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On Parental Responsibility


Originally, there was a much different essay here, under a very different title. The senseless death of 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff both saddened and angered me and prompted me to write something which may have been too harsh and judgmental. Luckily, I came across something which was written much better than my piece and which expresses my feelings much more eloquently. I hope the copyright holders will forgive me for reproducing it here.

(I've now posted another attempt that I've made at expressing my thoughts on the matter)

Too Young To Fly, And Die

by Ellen Goodman

She was barely old enough to fly alone . . . as a passenger. The Jessica Dubroff who shines out from all the videotape looks like one of those precocious children, the unaccompanied minors, who sometimes sit next to you on a plane.

With a baseball cap boasting "Women Fly," she was the child who gets the kiddie meals, the flight attendant's attention. The kid who always wants the window seat. This was what this 7-year-old liked best about flying - looking out the window. "It's a joy for me to be up in the air," she said, and you could feel it. What she wanted to do on this trip was see the Statue of Liberty. Kid stuff.

What she also wanted, or what her dad wanted, or what she came to want - choose one of the above - was, of course, to break the record, to become the youngest pilot to cross the country in the glare of the spotlight.

So on Wednesday morning, this 4-foot-2 child in a pint-sized leather flight jacket strapped herself into a booster seat, put her feet on the extenders used to reach the pedals, and set off to play pilot. The stories that morning treated her like a midget Amelia Earhart. A girl with a dream. Her quest was framed by the camera like some cute, brave stunt. As one reporter put it, "It was a neat story about a neat kid." Quite the little gal.

Even then, many of us - parents who cannot put our kids in a car without worrying - wondered about the madness of this mission. But we shook our heads and went about our business. Until, that is, Thursday morning when the adventure and the lives of this girl, her father and her instructor crashed near an airport in Cheyenne, Wyo.

I will not be glib over their graves. But spare me the explanations of how safe flying is - even a child can do it - with a double set of controls. Maybe adult judgment about the weather is to blame for the crash, not a child's ability. It may have been nothing more than an accident.

But should a 7-year-old who cannot drive a car be allowed to fly a plane? Of course not. Should a 7-year-old, however bright, however eager, be allowed to set off on an eight-day endurance contest to break a record? Or course not.

To me, the story of Jessica Dubroff is not just about the tragic end of one child's life. It offers some chilling footnotes on the end of childhood.

With all due respect for the dead, I cannot get over the words of Jessica's late father: "This is just another experience that Jess has selected for herself."

With all due understanding for the grieving, I keep hearing the words of Jessica's mother: "I don't want this to mean that you hold your children down, you don't give them freedom and choice. And God, that's what her beauty was. She got to choose."

What do such words of choice and independence mean when you are talking about a 7-year-old?

This is an odd time in our history. We seem to be caught between protecting our children and presurring them to grow up.

Jessica herself was shielded from the risks of watching television and the uncertainties of public education. But she was allowed to fly a plane. If her divorced parents prided themselves on anything, it was their children's joyful spirit. But was Jessica as vulnerable as any child to a parent's pride in her performance?

Today, Americans lobby for V-chips but praise precocity. We want 17-year-olds to wait for sex but 12-year-olds to go for the gold. We applaud when children are prosecuted as adults but cheer when they perform like adults.

In sports, the stars are getting younger and younger. The 16-year-old gymnast has become the 13-year-old. Women's tennis has become girl's tennis. Children are encouraged to be the first, or at least the youngest.

In 1993, an 11-year-old became the youngest pilot to cross the country. In 1994 the record went to a 9-year-old. In 1995, the pilot was 8. Jessica was 7 when she died trying, with adults cheering her on.

In the 18th century, children were dressed and treated like short adults. The line between childhood and adulthood barely existed. Now the line is blurred again.

A family friend said of Jessica, "She was 7 - going on 20." He meant that as a compliment. But, in fact, this child was 7 going on 8. And she will never see 20.