How Young Is Too Young To Set A Record?

[ Posted Thursday, August 27th, 2009 – 16:40 UTC ]

Today, a boy in England set the record for being the youngest person to sail around the world solo. This record had been set last month by an American boy who was 17 years old when he achieved this feat. The English lad was 16 when he started, and turned 17 on the voyage. But both of these may soon be considered rather elderly, because a 13-year-old girl from the Netherlands may be setting out on her own record-setting sail. But at what point do we have to ask: "What is 'too young' to attempt these kind of records?"

The 13-year-old Dutch girl is about to find out. Because the Dutch equivalent of "Child Protective Services" is trying to put her in dry dock. They are asking the Dutch courts to, in essence, overrule her parents and deny her the chance to set her own record.

Now, at age 17 -- or even, for many, 16 -- a child can be argued to have enough experience and smarts to take on an adult challenge such as these records. But at 13? Bear in mind that the British kid who just set today's record is also in the record books for being the youngest to sail solo across the Atlantic -- at age 14.

But when, the Dutch courts will be deciding soon, does this sort of activity cross over from bold adventure into being child endangerment? The line between bravery and stupid recklessness has always been awfully thin, but at some point it's got to be more appropriate to say: "You are too young to risk your neck in such a fashion." In other words, do the parents always know what is right for their child, or should society intervene at some point?

Of course, when the effort is successful, the question doesn't usually arise in the world-wide media coverage of the record-setting youth. Such soul-searching and hindsight is usually reserved for when tragedy strikes.

As it did, thirteen years ago.

Jessica Dubroff was a seven-year-old girl who tried to break a "youngest pilot" record, by flying across the United States. In April of 1996, her attempt ended in tragedy, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her plane was heavily loaded, it took off in bad weather, at an altitude she (and her flying instructor) were not familiar with (Cheyenne is over 6,000 feet above sea level). Her father and her flight instructor were both killed in the accident with Jessica. The flight instructor apparently grabbed the dual controls and tried to save the plane, but to no avail.

Seven years old is, in America, a second-grader.

Naturally, there was a lot of hand-wringing, after the fact. Here's a good example from contemporaneous news reports, which quotes the boy whose record Jessica was trying to beat: "The media kept saying, 'She's so brave and courageous.' Then right after she died, they said, 'Oh, the poor little girl -- she should never have done that.' "

Kid's got a point. There were even questions as to whether the camera equipment in the plane (to document the voyage for the media) were too heavy, at the time. But I noticed a curious thing -- the same report (from the New York Times) also had an interesting statement in it:

The Guinness Book of Records has eliminated its youngest-pilot category because it does not want to encourage unsafe flights.

That seems pretty responsible of them, one might think. Until you read about the young British sailor in Reuters today:

Craig Glenday, editor-in-chief of Guinness World Records, described [the sailor]'s latest achievement as heroic.

"It shows [him] as a truly unique young man, whose dream was realized through sheer determination and commitment."

So there seems to be a certain double-standard, as to "youngest" world records, to say the least.

Now, it's pretty easy to see that age seven is probably a wee bit young for such dangerous pursuits. The FAA even changed its rules after Jessica's death, to avoid further such tragedies. But 17 is almost adult -- it actually is considered adult, in many countries. In America, we have a strange dual system of adulthood, where you are old enough at 18 to do most adult things, but have to wait until 21 to do others. But in America, we also charge people younger than 18 "as an adult" when they commit heinous enough crimes that juvenile hall doesn't seem punishment enough. But if a 13-year-old is deemed old enough to sail solo around the world (which takes months, even years, at times), you can be sure that sooner enough a child with only a single digit for their age will want to try. The Dutch girl reportedly began planning her trip when she was 10.

And, the laws of chance being what they are, sooner or later one of these young captains is going to have a very sad ending to their story. At which point, we'll all go through exactly what we did when Jessica Dubroff died, 13 years ago. The hand-wringing will be the same, and the "in hindsight..." stories will be run in the media, as sure as the sun comes up in the East.

Maybe Guinness will even remove all their "youngest" records. Because at some point the concept of "too young" is going to become a little more obvious.


-- Chris Weigant


2 Comments on “How Young Is Too Young To Set A Record?”

  1. [1] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    OK, I have to admit I took a cheap shot at Guinness there at the end. Since posting this, I read the following:

    "(We have) a standard policy that does not sanction, endorse or encourage attempts by minors (people under the age of 16) on records which are dangerous or potentially life-threatening," Guinness spokesman Damian Field said.

    So Guinness draws the line at 16, which seems fairly reasonable. My apologies to Arthur's wonderful brewing company, and to their world record outfit as well.


  2. [2] 
    Yeah right wrote:

    This is actually a touchy situation many countries base their age of adulthood nearby their age of consent laws and age of marriage. In countries where populations are great the number is usually higher or vice versa. The question you are asking would have never been asked a hundred years ago. However you bring up a point that I am more concerned about. How could one country such as America have such a hypocritical viewpoint of age? Drink at 21, vote at 18, sentence to death at 15. It seems quite unfair that at 13 year girl's parents could be charged with child endangerment when so many youth in America parents go free. Although I do not in anyway support the death penalty it seems that if protection for this young girl means going after her parents shouldn't any child by contemporary definition, be protected from the action in which they may commit, be protected from their parents.

    You are correct there is a point where too young is too young. The fact that she needs consent in the first place suggest that she is too young to do something as dangerous as sail around the world. The question ensues how much of her life has she lived? Has she ever kissed a boy? Found great friends and lost them? Does she even live in the land of reason or is she still stuck in inocences?

    I suggest Guinness change their policy to non-acceptance of minors trying to risk their lives to be first. And America not put to death anyone who doesn't have equal representation under the law.

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