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Abby Sunderland's parents knew best

By Joshua Coleman, Special to CNN
  • Joshua Coleman says he's glad family let children sail around world
  • He says parents worry too much about what might happen to let kids take chances
  • In the past, young people left home young, went to war, worked on sailing ships, he says
  • Coleman: In letting kids take on challenges, parents should assess readiness, maturity, skill

Editor's note: Joshua Coleman is co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families and a psychologist in private practice in California's San Francisco Bay Area. His most recent book is "When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along."

(CNN) -- I couldn't do it, but I'm glad some parents could let their 16-year-old daughter get into a 40-foot sailboat and attempt to be the youngest person to sail around the world.

If it had been me, I would've bribed, berated or bullied my kid out of doing any such thing. I'm like most parents: terrified that something terrible will befall one of my children and aware that I'll blame myself to the grave if it does.

But we worried parents need to take a lesson from the Sunderlands. Their daughter Abby had a dream since she was 13. She was competent and experienced and spent her whole childhood sailing with her father, who is a sailing instructor. This wasn't a whim. It was a notion that she had the courage to do; her parents had the courage to let her do it.

Today, parents are so steeped in worry and anticipation of unforeseen disaster that they fail to realize how restrictive and over-protective they have become. We believe that our children will never reach adulthood without our constant monitoring and supervision. We fret that our decisions will lower our children's self-esteem, their SAT scores -- or their chances of not complaining about us to their therapists when they're grown.

And when exactly is it that?

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Age is increasingly becoming an arbitrary marker for adulthood. I have known some 16-year-olds whom I would trust with my life and some 40-year-olds who couldn't be trusted to find the dock where Wild Eyes, Abby Sunderland's sailboat, was berthed.

And we forget that in earlier centuries, children took on far greater challenges and risks than do today's children. For example, from 1740-81, roughly 30 percent to 40 percent of adolescent boys left home to fight in wars against the French, British or native Americans, according to historian Steven Mintz, author of "Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood." He also notes that some of the most celebrated authors left home at an age far younger than the age when today's adolescents depart.

Mark Twain quit school at 11 to support his family after his father died. Harriet Beecher Stowe was 5 when her mother died and 12 when she left home to live with an older sister. And Herman Melville sailed on a whaling ship when he was in his teens.

Each child has to be judged and tested on the basis of his or her maturity, their achievements to date and whether he or she is competent to make such important decisions for themselves. Abby's parents faced these questions before with their son Zac, who, at 17, became the youngest person to sail solo around the globe. The family was experienced at helping Abby weigh the pros and cons because of Zac's experience on his journey, the father's experience as a sailor and boatwright, and Abby's many years sailing.

The family produced a documentary for Zac's trip and was planning one for Abby's. It recently came to light that they had also formerly signed a deal to shop a reality show before her journey. Some people have suggested that the parents encouraged or even pushed her into the voyage as a way to pay off their bills. Crushing debt can certainly cause people to consider actions they might reject if money were not an issue. However, reading Abby's blogs demonstrates that her trip was something that the parents were accommodating, not leading, even if they stood to benefit.

I'm glad there are parents like the Sunderlands who trust their children enough to let them do something so big and bold. Yes, and dangerous.

There is no way I would let my kids sail around the globe, no matter how talented they were. But that doesn't make me a better parent, just a more cautious one. We need parents like the Sunderlands and their children to remind us that there is more to life than keeping our children safe.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joshua Coleman.