Dear Abby

>> Saturday, June 12, 2010 Sunderland is coming home. And I'm glad, and I hope she takes another shot at sailing around the world, even if she won't be a record-setter.

And yet there are people considering the whole venture a bad idea in the first place.

I've suggested that humans are children until they're in their early twenties and that children ought to be entitled to special considerations in juvenile court proceedings. Judgement isn't something kids are known for, and I'm certainly not about to back down from that.

But I also don't really see that as being the issue. Or to the extent that I do see it as an issue, I see the issue as being that personal judgement is something that one develops through practice and experience, not by sitting at home being coddled by one's parents. One of the dominant themes in the letters one sees at Salon (and elsewhere--I merely provided the link to Salon as a handy exemplar, I've been seeing these kinds of comments on other sites as well) is safety, how dangerous this whole affair was and what were the parents thinking? Which strikes me as bizarre, albeit typical: if I walk to the corner restaurant, I might be mugged by somebody, so I shouldn't do that... of course if I lay in my bed hiding under the covers and never leave, I risk bedsores.

Life, as the old joke goes, will kill you. Some of us will die when we're infants and some of us will die when we're 112. Some of us will be hit by buses and some of us will have strokes and some of us will fall out a window and some of us will be mauled by bears; actually, at the present writing there is exactly one way to come into existence (your parents had sex) and several gajillion bazillion ways to exit the stage. Someone out there will die in a plane crash despite never setting foot on an airplane, and someone else will walk away from being shot several times in the face and subsequently die a half-century later from food poisoning. Another famous old expression says that the only things in life that are certain are death and taxes; this is a lie, as skilled lawyers and accountants can reduce your tax liability to zero, while the Grim Reaper will eventually hunt your ass down regardless of the fact you looked both ways before crossing every street, took plenty of vitamins (but not too many!), had all your shots and brushed your teeth thrice daily and exclusively ate organic macrobiotic meals between sleeping eight hours and obsessively doing aerobics.

You will die. I'm very sorry if this is news, somehow.

Now, to be frank, I have a special horror of drowning and find the thought of freezing to death rather frightening, and you can do either or both in the Indian Ocean in the middle of Winter. On the other hand, to the extent we might worry about what our obituaries might say about us, "Heroic Teen Dies In Solo Circumnavigation Attempt" rings a little more badass than "Old Fat Guy Chokes On Big Mac." You surely must concede this, how can you not?

I am thrilled that Abby Sunderland's obituary remains unpublished (I'd say unwritten, but no doubt there were news organizations preparing for the worst this past Thursday; their drafts will have to be revised and extended, huzzah!). While the worst wouldn't have been a surprise, I never shared Roger Ebert's despair. For one thing, kids are physically tough little bastards by evolutionary design; for another, judgement and resourcefulness are different things.

This deserves its own paragraph, you know. Just because a kid isn't as capable of consistently making good choices, or at least isn't as capable of the consistency that ought to be expected of an adult, doesn't mean the kid isn't clever or knowledgeable or smart. Indeed, a kid's problem is likely to be that he or she is too crafty for his or her own good, but that's another topic. (It might also be noted that adults don't always choose well or wisely.) The weird point here is that one shouldn't assume that just because there's a high risk a kid will choose badly when all of his or her friends are sniffing paint thinner fumes and telling him or her how much fun it is, it doesn't follow that the kid is going to instantly drop dead the moment he or she gets lost in the woods or is facing thirty-foot waves in a small boat in the middle of the vast ocean. We get so used to kids choosing badly when it comes to things like what constitutes a nutritional dinner that we're more surprised than we ought to be if a kid is pulled out of a swamp after several days, as if a kid who thinks candy is a food group is likely to try hopping on an alligator's back for kicks, because, you know, the first choice is kind of dumb so it must follow that every single thing this child will ever do again will be dumb. Follow that logic to its inevitable conclusion, and our children are the equivalent of farm turkeys who will drown if they look up during a rainstorm.1

There is also an argument that I'm two minds over, though it's the first thing that comes to mind in this context. That would be the fact that, once upon a time, the British Navy was full of twelve-year-olds. A sixteen year old would have probably been a leftenant or something, aside from the fact that Abby Sunderland is a girl and would, of course, be married and have three children. That last bit of snark is why I'm of two minds, actually: we don't have twelve-year-olds serving in the navy now because we have those evolving standards of decency that dictate things like "little kids shouldn't be in the armed forces" and "girls can do things, too," and it would be a fallacy2 to try to claim that because children of a particular era were considered eligible to be sailors so they should be now. And yet--the fact remains that people younger than Abby Sunderland, living in an age before GPS and cell phones and satellite beacons, would've been deemed competent sailors, though admittedly they wouldn't necessarily have been attempting solo circumnavigations (though one suspects this has less to do with the ability of those sailors-of-old than it does with technical limitations that made long-distance sailing a larger-scale and more arduous effort; e.g. even something as simple as food supplies, which would have consisted of tinned meat and vegetables and a compliment of live animals, as opposed to freeze-dried anything stuffed in a small bin).

I suppose what I am really trying to get at with all of this is: I'm not a parent, so maybe it's easy for me to say this, but if I had a talented, bright sixteen-year-old with aptitude and experience in doing something risky, I'd let her do it even if it terrified me. And I'm sure it would. But the rub is that I'd probably be just as terrified if she tried doing it at age thirty-two, when all of the same awful things that could happen when she was sixteen could still happen. Because in the end we all die anyway, but the cliché that some of us never really live is absolutely true, and I would want my children to be tough and brave.

Happy sailing, Ms. Sunderland, and may a good wind be at your back on your next attempt.

1If your rebuttal is that this is exactly how most children are and they all grow up to become Fox News viewers, QED, I'm afraid I have to fold. You win.

2An "is-ought" (or I suppose in this context, "was-should") fallacy, but not technically a naturalistic fallacy.


timb111 Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 10:24:00 AM EDT  

I left home at 15, lied about my age and went to work cutting down trees to make way for a railroad in the Rockies. I lived in a camp with much older men, and got drunk with them in the local barn. I'm sure that they never realized how young I was, or if they did they never mentioned it. As far as I'm concerned I became an adult with all the rights and responsibilities the minute I walked out of the door.

I note that the youngest inmate at Guantanamo was 15 years old when captured. BTW, he is a Canadian and the current Conservative Canadian government seems fine with his incarceration. I agree that he should be responsible for his actions; I disagree that the Canadian government should be complacent while he (or any other Canadian) sits in a jail notorious for human rights abuse.

While it is properly pronounced "leftenant", the correct spelling is "lieutenant".

Eric Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 10:41:00 AM EDT  

Good points, timb111, about Omar Khadr, and an interesting life story. Thank you for sharing that with us. Would it be prying to ask why you left home at that age? (Feel free to disregard the question.)

I was being cute with the "leftenant" business; in the U.S., as you may know, "lieutenant" is pronounced as it's spelled. What is it with the Queen's English and certain words like "lieutenant" and "Gloucester"? :)

timb111 Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 11:05:00 AM EDT  

I don't mind telling you why I left home, it just isn't very interesting to anyone but me. Feel free to delete this.

Basically upon returning to home after years in foster care I decided that I didn't like either situation very much. I told my father I was hitchhiking 1,700 miles east to Ottawa, but instead hitchhiked 60 west to Rocky Mountain House where a construction company was looking for unskilled labour (a requirement I filled with ease). I worked with their worn out chainsaws for half the summer (the clutches often didn't disengage) until someone accidentally shoved a running chainsaw into my stomach (fortunately my stomach was a lot smaller then than it is now). The chain caught on my shirt and didn't cut very deeply, though it did cut me from my belly button to my neck. I decided that was too dangerous so I quit and got a nice safe job working with 700F degree tar doing hot roofing.

I put myself through high school by getting up at 5:00 every morning and making pizza dough.

Later in life I was real surprised when my kids turned 15 and didn't want to immediately leave home, but that's a different story.

Nathan Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 11:25:00 AM EDT  

I don't have a single bit of evidence, on which to hang this statement, but I suspect that most 12-18 year olds are more resourceful and show better judgment when they're alone as opposed to in a group. That whole "peer-pressure / trying to impress each other" bit...

John the Scientist Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 12:36:00 PM EDT  

You're forgetting that a good number of Pirates were women, including (and I had to consult my Johnson's "Lives of the Most Notorious Pirates to remember her name) Anne Bonny, who most likely turned pirate somewhere between the ages of 12 and 16 (and was married by 12).

There were teenage military women operating in the Age of Sail, just not for the King.

And quite frankly, I divide human beings into the edge of the knife (disoverers, inventors and the like), people who keep the edge sharp (the firemen, policemen, support crews, governments and judiciaries that allow those people to operate with maximum efficiancy), and the parasites. Most if not all of us wind up being parasites at one point or another in out lives, the trick is to minimize that and maximuize your contribution to the forward momentum of the human race.

This young lady comes from a rather affluent background. In which scenario does she contribute more to humanity, as an example of courage, or as a slowly fattening housewife with three kids who waste their lives waiting on a trust fund? Not all life is equally valuable, and not all short lives are tragic. Two false assumptions a lot of the Boomers who are in love with youth, make.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Sunday, June 13, 2010 at 6:15:00 PM EDT  

Not trying to diss an otherwise good piece, but I should note that "at the present writing there is exactly one way to come into existence (your parents had sex)" isn't quite true. The truest statement is that "your biological parents' gametes combined" -- this can be done with or without sex today.

Dr. Phil

Eric Sunday, June 13, 2010 at 8:25:00 PM EDT  

...this can be done with or without sex today.

I stand corrected. :)

Kim,  Monday, June 14, 2010 at 11:54:00 AM EDT  

Meh. No problem with child and parents risking child's life and limb if so inclined. Bigger problem with said parents and said child (and now various governments and fishing boats, etc) spending ridiculous, obscene amounts of money in what is, essentially, an insular, meaningless, self-aggrandizing effort when the money (and attention and societal concern and outpouring of worry and anxiety) could go to ....blah blah blah never mind.(Speaking as a black woman and teacher of struggling urban kids killing one another in the streets but really, why bother, who cares?) Sigh.

Eric Monday, June 14, 2010 at 2:05:00 PM EDT  

Kim, those are some fair points, though with regard to the money spent on search and rescue, that expenditure is offset by the fact that a portion of that would be spent regardless (e.g. the Coast Guard operates 365 days a year whether they're rescuing anybody on a particular day or not; further, one can make the point that even if it is cheaper for them to sit around playing cards, paying them to that is wasting resources while a rescue--even of one kid at sea--is experience towards the next disaster).

I don't know that the outpouring of anxiety is a zero-sum game. One can be anxious about a lost teen and about poor kids not getting the support they need, although to be fair it isn't quite non-zero-sum, either: there's a point where fatigue and a limited ability to pay attention on so many things sets in.

But the reminder that there are more serious things to be concerned about is well-taken, nonetheless.

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