Laurence Sunderland, father of Abby Sunderland, has come under intense attack because of his decision to put his 16 year old daughter, alone, on a small yacht and launch her onto the world’s oceans. Many parents are outraged while others applaud his ability to raise a daughter with the courage and fortitude to embark on such a terrifying adventure. I finished an interview with Mr. Sunderland (BAM radio) : yesterday and would like to shed some light on his decision from a medical and psychological perspective. There are some aspects of his decision making which I think we all miss.
Abby, along with her soon- to- be eight, siblings was home schooled by her parents. In my experience, skillfully home schooled youngsters are not your ordinary teenagers. Because their peer group consistently includes many adults, they are more mature, better grounded, self confident and less impulsive than other teens their age. More frequently, teens in the US act like immature, rebellious kids because they fail to spend enough time with adults. Their peer groups consist solely of other immature teens and this does not serve them well. So we must understand that aside from her personality or inherent character strengths, Abby Sunderland was no ordinary teen. She embodied maturity, sound decision making skills and internal fortitude well beyond her years.
With that said, we cannot underestimate the importance of the level of her cognitive maturity. We know from studies in neuroanatomy that, regardless of a child’s upbringing, full cognitive maturity does not occur in youngsters until they are in their early twenties. That means that 16 year old children are not young adults from a neurological development standpoint. Simply put, their lack of frontal lobe (and other brain area) development prevents them from thinking as abstractly as adults. When it comes to assessing risk and reasoning through difficult and intense situations, her brain wasn’t able to provide what it could have if she were 20 years old.
And there is another problem. Aside from the dangers posed by 40 foot waves, there are those who could find this lovely girl, alone, hundreds of miles from any other human and take advantage of her in numerous ways.
I applaud Mr. Sutherland’s rearing of such a remarkable young woman. Clearly he understands that what she needed most as a daughter was time living beside him, absorbing his attention, admiration and teaching. If only more girls in the US could be so lucky. But sadly, in the midst of his enthusiasm for her adventurous spirit, he, like many adoring fathers, was blinded by the reality of her developmental limitations. Regardless how mature, sensitive or courageous any 16 year old girl can be, her body can’t perform what her brain can’t figure out. When it really matters, frontal lobe maturity always trumps character.
Meg Meeker, M.D
Author of Strong Fathers/Strong Daughters: Ten Secrets Every Father Should Know