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Abby Sunderland and the Dilemma of Gifted Kids: When Should Parents Draw a Line?

In all the uproar over the Sunderland family's alleged reality-TV contract, it sometimes sounded like, in search of a quick buck, teenage sailor Abby Sunderland's parents snatched her from in front of the Xbox, threw her on a sailboat, and forced her to sail around the world.

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Laurence Sunderland talks to reporters after losing contact with his daughter's boat. (Robyn Beck / Getty Images)

In all the uproar over the Sunderland family's alleged reality-TV contract (a contract the family denies ever existed) it sometimes sounded like, in search of a quick buck, teenage sailor Abby Sunderland's parents snatched her from in front of the Xbox, threw her on a sailboat, and forced her to sail around the world. But while the Sunderlands may or may not have thought their family's sailing pursuits would make good TV, those pursuits weren't orchestrated for any supposed cameras. The truth is that Abby and her siblings show tremendous talent as sailors and have acquired significant skills over the years. It's those smarts, experts say, that helped keep her alive when things got rough last week on the Indian Ocean.

But just because she can do it, does it mean she should have? Parents of all gifted children are often faced with similar dilemmas—how much should they encourage their child's talent and desire, and how much should they keep those feelings in check, at least until high-school graduation?

Children with exceptional talent in one field—whether sports, music, or academics—often suffer developmentally if their parents push too hard, and there's never an excuse to put a child's life on the line," says Dr. Elena Grigorenko, a psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center. “This experience has been harmful and could’ve been even more harmful,” she says. Encouraging a pursuit that could be deadly, she says, is just bad parenting. (However, the California Department of Child Services apparently Ok'd her voyage).

Even when a child's talent doesn't involve getting lost a sea, focusing on one skill or interest early in life can cause problems in adulthood, she says. Grigorenko, whose research has shown that valedictorians tend not to succeed later in life, says that early rewards often don’t pay off. “In most cases, gifts come with huge costs,” she says. “Most prodigies burn off.”

Grigorenko cites depression as one possible result of Sunderland’s failed expedition. “Depression comes when you formulate unachievable goals,” she says. In her research, Grigorenko has found that failure tends to hurt gifted children, who are used to winning, the most. Parents should work hard to help their talented kids set goals that are challenging but also realistic, Grigorenko says.

Dr. David Feldman, who researches child prodigies, says that families with a gifted child also need to consider the health of the whole family. When parents focus most of their financial and emotional resources on one child, he says, siblings often suffer. (Sunderland’s father, who has seven children and an eighth on the way, told the New York Post that he was broke, and it remains unclear whether or not he encouraged his daughter to undertake a dangerous expedition for financial reasons.)

Still, Feldman says that embarking on the risky voyage may have been good for Sunderland’s confidence. “It would give her a sense that she really met a challenge that very few people of an age could meet,” he says. “That would be an amazing experience." In fact, Feldman says that outsiders should avoid judging the Sunderlands, particularly given their expertise in sailing. “There’s a lot on their side,” Feldman says. “You can’t just say they’re crazy or driven by a desire to be famous. It seems more complex to me.”

Dr. Jenn Berman, author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids, says that Sunderland will probably benefit emotionally from her experience. “I think it’s very likely that she will be happier and more confident,” Berman says. “This is someone who set a goal and really put her all into meeting that goal. I bet you that if she tries again, next time she’ll do it."

But for Sunderland, who turns 17 in October "next time" could come after she's a legal adult.

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