My heart broke on the beach last Friday night

I’ve had an image playing over and over in my head all weekend. In it my 6-year-old daughter is standing on the beach amidst a rough-and-tumble tag kind of game. Her little chest is heaving and tears are welling in her eyes. She is trying desperately to fight back the tears.

It was a gorgeous, balmy late Spring evening 2 weeks ago when I signed Sophia up for Nippers: the children’s arm of our local surf life-saving club. I felt so excited and privileged. Excited that Soph would be taking part in this active and exciting club; something that’s a rite of childhood passage for many Aussie kids who are lucky enough to grow up near the water.

She would be exerting lots of energy ands having fun in the sand and water at her own local beach while beginning the process of learning all those important things future surf life-savers need to know. We and the parents of the other kids, many of whom are friends, would sit with our toes in the warm sand as the sun sank and chat and laugh as our kids ran around in front of us yelling happily as they took part in training.

Only my little babe wasn’t yelling happily. She was kind of struggling.

In the first activity, a relay race, she had dissolved into tears half way through a lap after some boys behind her had yelled at her to go when it wasn’t her turn. Confused and flustered she started running, realised her mistake, and then upset and embarrassed caught sight of her dad on the sidelines and made a bee-line for his arms, sobbing.

After many tears and protestations that she just wanted to go home, my husband managed to coax her to rejoin her team. And she ran a good race.

On the beach this first day with the wind making it impossible to really hear any of the commands being yelled at them, she struggled with the bigger and rougher kids pushing her out of the way in a later game as they all tried to grasp one of the few flags at the other end of the beach.  She ran fast but then she stood back, unsure and willing unto just dive in when it came time to “fight” for a flag.

Sophia was behind some other kids with her gross motor skills at kindergarten. I put that down to being a first-born to a slightly protective mother. She has improved in leaps and bounds and, when we gave her a two-wheel bike that was really much too big for her last Christmas (you know, better that she grows into it than out if it in a flash and all that), she stunned us when she hopped on and after 2 minutes of tuition took off down the road on her own. She looked like a pea on a pumpkin.

So she’s certainly got the physical wherewithal. But while she’s as active as any other little 6 year-old-bundle of energy, she’s a book-worm and is happiest drawing or making things.

But she’s also brave.

In the tag game I mentioned at the start of this post, I could see she was flustered and unsure again.  She stayed put though. After checking with the parent who was directing the game as to where she should stand. And that’s the other image I keep coming back to. My little girl amid the chaos, her arm raised politely as she follows the Age Manager in charge around the melee trying to get his attention to ensure she is doing the right thing. Making sure she’s in the right spot.

I coped with all of this until I saw her little shoulders heaving and making a supreme effort to keep her tears at bay.  She had finally attracted the attention of the Age Manger and been shown where to stand but she was like a tiny island of worry and upset in an oblivious whirlpool of chaos. Her distress was palpable to me and it took every ounce of my strength not to run and rescue her. To wrap up that little body in a warm towel and make her feel better. To reassure her. To make it all ok.

Which is exactly what I used to wish for in similar situations. An anxious, shy kid, I was involved in any number of things in my childhood that made me feel the same. Yet, I survived. And, dare I say it, have ultimately thrived.

I am terribly guilty of speculating about how Sophia is feeling based on what I would have felt in a given situation. I try very hard not to assume Sophia is feeling the same as I would have. I fight against my instinct to rescue her from those situations; situations where she is safe but unsure. Safe but upset. Upset but learning.

Afterall, arguably Nippers is really a microcosm for life and I would do her no good whatsoever if I just ran in and made her feel better every time. I would, in fact, be doing her a disservice.

But when I saw that worried little girl, tiny finger up trying desperately and failing to get the attention of an adult to ask what she was supposed to do and then her tear-stained little face and panicky look I started crying. And I’ve cried every time I’ve thought about all those moments of desperate vulnerability all weekend.

After the  beach games it was time to take to the water. Despite the chilly wind and choppy water, even the smallest of kids were expected to lie face-down on a board and with the help of an older more experienced Nipper, use their arms to paddle out to a marked point.

I saw Sophia hop on her board, saw her start paddling and then take a face full  of salt water when a wave splashed over the tip of her board. I saw her start to cough and splutter and  had to look away. I couldn’t watch anymore. My heart was in 1000 tiny pieces all over that windy beach.

Nonetheless, I looked back. And when I did I saw my girl had reached the mark and turned her board for the shore. Only unlike all the other kids who were being escorted back in by their older guardians, Sophia was paddling back on her own. Smiling, she sped up as she caught a wave on her board, then another and another until the last one delivered her back to the sand. Ecstatic she jumped off her board and ran over to me to finally be wrapped up in that big, warm towel.

She can’t wait for next Friday.


16 thoughts on “My heart broke on the beach last Friday night

  1. Oh wow, it’s the deep end of life alright, they learn how important acceptance is & to be involved with your peers. I remember when my middle girl did T ball, she was 4 & i knew she was going to be great. Her turn to bat, she went up to the stand, hit the ball really well & all of a sudden, all these people yelling at her to run & she looked at me & said “i came here to hit the ball, not run” & i thought, oh dear!! Her big sister ran around the bases with her, but when she hit home plate she did not wish to continue with the game. I tried so hard to get her to continue, but she flat refused. She fielded & had another hit, but that was it, she lost interest, she was only 4. Ok, so she turned out to be a state level long distance runner, you can never pick it from the early beginnings, trials, hiccups & doubts.
    You both did so well, you must be so proud. Love Posie

  2. PS i wish we had Nippers, our 4 love the beach, especially NSW & QLD as they were born in the NT & you just DON’T swim at the beach up there, crocodiles, box jelly fish, sharks, it’s insane. So where do we live, the ACT, the ONLY inland capital city!! Oh well, we can always holiday. Love Posie

  3. Good for you! You were the brave one there! And the wise one. Well done. Yes, there is nothing more difficult than to watch your child struggle, especially when you ‘know’ what the child is going through emotionally, but nothing more valuable to the child than that kind of success. Bravissima!

  4. Oh I was crying most of the way through that and carried on crying at the end but with happy tears. Such a brilliant heartwarming post.
    You know, this is a post for you to keep and print out on special paper to give to her when she leaves home. Beautiful.

    • Thank you Lou – that is such a lovely comment. I’m glad your tears were happy at the end. And I will print it out and keep it for her – thanks for suggesting it.

  5. Oh, we are such kindred spirits, you and I. I am an almost-textbook introvert who is raising my carbon copy. It kills me to remember how much harder it is growing up “shy” and to remember how I came away with the impression that it was “bad,” that something was wrong with me. Now I know better, and I keep reminding myself that it isn’t my job to change who she is, but to teach her how to do the best at *being* who she is. Sometimes that means pushing her, sometimes it means just letting her be, and it isn’t easy. But it sounds like you’re doing just great!

    • Thanks Gretchen, it is so encouraging to hear from a like-minded. Yes, mine is a carbon copy too. Sometimes I am glad of that – and sometimes terrified for her.

  6. Oh this made me tear up a little. Thank you so much for writing about your experience. Its such a good reminder to let those little ones that you love so much learn to deal with things for themselves. Im pretty new at this whole mama thing, so the affirmations that I’m doing the right thing when I wait and watch my 16 month old son laboring to climb onto a chair or stack blocks. Its so hard to take a step back. You are fantastic!

    • Ah Bree – what a gorgoeus comment. Yes, letting them learn is soooo hard. Especially when there’s a risk of pain – physical or emotional. Who would have thought standing back could be so hard!

  7. Gulp, goodness you got me! I feel so proud for your daughter. My daughter is four and I know I have many of these times ahead. You have to learn to let go so early (to let them learn). Thanks for the lovely well-written post.

    • Yes, four is about the age it really begins – I wish you luck in finding that tricky balance. Made even tricker by the fact the parameters of the game change depending on the situation! Thanks for your kind words, too.

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