When 16-year-old Abby Sunderland set off for an attempted record-breaking sail around the world back in January, her quest drew all the expected tut-tutting about whether she was too young for such a dangerous voyage. She was frequently compared to 13-year-old Jordan Romero, who last month became the youngest person ever to scale Mt. Everest.
But no one seemed truly disgusted until news emerged earlier this week that the Sunderland family has seven home-schooled children, is ” broke ,” and had explored a reality-show deal. Now Sunderland was shoved into the more loathsome company of Balloon Boy- over and over and over . (Reminder: Balloon Boy hid in a garage for an afternoon. Abby Sunderland sailed by herself halfway around the world.)
All this derision has an undercurrent of snobbery. Abby’s critics seem to pine for the days when only the already rich could embark on around-the-world adventures, as if anyone who dares to make money by selling the story of their travel doesn’t deserve to leave home. Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. lamented “parents narcissistic enough to believe they belonged on television and calculating enough to exploit their own children to get there,” and Deadspin accused the Sunderlands of “whoring” Abby out. The mere possibility of a paycheck was enough to taint her entire effort-by all accounts a years-long dream-as mere exploitation.
Televised fame is a mixed bag, but surely someone as self-possessed as Abby Sunderland-the ultimate ” free-range kid ,” to use parenting writer Lenore Skenazy’s term-could handle it as well as anyone. Is television really only for Kardashians and Novogratzes ? Do we only stand in awe of Abby’s skills if she and her family are holy enough never make a dime off her extraordinary efforts? And do we really suppose that Amelia Earhart wouldn’t take meetings with the Discovery Channel?
Photograph of Laurence Sunderland by Robyn Beck/Getty Images.