and communications equipment, and it all worked as it was supposed to work.

She maintained constant contact with her support team in California and a weather center in New Hampshire. When trouble came and she lost her mast and communications, she did what she was supposed to do, namely, turned on her rescue beacons and settled down to wait. She was prepared and equipped to wait weeks, if necessary.

I have to wonder a little about the motives of those who are attacking Abby’s parents. I suspect that what infuriates many of their critics is the fact that they are evangelical Christians who homeschool their children and don’t practice birth control (Marianne Sunderland is expecting her eighth child next month).

Do the Sunderlands’ critics think the children would be better off if they were taken away from their parents and sent to separate foster homes? Quite possibly, they do.

The Sunderlands’ critics seem to think the main function of parenting is to shield children, not only from risk, but from thinking and doing for themselves. It is but a short leap from that to thinking that this is also the function of government. Significantly, one of the provisions included in the new health care reform law is a requirement that insurance companies allow children to remain on their parents’ health insurance plans until they are 26.

At what age can we allow children to grow up?

Personally, I would rather have the Sunderlands for parents than any of their critics.

One thought on “Abby Sunderland and parental responsibility — updated”

  1. Geraldo Rivera’s interview, as usual, was pure theatrics. Personally, I wouldn’t get too wound up about it because I suspect few people take him seriously.

    Without more information about the boat, the preparations and the circumstances of the incident, it’s difficult to form an opinion. Unfortunately, in the rush to judgement that has become “de rigueur” in todays media, conclusions are often reached without the benefit of facts.

    That said, I think it’s a bit of a reach on your part to say “while Abby’s boat was much smaller than a clipper ship, it was probably more seaworthy, and definitely a lot safer.”

Comments are closed.