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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New York Post reported that Marianne and Laurence Sunderland had signed a contract with Magnetic Entertainment which is no longer in effect.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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