Surfing Made Me a Better Parent

January 7, 2020
January 7, 2020 Barbie Wong

Last spring, I took a surfing lesson in Kaua’i and my passion for this sport caught fire. That morning, the cool waves broke calmly on the smooth sand while I paddled through gentle waters, the toasty sun warming my back. My instructor patiently showed me all the steps, and soon I was propelling my board through the water, springing from push-up hands to feet on board, the rush of excitement matching the natural power of the ocean as I rode my board to shore.


Soon after the lesson, I was reading a book by meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn and his words took my breath away: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Kabat-Zinn refers to the mind’s relentless flow of thoughts and explains that even though we cannot stop our thoughts from pouring forth, we can watch them with equanimity in order to develop mindfulness and a calm mental state. I saw the similarities between the non-stop waves and the incessant situations parents face on a daily basis, especially with supporting children who make music.


The road to musical mastery can be arduous and full of excitement and danger. As parents, we must nurture our children while maintaining our own mental clarity and peace, a difficult but attainable goal. Thanks to surfing, I have come to understand and even appreciate the non-stop waves. Here are eight lessons I learned from surfing that has helped me become a more patient, present, and joyful parent to my two budding musicians. 

1. Enjoy the ride.

Once on a wave, the ride may be long or short. Whatever the length, the best thing to do is enjoy it while it lasts. The same applies to your child as they learn to play their instrument. Don’t wait until your child is “enough.” Don’t wait until they are old enough, smart enough, tall enough, good enough, or musical enough. If you are waiting for some future time to be happy with your child, you will never be happy. The only way to be happy with your child is to accept them for who they are now. Your child may not have mastered their scales, but perhaps they sat for 5 seconds longer in focused attention during their practice session. Find any excuse to celebrate and to enjoy your child. You can have hopes for your child but always enjoy who they are now.

2. All waves must come to an end.

Even the most thrilling rides on your surfboard must end at some point. And thankfully, so must the unpleasant one. Life is constantly changing. Remember that as you celebrate your child’s musical achievements and milestones. Also remember that as your child is in a depth of despair or when practicing becomes a struggle. Things will change and that is the nature of life. Your focus should be on finding creative solutions to engage your child musically while enjoying what is happening now (see #1).

3. Learning to surf takes time.

No one becomes a great surfer overnight. To become an expert in surfing requires spending time riding the waves over and over again. It takes years to become truly good at surfing and the same applies to music. Time spent practicing an instrument directly affects how much better your child will play. Remember to focus on incremental progress, even if they seem small at the time. Given enough focus and time spent practicing in a deliberate way, your child will improve.

4. Every wave is different.

Each time a wave is formed, it is made up of unique molecules of water. No wave is the same, just as every moment we experience is different from the moment before. Similarly, every child is different and every moment you have with your child is different. Just as it is important to learn the nuances of a surf break to get the best rides, it is vital to truly understand your child and stay present as they change. Your child will grow and develop each day, and if you are open to their changes and embrace them as they happen, you will be in for a great ride.

"Surfing Made Me a Better Parent"

5. Sometimes there are no waves to catch.

My husband Jeff has surfed most of his life, and he surprised me once when we paddled out and found ourselves with difficult waves to ride. How could he look so happy when it was obvious we weren’t going to catch any waves, I thought. He later explained that he finds satisfaction in paddling out, even when there are no good waves. “If someone says, ‘Let’s just go out and have a paddle’ that meant that you aren’t expecting a good session,” he said. “I like being out in the water, hanging out, getting some exercise,” he continued. “If you have friends around, you sit on your board and talk for awhile.” I have tried to adopt this mindset and have found it helpful in my appreciation for surfing. With parenting, it can be equally challenging but exponentially rewarding.

Some days, music practicing feels harder and progress seems stagnant. That’s the nature of learning an instrument. If you evaluate your child’s progress based on one practice session, it can be demoralizing. But if you take a step back and think about all the improvements your child has made in the last few months or years, you can see that the hours of practice do result in improvement. Don’t worry if one practice session is not as fruitful as others. Some days, what’s most important is just showing up to the instrument. Even if your child is not “catching waves” in music, they can still splash around and have some fun.

6. Don’t surf in a storm.

Just as it is dangerous to surf when it is storming with pounding waves and sideways rain, be wary of engaging with your child when anger has descended upon the scene. When you feel like you will erupt with volatile and thunderous words, take a step back. Sometimes, the best thing to do is take a break, sit in a cozy spot and sip hot cocoa. Once the storm has passed and you have regained mental clarity, you can calmly engage with your child.

7. Invest in high-quality equipment.

A good surfboard allows you to navigate the waves more effortlessly, helping you cut through the water with ease and speed. Likewise, a good quality instrument produces beautiful tones, which can more easily be coaxed by even the most elementary musician. A cheaply made instrument is harder to play, makes harsher sounds, and your child will become frustrated more quickly, which leads to a downward spiral of decreased motivation and resistance to practicing.

8. Even experts wipe out.

What fascinates me about surfing is that even surfers who have years of experience don’t always catch waves gracefully. Wiping out is a part of surfing just like making mistakes is a part of parenting and learning an instrument. Learn to accept the mistakes you will make along the way. Learn to accept your child’s mistakes in music and in life. Help your child embrace their musical journey as a winding path with many detours and hidden gems.


I have not mastered all of these lessons but continue to work on them every day. As I make steady progress, the benefits are manifold and include a calmer household, music practice sessions that end in laughter, and deep emotional connections with my children. I wish you well on your journey and hope that you will enjoy similar results in surfing and parenting.


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