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Where should we draw the line for children setting world records?
In remote parts of Alaska, a teenager is more likely to ask for the keys to the Cessna than the car. In Boulder, Colorado, kids start rock climbing around six years old. Sailing families on every coast take years at a time to cruise to different parts of the world, homeschooling their children at sea. Depending on where you live and your familiarity with such endeavors, you might find the parents of these children irresponsible. For example, I don’t know anything about hunting, so I think it’s insane that in places like West Virginia you can hand a loaded firearm to a fifteen year old and send him out on his own to shoot wild game. Or, if you’re willing to supervise and are a licensed hunter over the age of twenty-one, you can let your five-year-old niece bag her first deer. I’ve never shot anything in my life, except tequila, so my first instinct would be to call social services.

In January, sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland set sail on her boat, Wild Eyes, from Marina Del Rey, California, in an attempt to become the youngest person to solo-circumnavigate the world. For over five months, she demonstrated why her parents trusted her enough to support her dream and let her go. Unfortunately, halfway into Abby’s journey, a three-story-high wave in the south Indian Ocean crippled her boat by snapping the mast, and Abby manually set off an emergency beacon for rescuers. It’s hard to say which hit Abby the hardest, the 60-knot winds and 25-foot swells that ended her dream, or the media accusations that her parents were negligent for allowing her to make the trip in the first place.

A quick read of Abby’s blog demonstrates that for almost half a year Abby handily tackled less than ideal conditions aboard Wild Eyes, including faulty wind gauges, deficient solar power, leaks, major storms, engine failure, and the emotional isolation of living alone in a small space that smelled like squid. Abby grew up on boats, and the storm that damaged her rigging had nothing to do with being a sixteen-year-old girl. If anything, Abby’s response to the crisis showed maturity and experience beyond her years and proved that she was well prepared for emergency situations.

While Abby waited for days on her disabled boat to catch a ride with a French shipping vessel, thirteen-year-old Jordan Romero was home in California celebrating his new title as the youngest person to summit Everest. In December, he plans to knock off Vinson Massif in Antarctica and become the youngest person to climb the highest peak on all seven continents. But one out of every twenty-five people who attempt to summit Everest dies, and one out of every ten who make the summit dies on the descent. If you’re into probability, the fact that the boy’s dad and stepmom went with him to the summit meant that they’d not only put Jordan’s life at risk, but also gave him pretty good odds of losing at least one of his parents if he survived. Jordan’s attempt and successful summit brought media debate, but perhaps less so than the squall surrounding Abby’s fractured sailing quest. Why? Because Jordan is alive, well, and one peak shy of conquering the seven summits. Jordan set a world record. Abby went home.

I’m thinking that a child’s success or failure shouldn’t be the litmus test for deciding whether or not a parent is being reckless or irresponsible. Within the bounds of the law, a mom or dad must decide whether or not a child is mentally, physically, and emotionally ready to tackle a particular feat, but that type of discernment can be tough when the child is begging to do something that no child his or her age has ever done before. Without precedence, how do you know exactly where to draw the line?

Thirteen year olds can summit Everest. Sixteen year olds can sail solo. Not all, but as Jordon and Abby have proved, some. Kids are breaking barriers. They are redefining what is reasonable and prudent. As women, we know all too well what it is like to be discounted for our mental, physical, and emotional ability where athleticism is concerned. In 1966, Roberta Gibb opened her mail to find her Boston Marathon entry rejected with a short note stating that women were not physically capable of running a marathon. She snuck into the race and finished with an unofficial time of 3:21:25. She didn’t die. Her ovaries didn’t fall out. And while I will never run a marathon, I know many other women who can, and do, and are thankful that Gibb paved the way and proved the world wrong. Not all women can run a marathon, but some can, want to, and if given the chance – will. Perhaps our kids, when they are ready, deserve the same opportunity.

~Michelle Theall

Last modified: February 28, 2018

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