[Added 21 June 2010: turns out I'm not the only person to have such doubts. The whole article is worth reading but what jumped out to me was that Child Protective Services interviewed Abby Sunderland before she left for the trip. No word on whether it was a proactive family volunteering this to clear the air or a CPS representative who saw the press and wanted to be sure.]
Yes, I'm talking about SoCal 16-year-old Abby Sunderland, who was sailing around the world solo. A few days ago she put out a distress call when her mast snapped in the Indian Ocean; thank goodness she's now safe. Of course, this is on the heels of another SoCal kid (13 years old) who became the youngest ever to summit Mt. Everest. Both of these activities have non-zero chances of death. And at the end of the day, neither of them delivers more than bragging rights.
Why "abused child"? Because there's nothing inspiring or heroic in these stories at all, that's why. These are kids either being allowed to attempt, or being put up to, a stunt, by parents who are at best incredibly irresponsible and at worst willing to endanger their own children's lives to live vicariously through them. Abby Sunderland is a minor, and her safety is her parents' number one responsibility. Imagine those French fishermen hadn't found her; would people be so tolerant of her parents' permissiveness (or vicarious ambition) then? Or, imagine you have a 16-year-old kid, and she comes to you and says "I want to sail around the world solo." If you're a good parent, you'll say, "No. End of discussion." In fact you'll say that if you're a halfway mediocre parent. Frankly even Homer Simpson would say that. What do you think her chance of death was on this trip? Let's conservatively say 1%. Imagine your kid came to you and said, "I want to do X, but I'll have a 1% chance of dying." (For the record, attempting Everest has about a 5% chance of death.) What would the pay-off have to be for you to allow that to go forward? A hundred million dollars? Guaranteed entrance to Harvard? Most parents would be unable to even think about such a thing. If you have children, I certainly hope that there's no amount of money that would make you consider endangering their lives. Okay - so instead of money, what if the payoff was a few newspaper articles and an entry in the Guiness Book of World Records? Even more ridiculous, if that's possible. But she was really prepared! you (and she) might object. In case you haven't noticed, every teenager is immortal and knows everything. For that matter, everyone who's ever attempted Everest has thought s/he wouldn't be one of the statistics. But these are decisions each of us is free to make, for ourselves, once we've reached the age of majority.
If you think my tone is a little strident, please consider: do you find it distasteful, even borderline abuse, when children are allowed or pushed into the Hollywood acting scene by their parents? Then isn't it even worse that kids are allowed to (or encouraged to!) endanger their own lives with these kinds of stunts? The worst thing that happens to those Hollywood kids is a tabloid scandal and a stint in rehab ten years from now, and that's bad enough. But these kids could've died. Abby almost did.