The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Abby Sunderland and the limits of childhood ambition.

The recent case of Abby Sunderland, the 16 year old girl, who was attempting to sail solo around the world, brought to mind another case of youthful ambition: Jessica Dubroff.

Jessica Dubroff was - and I mean was - a 7 year old student pilot, who sought to be the youngest pilot to fly across America. As most people will know, her surprising ambition, ended in tragedy - with her, her father, Lloyd Dubroff and her flight instructor, Joe Reid, being killed shortly after take off from Cheyenne airport, in bad weather. A veteran pilot who observed the take off, said that the single engined plane appeared to have been overloaded.

When I heard that Abby Sunderland had put out a distress call, some 2,000 miles southwest of Perth, I thought immediately of Jessica Dubroff and how the untempered ambition of youth, can so easily lead to tragedy.

Fortunately, Abby Sunderland was spotted by an Australian plane and rescued by a French vessel. However, her "adventure" raises an issue: were her parents being responsible when they allowed this adventure to happen at all?

I don't think they were. I think her parents had put the possibility of a landmark achievement before the personal safety of their child. They have forgotten that the primary responsibility of any parent is to ensure the safe passage of their child, to adulthood - and that means keeping them alive.

Jessica Dubroff's parents were a little mad. So, too, are Abby Sunderland's. They are a little mad, because they have let the goal (the youngest to sail around the world/fly across the US), to get in the way of a realistic assessment of the situation. In both cases, there was a very real chance of death, for their child. Not just a small chance of death, but a really significant chance of death. In pursuing this ambition, both sets of parents were allowing their children, to risk their lives, unnecessarily. Clearly, the probability of death is difficult to quantify in each case - but I would say that it was rather high. It didn't surprise me, at all, when Jessica Dubroff and her father died. I had rather expected it. It would not have surprised me, either, had Abby Sunderland died, also.

What is being forgotten here is that a child may have the intelligence and learning ability to master a physical skill - that of flying or sailing - but they will not have had the life experience to have developed any wisdom in pursuit of that skill. In other words, when they come upon an unexpected challenge, they will not have the mental wherewithal to deal with it. Death is then likely to rapidly ensue.

It may strike you as curious that I, the father of a child prodigy, should be so unsupportive of Jessica Dubroff's parents and Abby Sunderland's parents, in this matter. However, my disapproval is founded in a realistic understanding of the situation: with child prodigies, knowledge and skill come long before wisdom in their application. The latter can only come from life experience. Thus, the parent who allows an admittedly skillful child to take on a potentially life threatening physical challenge is being foolish at best, culpable at worst.

I support the ambition of any child to achieve anything, as long as that ambition does not endanger the child or anyone else. Both Dubroff's and Sunderland's ambitions fell foul of this stricture. In both cases, the children endangered themselves AND others by their pursuit of their record breaking ambitions. In Dubroff's case she managed to kill her father and instructor, as well as herself. In Sunderland's case, she endangered the lives, not only of herself, but those who came to rescue her in bad weather, with 60 knot winds and waves of 25 feet.

So, if you have a child who has an ambition, take a good look at that goal. Does it endanger the child or others? If so, don't do it. Let the goal wait until the child is old enough to have the experience to pursue it, with greater safety. To do otherwise is to neglect the first law of parenting: keep the child alive, until they are old enough to have children themselves. To break that rule, is to go against the whole force of human evolution, for we are all here today, because every one of our ancestors, obeyed that rule, whether they considered it, or not. I cannot imagine any greater foolishness, therefore, in breaking the very rule that put us all on Earth, in the first place.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, 10, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, 6 and Tiarnan, 4, this month, please go to:

I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, megasavant, HELP University College, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, Malaysia, IQ, intelligence and creativity.

My Internet Movie Database listing is at:
Ainan's IMDB listing is at
Syahidah's IMDB listing is at

Our editing, proofreading and copywriting company, Genghis Can, is at

This blog is copyright Valentine Cawley. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited. Use only with permission. Thank you.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:09 PM 


Anonymous Louis said...

Valentine, are you now a citizen of Singapore and are your sons going to be required to do National Service? Either way, what are your thoughts about that?

1:12 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your question Louis.

Firstly, I am not a citizen of Singapore, nor would I ever be. I don't think anyone of wisdom would choose citizenship of that type of country, if they have an alternative. The only person I know who did make that choice, simply had not researched what he was getting into. Singapore is too restrictive a society and too claustrophobic, to be a good choice of citizenship.

My sons presently have Singaporean citizenship - two of them, anyway, however we live outside of Singapore, presently. I do not know if this will always be the case. I must say, however, that Singapore showed no intention of affording us the opportunities we sought for our son, or, indeed, I don't see it as a destination of choice, anymore. It would be too life-limiting.

I should say, however, that I gave Singapore every chance of allowing us to do what we wished. However, it didn't. It opposed us, at every step. I have more interesting and absorbing and life-fulfilling opportunities here, in Malaysia - both personally and for my family.

Singapore's authorities forget that there are other countries in the world. Their citizens can see that...and leave if they are not satisfied with their chances there: many do every year.

So, far, we have been out of Singapore for six months (in terms of abode) and our life has improved on many fronts. We will see how things go, but I like what I see so far.

As for national service: Singapore kills its servicemen in significant numbers every year. It is a terrible waste of life, which Singapore never apologizes for...and for what? Singapore is far from easily defended and I don't think they will ever be able to mount a successful defense of it: after all, the British couldn't.

Singapore should have a professional standing army - and do away with a life-wasting conscription army. They won't do it, however.

Thanks for your question.

1:26 AM  
Blogger Christine said...

I remember the Jessica Dubroff tragedy. I don't think she should have been flying that young. People can't even drive cars in most places until they are 18 or 16, so there should have been age restrictions on flying. I am surprised there weren't laws against 7 year-old pilots in the first place.
It is a parent's job to know when to set limits. I do think it's great to give children confidence in letting them do things themselves, but parents do need to intervene when things are going to be dangerous.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I think, Christine, that the potential glory of Jessica's goal, got in the way of assessing its sanity - or not. The result of not pausing to make that assessment was, of course, tragic.

Every parent should reflect on the risks of their child's endeavours - because sometimes the downside is really too big to handle.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Karmeleon said...

I do think it not appropriate to compare a 7yo with a 16yo. She obviously had more wisdom than a 7yo. And, a 16yo may hv to be chained into seclusion to not be allowed to work on what she wants. Her trip may hv been one in defiance and to prove herself.

2:14 AM  
Anonymous laconic said...

Abby set off on an ill-equipped boat at the wrong time of the year. It was all about the glory of her Balloon boy father (at least the balloon boy dad did not endanger his kids) The boat stopped in Cabo because it had been rushed out the gate to get the record and was not properly equipped. In Abbys blog she says her boat does not have a windvane steering system because it goes to fast. That is ignorance and innexperience talking. I have sailed on boats that go twice her hull speed using the system ( Jessica Watson and Zak Sunderland both circumnavagated with them)

After repairs and upgrading of the electric system needed to operate the 2 electric autopilot it then had more equipment failure on the auto pilots and stopped again in Cape Town where in an amazingly stupid stunt the boat was tipped over by tying a rope to the top of the mast for leverage to get at the hull for repairs (photo, abbys blog may 13). This was done by her father. Rather than wait for the cradle to be available in the boatyard they chose this dangerous act in an effort to get going and get an obscure record. This action weakens the mast and mast to deck fittings and is a contributing factor to mast failure. I have seen masts snap at the dock when fools Just like Lawrence Sunderland did this.

The builder of the boat, Marty Still, warned the Sunderlands not to continue as the boat and its occupant were unsuited for the southern ocean at that time of the year. Her father let her go against all this advice.

Her blog on june 2 when she said she doesn't have time to put on her foul weather gear before going on deck at night in a storm sent shudders down my spine. This is sailing 101 and is an example of her lack of skills and experience. She had never sailed in cold climates and never in the conditions she was in. She has not got the sailing experience that her father claims and his quest for fame through his kids is reprehensible and a criminal investigation of child endangerment should take place

3:57 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Karmeleon, you are full of paradoxes. If the trip were "in defiance and to prove herself" this would be PROOF that she was too immature to do the trip on her own. No 16 year old should be out on the ocean all alone...male or female...if they value their longevity. Her chance of death was significant. That isn't worth it, "to prove oneself" just proves that one lacks wisdom, of any kind, or any degree. It is just an unwise thing to do...foolish even.

Interestingly, professional yachtsmen were quoted to be in agreement with me, saying that it was "foolish" for her to be out there, on her own, "in winter". Even the professionals think it was idiotic.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Laconic for your comprehensive analysis of the situation: your words speak very clearly.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Karmeleon said...

She may still have wanted to go. I do have a 16yo, who thankfully is not the adventurous sort so I don't have to exercise any decision to chain her down, but I do know that if she wants to go on trips, she WANTS to go.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Karmeleon, I understand the pressures children can sometimes exert to get their way...particularly older children. They may really want to do something, but sometimes you have to deploy your greater understanding of the world and its risks, to moderate these desires. That is what good - and wise - parenting is all about. If a child wants to jump off a cliff would you let them? Of course not. Abby's trip around the world is only a few times safer than that, in my view, and so nowhere near safe enough to allow her to do matter how much of a fuss she puts up.

I have a brother who wanted a motorbike when he was a teenager. My father absolutely refused to let him have one. In the end, he got him a car instead. Had he got him that motorbike, it is likely that my brother would be dead by now - since he likes to drive aggressively: try that everyday on a bike and see how long you will last.

So, parents must, sometimes, deny the wishes of their offspring, if those offspring are going to have a good chance of surviving to adulthood. To do otherwise, is to forget what being a parent is all about. It is also to invite a very sad day into one's life: the funeral of one's children.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Karmeleon said...

Can't always restrict too. I remember my mom not allowing me to for a trip to Thailand. I was 14. I still went, using my own money from the Angpows I'd collected over the years (I'd never had pocket money in those days). Granted the trip was not as dangerous as sailing around the word.

Rgdg motorcycle. My husband did just that when he was still in school in KL. His parents were against getting him one. He bought a 2nd-hand one himself with his own money. Thankfully he's fine from it all. I think he was 16 then!

I guess motorcycle is still not in the league of sailing around the world, and definitely far from jumping off a cliff - which I'm sure we wouldn't even have a chance to say no. It might have been a done deed.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I agree that one should not always restrict. If you have read my blog for a while, you would realize that I don't do anything like that. However, when it comes to the personal safety of my children, I am very cautious - and I think every parent should be. In the realm of endangerment, restrictions should be mandatory.

As for your childhood: my you sound like you were a handful! I am glad you got through it OK, though.

Thanks for your comment.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Karmeleon said...

Your kids are younger at the moment. I have kids the whole range at the moment, from 1yo to 16yo, so it's really "different strokes" for different-aged kids & personality.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I suppose they are challenges that I will come to face and understand at the requisite ages. I shall have to wait and see.

1:13 PM  

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