My father has always had a deep love for the ocean, and in particular fishing and surfing. These were passions which were passed down by his father and upon becoming a father himself it was his great ambition to continue the legacy on to his own children. And what a lovely wish it was.
The day my father taught me to surf was a gloriously sunny day. It was the mid 80’s and I would have been about 10.
Now I know what you’re thinking,
“1985? You would have been pretty cool just hanging out at the beach wearing your Brian Rochford Fluro-Pink Cossie, smelling of Reef Oil and humming hits from your favourite record Choose 1985. But now you’re being taught how to surf? OMG Leanne, for a 10 year old you were really taking cool to a totally new level!”
I know right! But unfortunately that’s because you are thinking of this….
…when my reality was actually this.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against a Waveski but they are called a ‘Goat Boat’ for a reason. It didn’t matter that there was no one around for me to impress (my father always sort out remote and desolate surf spots), I still wanted to be a cool surfer chick.
Prior to the surf lesson I was happily shredding up waves on my Moray Mach 7 Boogie Board. Ah, how I loved that board.
Me in my mind…
…me in Real Life
So I do understand that as he watched me mucking around in the foam, my father would have found it difficult to imagine that I was possibly having as much fun as he was out the back on the big waves.
My time had come. He grabbed me and told me that he was going to take me “out the back for a screamer”. It didn’t take me long to work out why he called them “screamers”.
My father fully trained me on the use of the made-for-adults device,
“Make sure you paddle as hard as you can.”
And then he went through a detailed safety induction,
“See this clip, if you get into trouble pull it open to get yourself untied from the ski, but only do it once you’re underwater. Otherwise it might smash you in the head and knock you unconscious.”
And then to round out my training he thoroughly assessed my capabilities,
“You’ll be right, stop being a sook.”
So after my comprehensive instructional it was really time to put all that theory to the test. He popped me upon the “fibreglass beast”, strapped me in and then dragged me through crashing wave after crashing wave by hanging on to my little foot strap thingies (which were wayyyyy too big for me).
That was it for me, I’d had enough. I pleaded to go back into the shore but it was too late,
“We don’t quit.”
Once out-the-back there was a moment of reprieve from the set which gave me an opportunity to cough up the 80 litres of sea water I had just swallowed.
And then in a mad attempt to either, distract me, get me excited or build some last minute confidence, he alerted me to the wave he had spotted for me,
“See that one? That big one out the back? Whoa, it’s huge. This one’s gunna be a real screamer. Here it comes”.
Things the detailed training program didn’t cover:
- A check to see if I weighed enough to lift the nose of the ski by leaning back to avoid it nose-diving.
- What to do when you don’t weigh enough and the “beast of a floatation device” nose dives.
- What to do when you slip through the seat belt and the “beast of a floatation device” is about to belt you in the back of the head.
- How to avoid the razor sharp paddle from smashing into your face whilst undergoing a nose dive.
- How not to panic as you try to un-strap yourself from the “beast of a floatation device” whilst upside-down and under water.
Whilst underwater, thoughts of my beloved 1st Grade Teacher came to mind. I can’t remember his name but he was awesome. He was young and fit and he was a Surf Life Saver.
He told us heaps of stories about the people that he had rescued and there were two stories that I always remembered. The first one was how he had to shovel the vomit out of people’s mouths with his fingers before he gave them mouth-to-mouth, and the second was how,
“After the struggling part ends, drowning is actually one of the most peaceful ways to die.”
Convinced that this was the end I remembered those wise words and readied myself for my inevitable demise. How poetic it would be, being taken at sea.
Yes even as a youngster I had a flair for the dramatic. Apparently the reality was much closer to me be under for only 30 seconds in about 3 feet of water with my father right beside me.
Never the less, I had now tasted the far and distant fringes of a near death experience. Rather than see my second chance at life as an opportunity to “Carpe Diem” I was instead determined never to take a risk again.
My father knew that if he left me to sit on the shore and ponder the big questions of life, like why Corey Hart wore his sunglasses at night, I would always have a fear of the surf.
So right about here my father figured he had two choices,
- He would have to “give in” and let me have my way by leaving me on the shore.
- He would have to admit that maybe his way of teaching me things wasn’t the best or the only way.
- He would have to trust that I would overcome my fears to try something out of my comfort zone without being pushed to.
- He would have to leave the beach that day knowing that I’d had a “loss” that he’d created and hadn’t helped me to overcome.
2. Don’t Quit
- He would have to continue on and drag me out the back and then literally throw me in the deep in.
- He would have to trust that he knew what was best for me more than I did in that moment.
- He would have to believe that he could help me overcome my fears and that I would leave the beach that day with a “win” under my belt.
When you look at those two choices it is no wonder that my father chose the latter, he knew, after many years of throwing me in the deep end, that if he pushed me to persevere that I would get there. He also knew from experience that with his help I would overcome my fears and learn this new skill.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article about our loved ones wanting us to change or else. The two options that my father had perceived above are also underlined by the perceived need for change below.
1. I Quit = I Need to Change How I Do Things
2. I Don’t Quit = You Need to Change How You Do Things
With the benefit of hindsight my father would now argue that there was indeed an option c) available to him that day. I could have quit my whining a bit and understood what he was trying to do, and he could have quit his disregard for my fears a bit and we could have met in the middle. We both could have changed how we were doing things.
But today I am just focusing on the sentiments of option b) you need to change. And what I am really interested in is when the “or else” part is added to the end.
To be clear I bring with me no judgement of the path my father took, not just because he is my dad and I love him, but because I would argue that the “or else” part offers us a choice. At that point we can either get-on-board with the change that is being requested of us or we can choose to accept the “or else” part of the deal and refuse to participate.
So my father made his choice, whilst I was still in tears after the first wave he grabbed me and back out into the surf we went.
He put me on another screamer, I got dumped and then I was really screaming. This cycle of dump/screamer/screaming would continue to go on. The more I got upset the harder I made it for myself and the more frustrated he became.
My father was stuck; I was obviously ill prepared but he had also greatly miscalculated the risks regarding my chances of failure. He needed me to overcome my fears and he did that the best way he knew how. He created a new fear which he thought was greater than my fear of the surf. So out came the old,
“If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about”
So here we were, “change or else”.
I had a choice; I could have accepted to have received the “something to really cry about”. Having taken the “or else” option plenty of times growing up, I knew that a smack (it was the 80’s) and a time out on the sand would have been much easier to cop than to have to face my fears. And I also knew that the chances of him “giving me something to really cry about” were minimal in this context, I was 99% sure he was bluffing, which are great odds as a kid.
Through all my carry on, my tears and my pleas not to go out the back any more; I knew that I didn’t want to take the offer of the “or else” that day. I wanted to try and therefore I consented to change and I can’t imagine that I would have faced my fears to that extent without someone beside me who was relentless in their belief that if I stuck at it I would get there.
That day I did catch a wave and not just any wave but a real screamer. Only this time I was finally screaming with joy just as he had hoped I would.
In that moment, the entire struggle was justified by my father and forgotten by me.
So the question I ask today is, “Can we really force our loved ones to change if they don’t want to?” Aren’t they consenting by not choosing the or else part? Just as I did as a kid, is it possible to consent whilst pretending that we don’t?
Now I get that this is a really grey area, I’m not suggesting that it is acceptable to threaten children with corporal punishment to do things against their will. This beach story was nearly 30 years ago and even my father’s stance on smacking children has completely turned around.
But in our society we do threaten children all the time with an “or else you won’t be able to play on your iPad”, “or else you won’t get dessert” etc.
And have you noticed that a lot of the “or else’s” are left really vague? I would argue that this is the case because so often what we mean is,
“you need to do this thing or else, I will get upset”.
We don’t really want to add an actual consequence because we aren’t really interested in following through with our threats. We just want our point of view understood as one that we are really serious about.
It is such a common criticism of parents that I hear,
“No wonder the kid is out of control, they never follow through on their threats”
And I do see parent’s threatening misbehaving children all the time with,
If you don’t behave we are going to pack up and go home right now, I don’t care that we just got here.”
I would argue that this “not following through” is a good instinct, it’s an evolution from the way our own parents reacted by cutting off their noses to spite all of our faces.
Threatening less or ceasing to make threats that you don’t have a desire to follow through on in the first place is what is missing from the new model of parenting.
But equally I get how hard it is not to reach for this old faithful when the kids have spent the day winding you up and pushing your buttons. It is really hard to parent differently from our own parents, it’s hard wired into us.
I also think it is important to ask the question “Do our loved ones really need to change in the first place?” What would have happened if I was left to my own devices that day on the beach? What if I had never experienced a screamer out-the-back? Would I have been any worse off?
For the record to this day I do feel very confident in the water as well as oh so respectful of the power of the ocean, but would that have happened anyway because of my heavy exposure to the beach?
The path that my father took me on did come at a cost; he no doubt would argue that it was a very small cost and this many years later on I would tend to agree with him.
But I have strong memories of always being scared to try new things with him. I was never able to trust that he would listen to me when I told him that I was terrified. But in his defence, I kept coming back for more even though I knew what was likely to occur.
In essence I was saying,
“Dad, I’m happy for you to show me how to do this new thing but you need to stop ignoring me when I tell you I’m scared, or else.”
My father always chose the “or else” option.
I’m guessing that for him it was more important to push me through my fears once I’d started something then to worry about if I’d come back for more down the track. Or maybe he was super confident that his ends would justify his means and I’d keep lining up to be pushed out of my comfort zone.
The ideal is obviously a position of compromise in relationships and a two-way communication style that omits ultimatums. I would also be so bold to suggest, and you’ll disagree with me here but just let me plant a seed,
“that we need to reach a place where we can accept that our loved ones know what is best for themselves no matter their age or their circumstances.”
I know, it’s a hard one to swallow, and it’s a concept that I’ve only just come around to and often I do the opposite with my loved ones. The “I know what’s best for you” drum beats very loudly within me.
But until we reach that place, then I would argue that we can’t get this stuff wrong.
By being able to refuse our loved ones suggestion to change and by having the option to take up the “or else” part we can hold just as much power as our loved ones in that moment.
Or conversely if we chose to act then surely we take on just as much of the responsibility for the outcome as they do…maybe more?
Relationships are growth machines and they constantly plant seeds for us to develop, grow and change; it is because of the magic of the “or else” part, we get to choose the when’s, if’s and how’s.
NB: To be very clear I am in no way speaking about the forcing of our loved ones to change in ways that are defined as emotionally, physically or mentally abusive. Such behaviour should never be tolerated and you should seek immediate help and support if either yourself or a loved one are at risk. Google “Domestic Abuse Help” in your local area.