Peter Lenz, 13, died after falling off of his motorbike Sunday during a warm-up lap for the Grand Prix Racers Union motorcycle race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was run over by a 12-year-old racer who didn’t see that Lenz had raised his arms to signal the other competitors.
Teenagers and adolescents—including 14-year-old Laura Dekker who is now on a quest to sail solo around the world—are attempting more and more dangerous feats. Some say the risk is worth it because no one -- neither families nor anyone else -- should try to restrain gifted individuals from growing. After all, they point out, Mozart began composing music as a child, and Tiger Woods was golfing by age 2.
The trouble, from a psychological perspective, is that neither Mozart nor Woods was putting his life in jeopardy. Nor, we should note, was either one born into a society like the one we have today, when the Internet and reality television are so powerfully tempting teens and their parents to make a grab for celebrity.
I don’t think that society would have smiled upon Mozart being allowed to write his concertos while simultaneously withstanding hurricane-force winds on a desert island. And I don’t think that anyone would have seriously suggested a 10-year-old Tiger Woods try to hit a golf ball into an erupting volcano.
The organizing of life-threatening events for underage children, whether by parents or by organizations who then seek parental permission for registrants, is an unnecessary warping of the competitive spirit into a hyperbolic, narcissistic quest for money and fame—perhaps their own, but more likely their parents’ and commercial sponsors. There is no other rational motive that would lead to kids who can’t get a license driving at breakneck speeds around a track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or to a girl who can’t drink a glass of wine getting in a sailboat for a trip around the globe.
Seen this way, the acceleration of childhood competition into death-defying acts is not an expression of autonomy, but a subversion of it. It is a hijacking of the normal desire of gifted young people to grow and develop to a Lilliputian land of meaningless world records.
In this give-it-to-me-right-now culture, it’s getting hard to find parental restraint anywhere. Lured by the come-hither power of media and technology, we are brokering away the tranquility of childhood, entirely. We dress our children like adults. We hand out condoms to sixth-graders, playing to their "impulses" (or our displaced ones), just as we do when we create events that pit them against one another in bizarre athletic competitions.
In these circumstances, the law may be the best brake on runaway, thrill-seeking, fame-hungry, ego-driven, money-obsessed parents and organizations. If it can be proven that no one could reasonably assure a 13-year-old of anything like safety while racing at the speedway Sunday, then let the civil litigation begin. Maybe a successful action against the track and the Racers Union group would be noticed. Or maybe a dozen of Peter Lenz’s close friends could prevail in a suit against his parents. See, when parents abandon their proper role protecting their children, plenty of kids can get hurt—not just their own.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, “Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty” has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.