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Reality TV, Kids and Dangerous Endeavors

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Dr. Michelle Golland: The Sunderland family has found themselves in a firestorm -- or, more accurately, a big storm in the Indian Ocean that could have taken the life of their daughter, Abby. They have been criticized by many people for allowing and encouraging their 16-year-old daughter to try to break the record for being the youngest person to sail around the world.

Abby Sunderland

I believe that enabling a minor to voyage alone for months in hostile seas (especially considering the emotional impact of being isolated for that period of time) is simply neglectful parenting. My other concern is the question of whether or not the Sunderland parents were hoping to profit from putting their child in harm's way. (There have been rumors of a reality show ....)

Of course, we as parents make judgments all the time for our minor children. You must make judgments that seem reasonable given the skill sets of your child. In my opinion, given the possible pressure of financial gain, it is unreasonable to place your child's well-being at this level of risk. Fortunately, we are welcoming Abby home alive after her harrowing experience at sea -- and not looking for her body somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

The New York Post reported that Marianne and Laurence Sunderland had signed a contract with Magnetic Entertainment which is no longer in effect. They had been shopping a show about the Sunderland family. As we all know, the reality-TV genre is always looking for the latest, quirkiest and most compelling new families to build shows around. Some examples: "Jon and Kate Plus 8," "9 By Design," "19 Kids and Counting" and on and on.

What was the reality-show concept for the Sunderlands? How they as parents have created such ambitious kids. One family with two kids sailing around the world solo does seem compelling. Marianne said, "At the time, [a show] seemed like a good thing. Everyone we were working with was super friendly and seemed to have plans for a good show." Apparently, Magnetic Entertainment was unable to sell the show -- although there had been some filming prior to Abby's departure, and she does have a lot of footage she captured herself during her adventure.

At this time, the only one who plans to cash in on this dangerous endeavor is the one who was actually in harm's way: Abby herself. She is planning on writing a book about her experience at sea.

There is a fine line that many reality-TV parents seem to be skating, and that line is the emotional abuse of their children. The clearest case of this is Richard Henne and his "Balloon Boy" concoction (although many of us were horrified as we watched Jon and Kate's marriage disintegrate right before our eyes while sadly witnessing the damage being inflicted upon their eight small children).

Although the law varies from state to state, emotional abuse or maltreatment is defined as a pattern of behavior by parents or caregivers that can seriously interfere with a child's cognitive, emotional, psychological or social development. Emotional abuse includes severe and repetitive ignoring, rejecting, isolating, verbally assaulting, terrorizing and neglect of medical, psychological or educational services.

It also includes exploiting or corrupting a child, as happens when a child is taught or encouraged or forced to develop inappropriate or illegal behaviors. (The latter may involve self-destructive acts on the part of the parent, or the parent being involved in illegal activities.) It is this type of emotional abuse that I believe the Henne parents are guilty of.

The power of money can cloud parents' abilities to truly decide what is in their children's best interests. The fact that the Sunderlands were having financial troubles may have been on the minds of their children, too. The physical and psychological danger of taking on an extreme endeavor (such as sailing around the world alone at age 16) would need to be weighed carefully in the face of the parents' desire or promise of a show, a book or any media exposure that could create financial gain for them or their children.


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73 comments so far | Post a comment now
Kristen June 18, 2010, 3:46 AM

This is not corruption, exploitation, or emotional abuse. This was bad judgement. Their children are unique in the fact that they have drive, ambition, and an idea of what they want to do, it’s hard to squash a kid who has those things but in the end they should not have let her sail alone(although it’s interesting how their 16yr old son who did it a year earlier was hailed as something great). This story should NOT be compared to Richard Henne’s balloon boy incident, this parents did NOT do this to cash in like that family did. It’s completely different.

Jolie June 18, 2010, 6:27 PM

Kristen,

Unless you are a close friend or family member of the Sunderland family, you have no idea of what the parents’ motivations were when they allowed and encouraged Abigail’s (and Zac’s) voyage. We do know that the father pushed forward with the trip, even though the yacht had problems and was not functioning properly, requiring two stops shortly after departure. And when the delay for the repairs affected the time Abby would be sailing through the Indian Ocean, meaning she would be there at the worst possible time, in winter during terrible storms, again Mr. Sunderland gave the go-ahead for Abby to push forward with the trip. To me, this suggests, he put financial considerations (the sponsorship deadlines) ahead of his own daughter’s safety.

I wouldn’t be too quick to clear the parents of exploiting their daughter and son.

The father admits they were even looking at opportunities for TV, etc., when Zac was on his journey. (See transcript of his recent interview on Larry King live)

Did you know they even had cartoon character of Abby ready for a children’s television show planned before she set out on her trip? That’s what veteran sailor Stephen Mann of San Diego said to a reporter at Latitude 38. He had met with Abby and her family shortly before her trip to discuss the voyage. Mann had traveled the same planned route.

I highly recommend the June 14 article “Dear Abby, Huge Storm Approaching!” published online at Latitude 38:

http://www.latitude38.com/lectronic/lectronicday.lasso?date=2010-06-14&dayid=439

(scroll down the news for June 14 to get to the article about Abby Sunderland)


Carol June 21, 2010, 9:58 AM

Zac was injuried by a hail storm, battered by storms and his boat was attached by pirates (he had to hid in his bulletproof cabin and radio for help).
Hard to believe that any sane parent knowing what one child went through life threating situations would okay another minor child to do the same thing.
Suffering injuries hundreds and thousands miles away from the nearest shore is dangerous and completely irresponsible for the parents to allow it.

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