Matt Niswonger

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.

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~Matt Niswonger