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Getting Safely Home

While Laurence and Marianne Sunderland waited for their 16-year-old daughter, Abby, to be rescued from her disabled sailboat in the Indian Ocean last week, parents everywhere waited with them. My own youngest daughter happened to be on a journey of her own at the same time, so I especially empathized.

My daughter’s was a much shorter and safer trip, on the interstate highways from Chicago to New York at the end of a college school year. She had a classmate for company, a fully charged cell phone, a AAA card and a four-door sedan in good working order. This was a far cry from Abby Sunderland’s situation, alone on a storm-tossed sea with a broken mast and a balky satellite phone.

Yet any parent of an adult (or almost adult) child worries about the things that can go wrong. We all feel the opposing tugs between the desire to protect our offspring and the need to let them find their own way in the world.

The Sunderlands, from suburban Los Angeles, have been roundly criticized in Australia, the United States and pretty much everywhere in between for permitting their daughter (and a teenage son, Zac, before her) to attempt such a voyage. It is probably safe to say that most of us would have responded differently if one of our children had told us that her dream ever since age 13 (three whole years ago!) had been to sail around the globe by herself.

But most of us are not the Sunderlands, and most of our kids are not Abby or Zac. Laurence Sunderland is a boatwright. The family’s life centers on the water. And while you and I do not know the Sunderland children, Laurence and Marianne Sunderland certainly do. Zac completed his solo trip around the world when he was 16, becoming the youngest person up to that time to do so. His sister most likely would have completed her trip, too, had it not been for what she described on her blog as “one long wave and one short mast.” After the heaving seas broke her mast so that it dangled from a stub into the water, Abby knew enough to leave it attached to the boat, where it would stabilize her and prevent capsizing, rather than cutting it free.

Sounds to me as though she was pretty well prepared for the trip despite what the naysayers are saying.

And what if Abby had made a fatal mistake? Would that be proof that the Sunderlands are bad parents? Would that make it right for me to judge them? Life is an art, not a science, and things will inevitably go wrong. The best we can do is to try to arrange our lives so that when they do go wrong the damage is not irreparable.

This philosophy often is part of the advice we give as financial planners. Parents will sometimes ask us to design business or estate planning structures that grant no discretion to their adult children, to prevent the youngsters from making mistakes.

Years ago, a mentor told me of working with a business founder who said he wanted to retire and pass the business to his son, but who continued to make all the decisions, year after year. “The boy’s not ready,” the father would say when asked why he did not turn over the reins. “The boy” was 50; the father, 83.

The father may well have been correct. If “the boy” was never given the chance to make mistakes and learn from them, he may indeed have been unprepared for responsibility. But whose fault was that? And what would have happened if the father suddenly died and left the decision-making to his unprepared heir?

I have suggested to parents, many times, that they allow their children to make mistakes — but that we should set up systems to limit the damage from those mistakes so they can be safe learning opportunities rather than long-term disasters. For a closely held company, this might mean installing a board of directors or a team of advisers to assist a young successor to the founder. For a family investment portfolio, this might mean allocating some funds to private partnerships that provide skilled and experienced management. For a trust, this can mean distributing some money while the recipient is young, but retaining most for later when youthful mistakes have already been made.

When our older daughter turned 18, my wife and I changed our wills so that she would become the guardian of the younger (who was 14) in the event something happened to us. Guardianship would have forced the older daughter to transfer from her university in the South to a school in the New York area. It would have been a tremendous responsibility for an 18-year-old, even with adequate life insurance to provide for them financially. (The money would have been handled by their uncle as a trustee, with the guidance of the professionals at my firm.) We spoke to both daughters about this, and they agreed with our decision.

I have only seen a few other couples name an older teenager to be the guardian of younger children. Many parents conclude that the older sibling would be unable or unwilling to serve, or that the younger child or children would not respect the older sibling’s authority. In our case, our daughters have a very close relationship, and we felt they could help each other cope with the loss of their parents better than anyone else. So this decision, which would have been wrong in many households, felt right for us. Maybe it was a mistake. We will never know, because my wife and I both stayed healthy while our daughters grew up.

The Sunderlands sent their daughter to sea in a sturdy little sailboat that got her through a terrible storm, with all the right equipment to let rescuers find her when things went wrong. Bad parenting? Not to me. This will be a happy Father’s Day in the Sunderland house, and I wish them all the best. We both got our daughters safely home.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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