Abby Sunderland: Is she an adult or is she a child?

June 21, 2010 •

There has been a lot of coverage and argument around Abby Sunderland’s attempted voyage around the world in a sailboat. All the ‘reality show’ questions aside, the societal debate seems stuck on whether or not a teenager should be allowed to sail a dangerous voyage. What if, instead of using age as a qualifier, we evaluated Sunderland’s competence as an adult?

Dr. Robert Epstein has developed a test of adultness, and has found that many young people demonstrate more adult attributes that those two or three times their age. He argues that the whole notion of ‘adolescence’ is out of touch with human nature, and instead an over-restrictive institution created by the convergence of labor laws, compulsory schooling, and a risk-avoidance culture.

We forget sometimes how many extraordinary people—from Bach to Michelangelo, from Napoleon to Franklin, and many more others less famous—began doing extraordinary things long before they were “adults.”

In our world today this spirit still shows itself: Teenagers are the adults in many families. Teenagers start companies. Teenagers play professional sports and fight in wars. And often they do it well. We could be getting a lot more from our young people, if we only treated them as adults.

The capacity of young people to do great things is a major source of potential growth for this country’s education system. To what extent does traditional school restrict, delay, or squander their capacity and motivation to achieve?

Image: Los Angeles Times