Not everything is character building, is it?

Surf schoolIn today’s teen parenting drama, I am forced again to examine the concept of “character building”.

My teenager does not enjoy sport and at the age of almost 15, now does no sport outside of what she is forced to ‘endure’ at school. I’ve written about this dilemma before, in High school water torture.

Back in the days when she still hadn’t concluded that sport was not for her she tried different things, looking for something she might love. There was AFL, taekwondo, basketball, swimming and three different kinds of dance. She stuck at each one for at least a term or season each, sometimes longer. She doesn’t have a commitment problem, or a complete lack of interest in any extra-curricular activities. She’s been happily doing music and drama for years now.

She showed me a note this morning from her school about a compulsory surf camp for her year. The camp would comprise of 3 x 45 minute activities focusing on surf awareness, body surfing and surfboard riding. Her laughter soon turned toΒ  horror and then distress when she realised I was considering sending her. A surf camp is her worst nightmare. She has a genuine fear of the ocean, will not go swimming if there is even a ripple of a wave – well, that was up until about a year ago when she gave up going to the beach altogether. The biggest fight we ever had was over her not wanting to go to the beach for a couple of hours with her family last Christmas.

I think it’s terrific her school is organising something like this. I suggested a surf camp would be a good opportunity to overcome her fear. Not in front of her whole year, she cried. I suggested a compromise might be that she didn’t have to do this school camp, but she could do something similar one-on-one with an instructor. “I’m perfectly fine with my fear, I don’t need to overcome it,” was the response. It’s kind of true. It’s not hard to avoid the ocean your entire life. I love the ocean, and my life would be poorer without it, but that’s not going to apply to everyone.

I feel for her, I really do. I told her that there are probably a lot of other kids in the same situation, but really, I can’t be sure of that. I think she might be ok if the waves were very small that day, but there’s no way of controlling that.

Her distress comes not just from her fear of the ocean but the humiliation of having to do something sporty and difficult in front of her whole class. She’s a teenage girl. Does she really need the added humiliation in her life?

Some will say it’s character building. But is it? Where’s the proof? Maybe it will just be a really unpleasant experience that worsens her fear of the ocean and her resentment of me, and has no positive outcomes at all.

What do you think?



  1. It’s hard to know. I think there is absolutely no point in forcing teenagers, kids, adults to do anything – it makes them fear and avoid the experience like the plague the next time. My father in law didn’t learn to swim until he was in his 60s. I guess, at 15, all you can do is talk about the reason why you might want her to learn to swim – that it’s a safety thing, or whatever the reason is, and that it’s because you love her (and that’s why you’re also willing to organise an instructor). I have a great (gentle) friend who does just this – teaches children and teenagers one-on-one (if only I could duplicate her and send her to the mainland!).

  2. I think it would be a bad idea to make her do it for so many reasons, that I probably don’t need to articulate because they are probably in your cons list. I would suggest a compromise. She has given sport a red hot go. I would ask her to find and commit to a form of exercise she enjoys that she can do throughout life. Is she a competent swimmer? That could be a good compromise, that she builds up her fitness to do x amount of laps so she is safe if she needs to go on a boat or ferry or something. Or just trade participation in non-compulsory sport related events with an ongoing exercise habit of her choosing.

    School sport really put me off exercise. I liked walking, netball and swimming and torturing me with the rest was counterproductive. I think in high school that sports or PE could be taught so much better … have two tracks, one for kids keen to play different sports and compete and another class that allows kids to simply exercise for the benefits that brings – better learning and healthier bodies.

  3. Oh the poor kid – sounds like torture to me. Its not like she doesn’t have other interests. Sporty activities are not for everyone and this sounds like a full on activity to me! Cheers, Mez PS Found you via Jess’s link up. My kids are only 4 and 7 years old – lots to look forward to!

  4. No, I wouldn’t force my kid to go to something like that under those circumstances, it’s not character building it’s trauma creating. My Mr15 is not a fan of the beach, but his primary objection now (anxiety=fear of EVERYTHING when he was little) is sand and heat so we make sure family visits to beaches come with an ocean pool and grassy spots to sit in the shade, I make him bring his swimmers but there’s a clear understanding that I have no expectation that he will swim. So of course he usually does πŸ™‚ Ocean pools at low tide are a nice transition between swimming in a pool and in the ocean.

    Am I right to assume she’s fine with swimming in a pool? Actually, if she weren’t that would be an even better reason not to force her to go.

  5. Oh dear, that is a really hard one! I just don’t know what I would do. I am a bit soft in some ways though and as she obviously has a phobia, maybe it is better for her to tackle this outside of the cruel school environment. If she was scared of everything I might be stricter but it sounds like this is her one true phobia?

  6. Yeah, I’m not sure if the whole “character building” reason would fly with me.
    However, I will say, speaking from a near drowning experience, the ocean is unpredictable and can turn into something dangerous in an instant.
    While I understand your daughter’s fear in the humiliation, my personal opinion is that it would be good to encourage her to experience how to respect the ocean. Because she might not necessarily like the water now, but she might down the track. By then though, she might not have the skills to be able to appreciate it properly.
    Just my 2 cents worth.

  7. I have to confess that if something is truly making the girls miserable, I will often give them a free pass. Sometimes they surprise you though, so it’s always a tricky call. The Little Un was very slow to build up her confidence when it came to swimming, and still won’t take to the ocean or participate in anything more than the novelty races at school carnivals. I think anything too confronting would be traumatic.

  8. I’m a mum who’ll compromise. Whilst surf camp would be an awesome opportunity, you cannot make a child do anything. I’d be setting up a discussion point with paper and pen.
    Perhaps she agrees to take up another sport (does she like rollerskating or similar?) with some amount of commitment and proposes ideas which may help with her fears. Avoidance usually blows up in your face one day… and I’m not convinced that is a good thing either.
    Perhaps it may help to find where this fear came from. I would choose any number of sports/events over a day at the beach… but I’m happy to swim or hang out there for a day if that’s my only choice! πŸ™‚

  9. Jess@EssentiallyJess says:

    I don’t think forcing her to face her fear in front of her peers is the wisest thing. She’s probably the wrong age for that.
    I get that maybe getting over the ocean is not an issue. You’re right you can avoid that your whole life. But I’d be concerned that she doesn’t seem to want to move past her fear. That she is just content to live with it. For me, that would be the character development I’d like to see; a commitment to growing and changing.
    But that’s just me πŸ™‚

  10. This is a hard one. I know how she is feeling but I think in the long run it’s good for her to participate. Rachel x

  11. I’ve taken a while to comment because I wasn’t sure what my answer would be. My youngest will have to deal with this very issue next year and I honestly am not sure what I’m going to do. It does seem cruel to force her into doing something which she obviously fears in front of her peers, although there have been other occasions when I have had to force the issue (going away to school camp for instance) and in the end it has been a beneficial experience. Possibly, the best is a compromise, don’t have to do it with school but maybe some surf awareness/safety training/bodyboarding one-on-one with an instructor? However, I’ve not really been into swimming at surf beaches since I was dumped at about age 11, but love nothing more than a white wine at sunset watching the waves … just as long as I don’t have to be IN them.

  12. Thank you everyone for your comments. I didn’t want to reply to each one individually because I just wanted to sit back and take in what everyone had to offer. Lots of food for thought. She is not afraid of water, and she doesn’t mind swimming – she had quite a few years of swimming lessons – so it really is the beach. Like Mimbles’ son, she hates the sand and the heat, but she is also afraid of waves. Even the littlest of waves. I’d like her to get over that, because even though I don’t like going out in big waves either, the beach brings me so much pleasure. I also agree with the points made above about the safety aspect. There may be a time she can’t avoid the beach, or perhaps she is on a boat, and it will be important to be able to read the surf. I feel that that knowledge could possibly take away the fear as well. So, I will be looking at a compromise I think, and possibly putting my money where my mouth is. I think I will suggest to her that she AND I both do something together. Because it’s not my idea of fun either, learning to surf! So if she has to do it, maybe I should too πŸ™‚

  13. I’m going to go out on a limb here & totally disagree. (Sorry). For me, firstly, this comes down to a school activity. In our house school activities are compulsory. Yes – I made my kids go to the last day of school, to swim carnivals (even if they weren’t swimming), sports carnivals, school camps – regardless of if they want to. For my kids (mr 18 & ms 16) school activities were never missed unless there was genuine illness. I know this is tough & I’ve seen many parents let there kid have a day off if they broke up with a boyfriend etc.
    Secondly, is the safety issue of being able to survive in the surf. If this fear is left she may never be comfortable around the surf which she could avoid – I spose. Never go on a boat, a ferry, or a cruise. Maybe, you could seek some advice on helping her face the fear & go from there.
    Sorry for my disagreeing but the motto in my house at the moment is HTFU (harden the f^^^ up). Mind you, my son is first year uni & daughter has 7 days of school left – so there are other issues for us.

    • Michelle never apologise for disagreeing! I am always happy to hear all views πŸ™‚ Part of me agrees with what you’re saying – it’s the part that wanted her to do it. I love your motto. I think I could do with a bit of it around here πŸ™‚ I wish I could be tougher – I find it hard. And my daughter thinks I’m plenty tough! She doesn’t know how lucky she is.

      I also do last days of school, sports carnivals etc.. well, so far. It’s definitely easier if you have a blanket rule then there is no arguing or nagging. It’s also made easier if the rest of the school community sticks to these things. Sigh.

      I think I have to talk to her more to see how serious this aversion is and make sure it’s not just a big whinge.

      • I make my kids go to the last day of school too πŸ™‚

        Of the three activities the surf camp offers I’d have to say it’s only the first that I’d consider a necessary skill. Being able to read a beach, knowing where and whether it’s safe to swim, and how to stay safe when in the water are skills that could save her, or someone else’s life at some time. I don’t think being able to catch a wave either with or without a surf board quite fit in the same category – though body surfing is an amazing feeling and it seems a shame to miss out! πŸ™‚

        You can learn to read a beach and absorb advice about surf safety without actually going in the water so perhaps it would be worth her going along for a day of being outdoors and hanging out with friends but skipping the getting wet part? I suppose whether or not that would work will depend on how secure she feels in her friendships and how accommodating the school staff are. I can’t help but think that the last thing the people running the event would want is to have kids in the surf who are terrified to be there, that needs one on one attention which can’t be provided in a group teaching situation.



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