Koa’s first wave

Originally published in Mindful Parenting

In spring, a word entered my two-year-old’s vocabulary that made me cautiously optimistic – waves. The winter thawing with back-to-back days in the mid-30s, we took him down the beach, and as his confidence grew, he revelled in the knee-high swells lapping his legs. One day, unprovoked by my frothing-ness, he pointed towards the water as we walked, screaming with joy, “lots of waves”!

I’ve been surfing since I was a pre-teen and have spent my adult life writing about it, so his recent interest has been pleasing. The benefits of surfing and being in the water are well-documented, with surf therapy being increasingly used to treat war veterans’ PTSD, and scientists likening changes in the brain’s neurochemicals during surfing and being submerged in water, to those associated with antidepressants and meditation. It keeps me fit, helps me connect with the natural world… Why wouldn’t I want my son to surf?

Conversely, are my daydreams about future surf trips with him selfish? And could I turn him off by pressuring him too much, or scar him via situations he’s not ready for? Troubled, I contacted the parents of Australia’s top junior surfer, Molly Picklum, 16 – who dominated 2019’s World Surf League (WSL) Australia/Oceania Junior Qualifying Series – for advice.

“Molly was three when I helped her on to baby waves on a boogie board,” says mum, Danielle. Molly’s dad took her and her brother surfing on soft-tops occasionally in the ensuing years, among touch football and soccer practice. But it was their move to Shelly Beach, to a house within walking distance to waves, when she was 11 that saw her focus on surfing. “She’d surf every day,” Danielle recalls. “The key is that it was her choice. I didn’t force her, she enjoyed it and she has an endless amount of energy and drive, [so] Molly’s progression hasn’t surprised me.”

Did she ever worry she’d scared Molly off, I ask? “Absolutely,” Danielle replies. “If she got dumped by a wave, she’d shy away. I’d let her back in when she was ready, or offer to go in with her. Above all, you’ve got to make it fun. Include their siblings and/or friends. I’ve seen countless times when water-shy kids forget their fears when they’re surrounded by other kids having fun surfing.”

Make it fun, no pressure… And the sibling thing? Our second son’s due soon – maybe I’m sorted! But what if my boys still aren’t keen on surfing? Vaughan Blakey is a former editor of Surfing World and Waves magazines, and while his life has always revolved around surfing, the obsession hasn’t infected sons, Milo (15) and Iggy (13). Vaughan says the boys were around the ocean constantly when they were young, but a jarring conversation with Milo made him realise perhaps they wouldn’t share his fanaticism.

“I’d always go, come for a surf, and they didn’t really want to, but would persevere with it,” Vaughan laughs. “But once, when Milo was about nine, I said it and he goes – hey dad, I’m not a surfer… And I’m like, whaaat? That’s heavy! You can’t say that!”

Vaughan thinks it was being surrounded by surfing – he and his brother Ronnie, a WSL commentator, talked surfing constantly as their kids grew up – that might’ve turned the boys off. “I didn’t overly push them to surf, but I definitely saturated their brains in it so much that they found their own interests, which is really cool.”

Milo’s now playing music, while Iggy wants to make movies. Interestingly, Vaughan says both boys, and step-daughter Sunny, still surf now-and-then, only on their own terms. “You want to make sure you’re giving them the option to choose that [surfing] life for themselves because they love it, but not getting all Andre Agassi about it,” he says. “And I’m happy to facilitate their passions that lead meaway from surf because that’s the thing about being a parent. If you’re open to them not being surfers, you might just learn something you didn’t know before too.”

Vaughan tells me the surf trips I imagine with my boys will still be there (whether they’re surfing or not) because the magic’s in the other stuff – building fires, hanging on the beach, cranking tunes in the car. I hang up the phone, feeling lighter.

When my son catches his first wave, it’s almost an anticlimax. On a gorgeous spring afternoon, we chuck on his new wetsuit and I push him (sitting down) on to a tiny swell line that barely breaks. And… that’s it? It’s not that it isn’t truly special (he squeals in delight as he feels the glide for the first time), but I’d built it up so much in my mind that it’d become a sacred rite, rather than simply a chance for him to have fun at the beach.

Returning home, I ask him what videos he’d like to watch – “animals, trucks… surfing?” – and he takes the bait. But 20 seconds into the surfing clip, he’s over it, and he orders me to play his current favourite, a dinosaur-egg hunt video by some goofy American kids’ presenter. No worries, mate, I respond, scrambling for the remote to turn off the surfing. No pressure.