Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Protection Racket

The recent case of Abby Sunderland, the 16 year old girl who famously tried to be the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world and whose boat became disabled in a severe storm, has become a virtual Rorschach test on parenting. Editorial columns, letters to the editor, and online debates question the sanity of the parents who let the girl try out such a clearly dangerous activity, and argue about whether or not they pushed her to do it for the money they would earn from a reality show (although Abby’s brother Zac had already achieved the feat and the family apparently got very little money from that).

Some of the debate also centered around the question of who should have to pay for the cost of her rescue, although I do not recall that question being raised quite as much when several mountain climbers had to be rescued off of snowstorm-infested Mt. Hood after attempting to climb it in the wintertime.

A legitimate question about how much risk parents should allow their teenagers to take, and how protective of their children parents should be has been all but drowned out by extreme emotion.

Some people have applauded the Sunderlands for “brave parenting” and for fostering maturity in their offspring. Clearly Abby was quite mature and knew what she was doing. A lot of adult sailors would have trouble keeping their boat upright in 20 to 25 foot waves after the mass was snapped off, or have the presence of mind to quickly activate manually operated emergency radio beacons. Still, should that sort of risk-taking be encouraged in anyone, let alone a teenager?

On the other side are parents who think it’s too dangerous to let their children play outside on their suburban front lawns, walk two blocks to school, or surf the internet unattended for fear that the children will be whisked away by sexual predators.

Now of course children do get abducted. According to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, there are 3,000 to 5,000 stranger abductions per year, which are mostly cases of sexual assault rather than kidnapping. Of course, there are 40 million kids in this country, making the odds of such an abduction around 347,000 to 1! Compare that to the approximately 3000 children between the ages of 2 and 14 who die in car crashes every year, or to the estimated 1,530 children who were killed by their adult caretakers in 2006, or to the nine hundred and six thousand child abuse convictions in 2003 alone.

Makes you wonder about how some folks assess risk.

Where’s the middle ground on keeping children safe? It seems to have disappeared.

“Protecting” children from themselves is nowadays often taken to extremes in which the parents actually cause their children to be less safe because the kids never learn how to fend for themselves or to tolerate adversity. A recent letter to the editor in my city’s newspaper opined that parents who do not randomly drug test their teens, regardless of whether or not there is any evidence that the children may have used drugs, have their heads in the sand. I would be more concerned that those children who had never used drugs would interpret such action by the parent as indicative of the parent’s expectation that they are going to use drugs, as well as the parent's expectation that they are incapable of using good judgment.

Children frequently misinterpret such parental overconcern as a sick need on the part of the parent to be some sort of rescuer - whether the children need rescuing or not. Such kids then often act as if they continually need to be saved from themselves - in order oblige the parent’s apparent need to do just that.


  1. Apropos of parental over-vigilance re drug testing their children, I'm sure you've seen this one. Finding a live one means thrusting drugs on them, sort of the opposite of parents wanting to test FOR drugs. Mixed signals or what?

    "On June 1, an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) mental health task force called for pediatricians to perform mental health screenings for children at each doctor visit. The AAP also underscored a need for more child psychiatrists and mental health professionals in communities—to overcome critical shortages.

    NAMI maintains a Child & Adolescent Action Center that focuses on child and adolescent mental health..

    The 2010 NAMI Convention full schedule offers many symposia and presentations, including:

    Friday, July 2

    • Financing and Expanding Children’s Mental Health Services (10:45 a.m.)

  2. "Where’s the middle ground on keeping children safe? It seems to have disappeared."

    It's hard to determine the middle ground when one has to deal with a world of extremes. I went overboard trying to protect my daughter from herself, to no avail. Meanwhile, in the background, were people who reinforced and validated her bad choices. In the end, I just became weary of the continuous power struggle between her and me, so I see your point. However, even therapists can be confused over what might be typical adolescent peccadilloes and what constitutes truly risky behavior. And, with mental health issues lurking, things become even more complicated, which resulted in a series of diagnoses (all drug-centered, of course). Each time, we bought into the idea that this was "the fix". Each time, we were disappointed. Today, my daughter does as well without psychotropic drugs as she did with them. I'm not sure, but I believe she mistrusts psychiatry more than I do.
    But, back to overprotection: in my case, it was a natural inclination of an alarmed parent. I now see the point that it might have led to escalation on my daughter's part, and definitely led to an angry tug-of-war. But there are many alarmed parents out there who are looking at a world of such extremes that have become rather commomplace: bad behavior, langugage, sexual mores, drug use, these were no-nos in my generation, and if one did engage in these things, one did not flaunt them. Perhaps a touch of generation gap here?