Editor’s Note: A Surfer Girl

Raising powerful girls in a world of boys

Photo: Nelly

Photo: Nelly

Recently I was giving my daughter Mia a ride home from school when she mentioned that a classmate said something that made her feel bad. I asked her to elaborate and she got quiet and just stared ahead. Concerned, I asked her what was wrong.

She told me that a boy in her class had called her a surfer girl and it made her sad. I stared at her and we locked eyes. Why the sad face? She could tell I was pretty concerned.

“He was only saying that because I have blond hair. I’m not a real surfer girl,” she said, fighting back tears. “I’m really bad at surfing and I don’t like it.”

It was heartbreaking to hear these words. “Of course you are a real surfer girl. I have pictures of you standing on a surfboard. You are only nine years old. You just have to keep practicing.”

What was left unsaid is the history Mia has with surfing. Even though a classmate was simply giving her a compliment, I understand completely why she would react with sadness and regret. You see, when it comes to surfing, Mia and I have a troubled past.

A couple of years ago I was pushing her into waves at 38th Avenue, a popular beginner’s spot near Pleasure Point on the east side of Santa Cruz. She was on a foam Costco board and I was standing in the water as I pushed her into small rollers. She would stand up on tiny waves for about 50 feet and then jump off and wait for me to swim over. Then I would wade her back out to the take off spot and we would do it all over again.

Everything was going fine until I pushed little Mia into a wave just as I noticed an older man with a floppy sun hat paddling across our trajectory. I could see this was not going to end well as Mia has no ability to turn a surfboard and she was now on a collision course with this man who for some reason didn’t seem to notice her.

Sure enough she plowed right into him and they both tumbled off their boards and emerged from the water with tangled leashes.

I quickly began wading and swimming towards the collision site, which seemed to take forever as I was in chest deep water and fighting the current. As Mia popped to the surface she began to say sorry over and over again to the man with the hat. He had a grumpy look on his face and remained silent at first. Then, when I arrived and began untangling Mia’s leash I was not as quick to apologize as she was. Truth be told I was a little annoyed that he didn’t just move out of the way while being approached by a slow moving eight-year-old on a two-foot wave.

Sensing that I was not overflowing with apologies the man said, “that’s OK little girl, it’s your dad that needs to apologize right now.” Upon hearing these words I froze and stared him right in the eyes. Then I heard the following words coming out of my mouth before I had a chance to stop myself: “No way.”

If I could go back in time and just humbly apologize so I could diffuse the situation I would. After all, it’s a silly thing to get prideful over, especially since no one got hurt and that’s all that really matters.

Instead I became “Papa Bear.” You know, one of those silly parents you see at soccer games and little league games who get overly protective of their kids to the point of social awkwardness.

He responded by closing the distance and getting in my face – which did nothing to send Papa Bear into his cave where he belongs. Mia was now on her board in between the two posturing men. Just when I was about to get into some sort of verbal jousting match with this guy an acquiantance whose teenage daughter was also in the water saw what was happening and came over to let Floppy Hat Guy know that Papa Bear had friends in the water.

Very quickly things escalated between Floppy Hat Guy and my friend and when they started screaming at each other I snapped out of my testosterone stupor and saw what was REALLY happening: my daughter was scared out of her mind and borderline traumatized because in her eight-year-old brain she clearly must have done something horribly wrong to cause all this conflict among adults. What she didn’t know at the time is that adults can act like children sometimes, especially in a crowded surf lineup.

The yelling match between my friend and Floppy Hat Guy was to the point where this thing had become a full-blown public spectacle. I moved Mia away to a different place on the waves and ostensibly began helping her surf again but she was not happy to say the least. Meanwhile my friend and Floppy Hat Guy were now kicking each other out of the water – never NOT awkward – and they ended up yelling at each other all the way to the parking lot like baseball managers screaming at an umpire after a bad call in the World Series.

Mia and I have not surfed together since. She really has no interest. About a year ago she did a book project for school with a title “The Angry Man” complete with detailed pictures of the entire sordid affair. The toughest part to see was the hand drawn picture of her on a surfboard with tears streaming down her face. When I read her book I felt like a jerk. For the first time I realized the full impact of my lack of wisdom and humility. A better father would have just apologized to the man with the floppy hat, smiled, and moved on.

So what now? With the knowledge that beating myself up over the past will not help Mia’s future, I am thinking long term. Standing in a commitment to help Mia become a powerful woman – including the opportunity to surf if that’s what she chooses – what’s now possible for me as her father?

We have Mia enrolled in the Junior Lifeguards program, she plays soccer,  and most importantly she is a Mini-Mermaid. With Mini-Mermaids girls are given a chance to run together as part of an after school program that encourages girls to think powerfully about themselves.

Given this, what’s now possible for me as her father is the ability to get out of her way and encourage her to do anything her little heart desires, including learning how to surf because that’s what powerful girls do.

Feel free to drop me a line at matt@adventuresportsjournal.com.

~Matt Niswonger

3 Comments

  1. I’m so sorry that you had to deal with that experience with your daughter. I know that she’ll bounce back some day from it though! It’s just a temporary setback.

    I just wanted to comment that I think that what you went through is
    unfortunately all too common. For some reason surfers in the water,
    old and young, have a very entitled attitude. There is no forgiveness
    or forbearance, or even sharing. I wasn’t there so I can’t comment on who was at fault, but this man that you got into a confrontation with could clearly have been much more forgiving and tolerant, values that only get talked about but are not exercised in the surfing world. He could have taken multiple different approaches. He could have:

    – avoided the low-speed collision in the first place instead of choosing to remain on a collision course with a young girl

    – shrugged it off, smiled, and went on his way, perhaps understanding
    that he didn’t want to frighten a young girl

    – he could have spoken to you with a bit more humanity rather than
    demanding an apology

    – in view that there was a child present, he could have just moved on his way rather than escalating the conflict, even when he thought he was in the right

    The above are some of the things that actual adults do in their
    daily life to handle conflicts. Every disagreement doesn’t have to become a fight. I don’t know why surfers who are old enough to know better carry on with their terrible attitudes. They really do know better, and set a terrible example for all the kids in the water. I’ve even seen this behavior from local celebrity surfers who are supposed to be pillars of the surfing community. It’s a facade as far as I’ve been able to tell. Sociopathic behavior is the norm and accepted. After 20 years of surfing in this area I’ve stopped surfing, and have no desire to even teach my kids to surf. It’s a beautiful sport but just has way more
    negatives that positives at this point. I don’t want to be too negative about the whole surf scene but I feel that sharing, forgiveness, and concern for your fellow person have become forgotten in the surfing world.

    I just wanted to pass a little empathy and encouragement your way. I
    hope you and your daughter continue to have great adventures, and find
    your own path to some shared happiness in the water.

    Reply
  2. I’ve been working with children for over 15 years now through my horsemanship program, and we – the kids, the horses, and I – have collectively taught each other so very much.

    Matt Niswonger’s account from a surfing session with his daughter is a powerful story indeed, and something for us all to reflect on. The way we “adults” handle adversity can make all the difference to the wee ones looking to us for guidance. One of the best things we can model to the kids in our lives is that we can always try on other ways of being that better serve us and our community. We can always move on from mistakes and take action to live powerfully and inspired!

    p.s. LOVE this shot of Matt and Mia by the uber-talented Nelly!

    Reply
  3. It was a tough call to move away from SC three years ago. But, the expense, the attitudes in the water, and the fact that it costs way too much for the actual quality of life you get in return, made it a bit easier.

    Sometimes I think the fact that I got back into surfing after taking a break from the attitude for about 15 years, had a lot to do with the ease of moving on from that town.

    Too many people fighting for too little space at too high a cost.

    It would be nice if the adults of SC began to act like adults, instead of teaching their kids to be jerks on down the line…but that attitude hasn’t changed since I first encountered it in the 80’s. I don’t really think it ever will change.

    There are many, many places to be close to nature, eat organic food, and be around nice people. If being in the ocean isn’t fun because of the people, why pay for access to it through high cost of living? Go to a cheaper place with warm water to surf for vacation, and spend the rest of your time being around nice people and NOT stressing about your ridiculous mortgage.

    Reply

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