By now, everyone has heard of 16-year-old Abby Sunderland’s effort to sail around the world and 13-year-old Jordan Romero climbing Mt. Everest. Blogs, talk shows, and print media are buzzing with criticism and praise for the teen adventurers. It is easy to see both sides of the controversy.
On one hand, the effects of isolation on the sea and the lack of oxygen at altitude on the developing teen brain are not well understood. The parents who publicize these children’s efforts appear to be capitalizing on their children’s risk taking.
On the other hand, teens are capable of so much more than our culture gives them credit for. The very shelter we smother them with might also be stunting their growth and causing issues in other ways. By the time most kids from developed nations are teens, they will have spent as much time in front of the television as Abby has spent in a boat and Jordan has spent wearing boots.
One could argue that the expense of Sunderland’s rescue was unnecessary. Another could argue that the expense we’ll bear in the future, in the form of health problems caused from a diet of junk food compounded by an Xbox lifestyle, will dwarf the cost of any ocean rescue.
Some have said that Abby Sunderland’s parents should be tried for child abuse. It could just as easily be argued that any parent who uses the television as a baby sitter should face the same charges.
Kids doing exceptional and controversial things are nothing new, but we’re in the infantile stages of reality television, social media, and blogs like this one. My hope is that our wickedly powerful, but still painfully clumsy, modern media machine will not stifle these kinds of ambitions. Kids need to have the freedom to pursue their dreams without the keyboard pundits tossing anonymous rants at them. When a teen goes too far, like the 13-year-old Dutch sailor recently blocked from a solo voyage, authorities step in with or without our rants.
For most teens, the best approach lies somewhere in between. Encourage teens to pursue a bit of outdoor adventure - with professional training when needed - like sailing, surfing, mountain biking, climbing, skiing or hiking. Encourage them to avoid the all-too-common sedentary lifestyle that young bodies and minds were never meant to live. The real issue here is not the few kids who are pushing the limits of adventure, it’s the millions who have never tasted adventure at all.