In Defense of Abby Sunderland (& Her Dad, Too)

They might not try to sail around the world, but eventually all kids have to sink or swim

I spent my weekend pitying Laurence Sunderland.

For those who haven’t been playing along at home, he’s the dad of intrepid would-be youngest-ever-solo-circumnavigator-of-the-globe Abby Sunderland, who was rescued from the Indian Ocean by a French fishing vessel after a monster wave snapped her mast off. Abby seems to have taken it all in stride, posting on her blog, “Crazy is the word that really describes everything that has happened best.” It was left to her dad to face an irate world that demanded to know: What in hell kind of father lets his 16-year-old daughter try to sail around the world by herself? [SIGNUP]

I feel for Papa Sunderland. You see, my 20-year-old daughter has spent the past six months in Mexico, home to crazed drug cartels, beheadings, kidnappings, mass graves and all other sorts of mayhem. And while it may not be circumnavigating the world, I’ve seen the expressions on other parents’ faces when I impart this news. That expression only intensifies when I explain that while the first five months of Marcy’s sojourn were spent at a respectable Mexican university, for the final month she and her Mexican boyfriend have been camping on a beach outside Tulum, where he supports them, sort of, by selling trinkets to tourists.

I cried when Marcy told me, via Skype, that she wanted to stay that extra month. But the fact is, there really wasn’t much I could do to keep her from doing as she pleased. She’s a grown-ass woman now. I recently ran into one of her high-school classmates who’s the mother of three sons. And once I stopped crying about Marcy’s Mexican adventure — which, granted, took several weeks — I thought about when I was 20 years old and living on a beach in North Carolina with my boyfriend, who wasn’t even bright enough to have a trinket business. And I realized that whatever came afterward, Marcy was always going to remember her month in Tulum.

I was talking to a dad over the weekend who recently reached the difficult decision to cut off his 21-year-old son financially. The son has dropped out of college, and even though his mom thinks the parental wallet should remain open while he “finds himself,” the dad has concluded that wallet’s actually been blocking the kid’s path to independence. So from now on, it will be sink or swim.

It is for all of us, eventually.

“It seems everybody is eager to pounce on my story now that something bad has happened,” Abby wrote on her blog. If, God forbid, my friend’s son winds up selling drugs, or Marcy does get kidnapped, we’ll never stop second-guessing ourselves. Sooner or later, though, you have to let go, and trust that something — inner resilience, good karma, the skills you’ve tried to impart — carries your child through. That’s what Laurence Sunderland is telling the world. His daughter survived, alone, at sea, for five months. Then she “caught a bad wave.” It could have been a lot worse. It wasn’t. Now get off Laurence Sunderland’s back. Because one day, your kid is going to want to circumnavigate the world, or have that baby, or drop out of college, or live on a beach in Mexico with her boyfriend. And you’ll stare into the mystery that is the future, and realize: There’s nothing you can do about it.

SANDY HINGSTON is a Philly Mag senior editor.