Should Kids Take Big Risks? Teenage Sailor’s Rescue Raises Big Questions

Teenagers' propensity for risk-taking can be harnessed in positive ways, say brain scientists.

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The good news that 16-year-old Abby Sunderland was rescued at sea in the midst of her attempt to sail around the world alone gave parents good reason to heave a sigh of relief, and also ask themselves if they would let their own teenager take on such a dangerous task.

Bloggers have been flaming Sunderland's parents for letting the teenager set out on a voyage that would be challenging even for a seasoned sailor. "If people are looking at age, they're looking at the wrong thing here," dad Laurence Sunderland told reporters Friday as a rescue ship headed to the girl's disabled boat in the Indian Ocean. "Age is not a criteria. Abby is a fine sailor," he added. "I've never advocated this for 16-year-olds. I've advocated this for experienced sailors."

But teenagers are well equipped to be explorers; they're physically strong, mentally alert, and fearless. Abby herself said today, at a stop en route home: "I think that a lot of people are judging me by the standards they have for their teens and other teens that they know...and thinking 'she's exactly like them,'" she said. "They don't understand that I've sailed my whole life and I do know what I'm doing out there."

Brain scientists say that teenagers' risk-taking behavior can be harnessed for good. The teenage brain is uniquely suited to learn difficult tasks, whether it's flying a plane, learning a foreign language, or sailing a boat solo around the world.

The irony in Abby Sunderland's adventure is that every day we let teenagers tackle a risky behavior that's number one killer of teenagers: driving. Many parents also condone drinking alcohol, though there's good evidence that drinking as a teen makes it much more likely that the child will have problems with alcohol as an adult.

[Best States for Teen Drivers]

One of my favorite interviews in recent years was with twin brothers Alex and Brett Harris, who wrote the book Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations, and an accompanying blog, while still in high school. They found many teenagers who are challenging themselves with adult-size tasks, whether it's founding a new charity or doing more than they ever thought possible in a push-up contest. Teenagers are adults in training. How can they become adults if they're treated like preschoolers?

Are the Sunderlands foolish grandstanders, or wise parents who are letting their child challenge herself?