Why I’m glad my sons took up surfing

Pic: The four Dent lads at the Pipeline break, North Shore Hawaii

When I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s in a conservative rural farming area surfing was still in its infancy. To be perfectly honest, surfers were considered to be dope-smoking, unemployed bums.

So when my eldest son expressed an interest in taking up surfing I have to confess a part of me was deeply concerned that this would create a serious moral decline of some kind.

Thankfully I was able to overcome the unhealthy stereotypical perception of surfing and, one after the other, all four Dent boys have become lifelong surfers.

Obviously growing up so close to the coast – Albany in Western Australia – made surfing a do-able pastime. (Incidentally, you can take in some of the beauty of that southwest coastline in the upcoming film, Breath, directed by Simon Baker and filmed around Denmark not far from Albany. It’s adapted from the wonderful novel by Tim Winton, who has recently reflected on surfing and manhood himself.)

Another thing that made surfing do-able was that all my boys were competent swimmers before they ventured out into the surf. Over the years I have learned that being a strong swimmer can definitely be helpful, but if you are being pummelled by a massive wave you also need a lot of luck to be able to survive.

For this article I am focusing only on boys and men simply because it has been my primary life experience as a mum of only boys, and one I know best.

However I have long admired and want to pay my respects to the women wave warriors who have also conquered this wild place. Jodie Cooper, Layne Beachley, Sally Fitzgibbons, Stephanie Gilmour and Tyler Wright … to name a handful, they are all heroes in my book.

Being such a risky sport you may wonder why I’m secretly glad my boys became surfers. Those scrawny young lads have grown into physically strong, healthy men and the ocean and surfing are still very much a part of their lives.

Surfing has given my sons lessons in life that I’m really grateful for and which I’m not sure we loving parents alone could have delivered.

10 lessons my sons learned from surfing

  1. Reconnection

Surfing takes place in nature and a powerful and strong connection to nature helps build a sense of belonging in the world.

No matter how confusing and stressful the adolescent journey was for my boys, the ocean could hold them with a sense of familiarity and reassure them that all was well in the world.

If there was no surf for a long period of time, quite often the lads simply went for a swim in the ocean. Mother nature is always nearby to bring comfort and encourage play.

Surfers will go out in all different weather conditions including freezing cold. In the early days before any of the Dent lads had a license, I would be the surfing taxi. Sometimes this meant we drove from beach to beach for ages until we found a good spot. Once they chose the surf break for the day I would often wait hours until they returned.

Was this how I wanted to spend my Sunday mornings? Did I not have better things to do at home? Of course.

However when I saw the faces of the lads who returned to the car I knew something special was happening that I could not comprehend.

The teen mask was gone and it was the happiest I ever saw my sons and their mates. In a way, surfing reconnected them to what really mattered in life – not school grades, fragile male egos, moments of failure and disappointment, or the need to wear cool clothes and look ‘sick’.

They were cleansed and reconnected to one of life’s gifts – a positive human experience shared with other humans. Humans are social beings and the fundamental need to be connected to others must be met to ensure a healthy mind-body-heart and soul connection.

Most boys today are connected in the digital world however they are missing vital social and emotional learning because they are not sharing real-life experiences.

Boys’ friendships in particular are enhanced by sharing common interests and many of my boys’ best mates from their teenage years are still their best mates and surfing has been a glue that has kept them connected over many years.

  1. Responsibility

To be a surfer you need to be responsible especially around taking care of your board, your wetsuit and protecting yourself from the sun. Through experience, all surfers learn that if you really want to enjoy your surfing you have to put some effort in before you get in the water.

Surfboards are expensive. If a Dent lad broke or badly damaged his surf board even by accident, he would have to surf on a really daggy old solid board until either his next birthday or Christmas.

He would also need to earn money to help pay for the new board. This may sound tough but it has given my sons a good appreciation of the value of things and they still take very good care of their boards.

Getting badly sunburnt is an extremely painful exercise that teaches forgetful teenage boys to apply their zinc cream and sunscreen – no matter how keen they are to get in the water. Now as older surfers, my lads need to have regular skin checks as well. It is one of the prices you pay for spending so much time in the sun. Responsibility can be taught through surfing.

While out on the waves there are unwritten rules (actually, sometimes these days they are written on signs at beaches for those who haven’t realised yet that there are rules). These rules help ensure safety out on the waves.

There are times when surfers get hurt. One of those unwritten rules is that any other surfer who is nearby to an injured surfer, goes to help. There have been many occasions where my boys and their mates have stepped up to help out someone who was injured.

Many will do this despite the risk to their own safety and stories abound of heroic acts by surfers who helped rescue those who were hurt, even in the presence of sharks.

This unwritten code is definitely one that comes with the territory and is representative of true hero behaviour. Another good lesson learned while out in the waves.

  1. Resilience and Robustness

There are days when surfers need to walk long distances and traverse over steep sand hills to get to catch a wave.

They sometimes have to scramble over rocks and paddle long distances to actually reach the surf break!

This effort takes a robustness that needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. This is another example of the growth of a boy to a man, one who can delay instant gratification, who can persist when his body is hurting and who can conquer a metaphorical mountain in order to challenge himself to reach the ‘holy grail’ of a ride in the blue tube or the green room.

This helps build resilience as well as building physical and mental strength.

Getting really cold and really scared can actually be really good for teenage boys. To become a resilient human being you need to learn about fear, failure and how to overcome life’s challenges quickly and efficiently.

Surfing can be a great leveller – you can have a fabulous surf followed by one where you scarcely get a wave and this is also a good lesson when building character.

You will not become too confident and arrogant and quite frankly you will just be grateful when you have a ‘good enough’ surf. Surfing helps you to learn how to be able to work in all sorts of conditions – stinking hot or freezing cold and raining.

This is something that concerns me about our bedroom gamers who seldom step outside into the real world. Will this softening be a benefit later in life?

I have to be honest there were times I shook my head in disbelief as boys who were shivering loudly from the cold, then put on their wetsuits to go and spend two hours in a really freezing ocean! And yet this was another way of becoming stronger and braver without needing to hurt anybody else.

Dr Arne Rubinstein (author of The Making of Men and himself a passionate surfer) writes about boys on the journey to manhood needing to move from boy psychology into man psychology. I believe surfing helps to facilitate this really important transition.

Disappointment happens often in the life of surfers. Surf can look fabulous from the car park and yet by the time you get to that magical spot conditions change and things can go crappy.

The wind can change and ruin a surf break or someone can drop in on you and steal the best wave of the day. Your leg rope can snap or your board can get ‘dinged’ or worse still snapped.

These times of disappointment are character-building moments that will help you learn to suck it up and keep going. Yet another great lesson in life that can be learned on those big green waves.

  1. Risk

One of the best teachers for boys about making poor choices is natural consequences.

This is why I would be keen to see wooden seesaws returned to our community playgrounds because for our ‘alpha boys’ in particular, often it’s that third hit on the chin by the seesaw (a natural consequence) that makes them realise they are accountable for their choices. It is no-one else’s fault!

Surfing does this beautifully and often painfully. My lads have all experienced physical wounds while surfing. These wounds have also made them realise they are not invincible warriors – that taking risks can come with a price.

In his book The New Manhood, Steve Biddulph writes of the need to nurture the wild man within. Surfing does this really well.

Risk-taking behaviour is normal in adolescence and beyond that life is a long journey of taking risks both big and small.

Surfing will give you these opportunities every single time you venture out into the waves. The footage of Mick Fanning fighting off a shark has been seen so many times and it will always remind us mere mortals that surfing is dangerous.

Statistically it’s not as dangerous as driving a car, or being a passenger in a car, however it can be a passtime that can end in tragedy and every surfer knows this each time they head out for a surf.

  1. Respect and gratitude

I am deeply grateful for the many good men who helped guide my sons on the journey to become lifelong surfers. Many a day, especially when they were in their early teen years, the boys would be collected by one of these good men and taken out surfing for the day.

The late Celia Lashlie in her book He’ll be OK stresses the importance of having men on the bridge to manhood and of women stepping off.

Good men who step forward to do this are incredibly important in the journey of life. Not only is it helpful for parents, especially mothers of sons – it is a way for boys to develop respect for older men by witnessing good actions.

To the good men around Albany who took the Dent lads and their mates out into the surf – I thank you. To the PE teacher Anthony Johnson from Albany Senior High I especially thank you for the early morning surfing trip each Thursday before school.

To see my lads jump out of bed at 5:30AM with enthusiasm and a passion for life, just so they could have a surf before school, was pure gold. They remember those days fondly.

Respect can be a tricky thing to understand especially when you are a confused, hungry teen boy.

Having regular good men take an interest in you certainly helps to learn what respect feels like.

The ocean in its fierce unforgiving way also taught respect to the lads who dived eagerly into those waters – hoping for joy and success never knowing what may eventuate.

Mother Nature deserves to be respected and often surfing helped my growing boys learn about valuing the physical world. Take your rubbish with you, remove any floating plastic you find and every time you leave the water alive – you quietly whisper “Thank you.”

  1. Rush of success

For many boys and men they need an external experience or event to help them feel worthwhile and capable. This explains why there is a natural competitiveness in our boys – even though our girls can be just as competitive!

When a boy has completed a task to a standard that he had envisaged would make him feel worthwhile he almost punches the air because it feels so good.

Surfing can give boys and men this natural high in its undiluted exquisite delight. There is an unbelievable rush of endorphins that occurs with a successful wave – one that I can only imagine.

It is also an individual pursuit of success – and there is only one person who is responsible for that success – so self-worth has to improve following such a success.

A successful ride is a brilliant feel-good moment that can last for ages regardless of what else is happening in the life.

In a western world full of boy disengagement at school, this rush of success that can happen out on the waves can have a flow-on effect of building confidence in the boy in our classrooms. Success breeds more success.

  1. Reverence for nature and life

I once had a teenage boy tell me in class, “Miss did you know that the closest place you can be to God is in the green room?”

The peak experience of becoming one with a really large wave is almost a spiritual experience according to many surfers. It moves a surfer to a profound place of exquisite joy – a place that many others seek with alcohol, drugs and dangerous behaviour like driving fast or train surfing.

This experience does not happen often, and the pursuit of this exquisite transcendent moment in time, is one of the main motivations for surfing.

There are times when surfing that something ‘awe-some’ happens! Those rare moments that again give an individual a natural high from being so close to something so beautiful in its natural environment – are few and far between.

Having a whale beach itself close by, or surfing with a pod of dolphins or having an ancient sea turtle pop its head above the water to say hi are all awe-inspiring experiences.

Some surfers have eyeballed a white pointer shark and despite the danger been captured by the awe and terror all at once.

You will never have such an experience while gaming on a device in the confines of your bedroom.

  1. Rites of passage

Steve Biddulph, Dr Arne Rubinstein from The Rites of Passage Institute and Andrew Lines from The Rite Journey are all wise men who write about the power of rites of passage in the healthy growth and development of our children into adulthood.

In a way surfing can form part of these rites as a young surfer chooses to tackle a bigger surf break in the company of more experienced surfers.

He is taking himself on a risky journey and if successful he will be transformed to be a little older, a little braver and closer to becoming a man.

If he is unsuccessful on his first attempt he will learn that he needs to practise more to ensure success next time.

This is also about owning the need to be persistent and to have grit in life in general. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. This is another great lesson of surfing.

  1. Reconciliation

There are times in life when major adversity can knock us flat on our faces, whether that be via a loss of a relationship, job or a person that we love.

Loss can strip us bare to our very foundation and I’ve heard of many men particularly who have used the ocean, nature and indeed surfing to find themselves again in time after walking through the pit of grief.

The ocean has a way of holding a safe space for us to explore the depth of our deepest pain and confusion. Knowing that out on the waves there have been moments of exquisite joy that made us glad to be alive can often be the silent motivation that gets many men back on the feet, back into life and back into living.

Often this journey of deep exploration has happened as a solo journey. I have been told that waiting for waves is another time of ‘oneness’ that allows the surfer’s mind to be still in the place of simply waiting.

It is much more than being patient. It allows the mind to become centred and opens it to a deeper place of reflection – much like what happens to people in moments of mediation or prayer.

Problems can be solved, dreams can be born and a wholeness can be reclaimed away from the busyness of modern life.

Reconciliation is a reclaiming of the whole – the inner compass that exists within and it can give individuals a sense of peace.

  1. Reminders

As a mother of sons who surfed I felt surfing helped me let my boys go so they could become men.

Of course I worried about their safety, however I knew that stopping them from doing something they loved so much would be a way of hindering them from becoming the best expression of themselves.

They needed to step away from their mother to stretch and grow and become who they were meant to be in the company of other ocean-loving men including their dad. Surfing has also been a great way to build bondedness and friendship between their father and these four brothers who all love to surf.

Life is a big journey to be seized or simply allowed to float by.

Surfing is one of those activities that is so much more than it seems to be. It can be a pathway to growth and maturity as every experience teaches new lessons about mastering the ocean – even if only a little.

Surfing can be a way of being reminded what matters most in life – taking big bold steps to immerse oneself in the mighty unpredictable ocean to feel truly alive.

People who conquer mountains use similar words to describe the incredible elation they feel when they are successful. Many solo sports that are based in nature will bring similar benefits – mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, deep sea diving, dirt bike riding, and kite surfing to name a few.

These nature-based solo pursuits when combined with team sports give our boys a comprehensive, holistic journey to manhood that build resilience, passion for life, courage and resilience.

A final salient point is that surfing reminds us all of the importance of the gift of life. Never to be taken for granted and yet never to be crushed by fear.

This is why I am glad my sons took up surfing.

Saving Our Adolescents video seminar
If you’re interested in finding out more about raising adolescents – boys or girls – Maggie draws on almost 40 years of experience in teaching, raising and counselling teens in her video seminar, Saving Our Adolescents, which is based on her popular book of the same name.