The wonder of adolescence

Mike Perham was fourteen when he first sailed across the Atlantic single-handedly; sixteen when he set off around the world, and seventeen by the time he returned to Portsmouth last Saturday.  Evidently, Jessica Watson, aged sixteen, is hoping to set out to beat Perham’s round-the-world record later this month in Pink Lady, and fifteen-year-old Abby Sunderland is likely to do the same thing, but starting from California in November.

Many were the lively discussions this stimulated around dinner tables and in pubs, and loud was the national twitter.  While teachers are hedged in at every twist and turn of a potential fieldtrip to the Lake District by the need to satisfy a Risk Assessment, how can children too young to vote be allowed to set sail in such a manner?  Jessica Watson provided part of the answer when she said the ocean doesn’t care about age, rather it respects experience.

And, of course, to gain that experience in the first place you have to take a risk.  Perham said, “anyone, whatever age, has to ask three key things.  Are they physically strong enough, are they mentally strong enough to cope when the going gets tough, and are they technically good enough to fix generators and work as an electrician?  The mental side of all these trips is huge.”

Mike Perham, Jessica Watson and Abby Sunderland are doing what adolescents delight in doing – pressing the boundaries.  They are uniquely equipped by their biology to do so.  in the words of the Cole Porter song

I want to ride to the ridge / Where the West commences, / Gaze at the moon

Till I lose my senses; / Can’t look at hobbles / And I can’t stand fences, / Don’t fence me in

There is nothing new about this.  Recent archaeological evidence from Jamestown, Virginia, showed that many of the first 120 colonists who had sailed from London in 1607 in boats no bigger than a modern school bus, were only 16, 17 or 18 years of age.  One was only nine.

Think of those teenage sailors, or those early colonists when you next encounter a confused teenager, unengaged by school and bored with having no space to take on a meaningful task.  It’s not their fault.  Adolescents need the opportunity to be out and about and proving themselves.  Not for nothing is it now argued that it is the energy and sheer bloody-mindedness of adolescents that drives human development by forcing young people in every generation to think beyond their own self-imposed limitations, and to exceed their parents’ aspirations.  Adolescents is an opportunity not a problem, always providing that they had been given the physical, mental and technical capability to work things out for themselves… whether they are sailing the Atlantic, or negotiating an inner-city late on a Saturday night.

See Actions 1, 3 and 8 of the Briefing Paper