Even before the rescue of Abby Sunderland, the 16 year old round the world sailor, national criticism of her parents' judgment was becoming intense. But if we focus just on Abby's parents, we will miss a key story line about contemporary American parenting: how we have allowed our adolescents to become adults and our children to become adolescents, and how parents lose their moorings when children profess a dream of competitive success.
There are many ways beyond solo boating that we let our children take risks beyond their years. I recall an anxious mother saying that she felt she could not say no to her 12 year old hockey playing son when he pleaed to play basketball in the same season. She knew that this would be extremely taxing for her son-he would have no down time because each sport had an intense schedule-but she wondered if basketball might be her son's "gift." "If he never had the chance to find out if basketball is his gift,' she said, I would always regret it. What if Michael Jordan's mother had said no to basketball?"
Back in the ancient 1980s, before the age of the super child, when my son asked to add a second sport to his schedule, we said "Sure, if you want to drop the first one." We were not yet burdened by the cultural norm that every child is a bundle of undiscovered potential that parents are responsible to uncover and develop, no matter the cost.
Beyond exposing kids to exhausting schedules and burnout, parents of competitively gifted children take medical risks once reserved for professional athletes. Physicians lament that parents request that children with concussions or fragile knees be allowed to return quickly to their sport lest they miss important games or lose the chance for a college scholarship.
Here's the twist that many observers miss: For the most part, it's not parents pushing a reluctant child to take the field with a shaky knee or a partially torn rotator cuff. It's often the youngster pushing the parents and the parents (and coaches) not wanting to deny the child the chance to win and excel.
Of course, the young have always had dreams, but we used to think that they should grow up before deciding on which dreams to pursue as part of an adult life. Abby's early adolescent dream was at the heart of why Abby's parents let her take the physical and psychological risks of solo travel on the high seas. From her blog: "It has been my dream since I was 13 years old and began single-handing, to one day sail solo around the world. I am 16 years old and this blog will contain the story of my attempt to become the world's youngest solo circumnavigator. " Note the contemporary twist on the familiar round-the-world travel dream: it's to be solo and the youngest in history.
A competitive dream like Abby's is like kryptonite to American parents: they lose their powers of wisdom and judgment, the central competence that separates youth from adults. Recall the 13 year old with a dream of flying a plane solo across the country; his story ended in a fatal crash. Abby's parents stress that they trained her to be an excellent sailor, but that does not make her an adult capable of measuring risks versus dreams. We now know that the human brain does not fully mature until around age 25 on average; that means Abby has 9 years of brain development to look forward to. For now, it's the job of parents to provide the missing prefrontal cortex for their offspring.
The irony is that it's often the concerned, involved parents who get seduced by their children's competitive drive. Of course there are some obsessed parents who live their own dreams through their children, but more often it's a would-be super child pulling parents who don't feel on solid ground in saying no to something so positive - something that requires dedication and self-discipline, that teaches life skills, and that will get the child recognition in the community and maybe rewards in the future. The American dream is calling your child. How do you say no to that?
A modified version of this new culture of dream fulfillment plays out with less driven kids. I heard a coach of 11 year old boys say, "I just want each boy to fulfill his potential as an athlete, to be all that he can be." In my view, all that 11 year olds should be is, well, 11 years old, with a lot of time to grow up. And it's not just sports that get parents fired up: I know a mother who was thrilled that her daughter, already crazy busy with school work, violin, and a sport - wanted to add flute lessons. Maybe her real talent, the mother said, is in wind instruments.
When challenged about the risks of physical or psychological harm when their children engage in adult-like excess, parents usually adopt a standard line of justification: the benefits to the child are so great, and as for the risks - just living comes with risks. A teen with a soccer concussion could just as easily been injured falling down at home. Or as Abby's father told the press:
"Sailing and life in general is dangerous. Teenagers drive cars. Does that mean teenagers shouldn't drive a car? I think people who hold that opinion have lost their zeal for life. They're living in a cotton-wool tunnel to make everything safe."
This kind of comment would not sound crazy if it came from the parent or spouse of a grown up coal miner, police officer, or astronaut-or even a sky diver hobbyist. But when a parent of a minor child compares a year of solo sailing around the world, including in the South Pacific hurricane season, to driving a car in the neighborhood, it sounds delusional to outsiders. But it feels sane to parents who have been seduced by today's culture of competitive childhood where the dreams of youth distort the judgment of adults. Behind every super child is a supportive but ultimately wimpy parent.
The antidote is simple: let high-achieving children be children first, with time to grow up, and in the meantime let parents be the adults in the family.