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But kids, like adults, are different, and some are able to handle the physical, mental and emotional rigors of extreme or high-level sports. Four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon was driving Quarter Midgets at age 5, and two-time Cup winner Tony Stewart raced go-karts at age 7. British diver Tom Daley was 15 when he won the world title in the 10-meter platform last summer.
Rather than imposing hard-and-fast age limits, each child should be considered individually, said Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today and author of "Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence."
"Look directly at competence and maturity and then decide," Epstein said. "In our society, we treat all young people as equally incompetent and irresponsible, and we don't really nurture their confidence. So end up nurturing immaturity. ... As long as you're holding people back, holding them down, you don't see what they can do."
Marianne Sunderland understands the concern -- and disapproval -- over children taking on what seem to be very adult pursuits. She's had the same reaction herself.
"I think of a 13-year-old climbing Mount Everest and I think, 'Are you serious?' But I don't know mountain climbing," Sunderland said.
She does, however, know her own two children, Zac and Abby, and what they did to prepare for their around-the-world sails. Zac Sunderland set the then-record for a solo sail around the world last summer at 17. Abby, at 16, failed earlier this year in her attempt to top her brother's mark.
The Sunderland kids are experienced sailors. But when Abby Sunderland first talked of sailing around the world, her father tried to dissuade her by taking her out for long voyages in tough conditions. That, however, only fueled her passion for sailing, Marianne Sunderland said.
After making sure their children were emotionally ready for their voyages -- including knowing that they could stop at any time -- did the Sunderlands let them go.
"All I would say is that the parents should know their kid better than anybody," Marianne Sunderland said. "I wouldn't send Abby to climb Mount Everest next week. She's not ready. You try to train them. Or give them the experiences they need. If they continue to have a passion for it, you have to be able to judge if they're skilled enough or mature enough."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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