First and foremost: the encouragement of managed risk, at least with nature. (Culture and business are subjects for another newsletter.) Here, children are not told to avoid the mighty ocean. They’re taught to be safe in it.
The approach grew from necessity. As John L. Light writes in his book about children and sport, the first surf lifesaving clubs in Australia began around 1907 after a number of drownings. Nippers followed in the 1960s to keep the lifesaving clubs flush with rescuers, teaching young people two very Australian values along the way: surf safety and a healthy sense of competition.
There are now roughly 40,000 kids, 5 to 13 years old, giving it a go every summer.
And at least in our group at Bronte Beach in Sydney, fear, courage and pragmatism were all in the mix.
One day, when our beach was closed because of violent rip currents, my son’s group learned about the stonefish — that’s the one that looks like a rock but is the most venomous fish around, with spiky dorsal fins that will inject poison into your feet if you step on one.
All the children simply nodded when they were told to keep an eye out for them when playing near the rocks at the edge of the beach.
Again, they were not told to stay away from the rocks; they were told how to navigate the dangers found there. I was amazed at the matter-of-fact approach, a far cry from the overprotectiveness I’d seen at the Brooklyn summer camp my kids attended before we moved to Sydney and where just being in a shallow pool was a cause for parental fright.
And last weekend, I was reminded of that contrast yet again. The waves were big on Sunday — rolling tubes of aquatic force that only a few surfers decided to brave.
But there were the 8- and 9-year-olds, as you can see in the photo above, my son among them, jumping into a more protected area surrounded by volunteer parents in bright orange.
That community vibe also won me over. The risks every Sunday were managed by neighbors, by friends, by people who knew at least a few of the children and how to handle children that particular age.
The moms and dads were strong. Masters teaching young apprentices, they didn’t scoop the kids out of the water at the first sign of struggle, or when a surge of water pushed them toward panic.
Rather, they encouraged our children to keep going.
Sometimes a volunteer would swim alongside a boy or girl who was losing motivation. Sometimes a child would recover on a buoy, briefly, before being sent off again.
Even when waves crashed our children into a mess of sand and sea, the adults simply smiled and waited for them to re-emerge.
My wife and I absolutely loved it, tears and laughter included.
Yes, we’ve covered wars and our kids spent most of their lives in Mexico City facing a different set of dangers so I recognize we may be more comfortable with risk than most. And I know I’m not the first outsider or Australian to wax philosophical about Nippers.
But week after week, I’ve marveled at the scene. It’s been great for my children’s confidence. It’s been even better for their (and our) love of the ocean.
Could that be what Nippers is all about for many of us, engaging with the coast to find joy?
This is a stunning place, Australia, ringed with ribbons of sand and blue-green waves that much of the world’s population will never see. The water may be threatening — but how many of us could give it up if we tried.
Surf lifesaving is as much about experiencing the sublime as it is about safety.
Americans we are, but Nippers we shall be.
Do you have a story about Nippers? Share it in our Facebook group or by emailing an anecdote to email@example.com and we’ll select a few of our favorites for next week’s newsletter or Australia Diary. Share photos too if you have them!
Now for the week in global news, plus a recommendation for your ears.
China: Xi, Cities, Censorship
Xi Jinping officially became China’s president for life on Sunday. Our colleagues in Beijing explain that it means and why it matters. Also, don’t miss the eyeroll from a Chinese journalist that perfectly captures the state of debate and censorship within China.
And for those who worry about China’s impact on Australian real estate, check out what China’s doing on a handful of islands in Malaysia.
New York Times readers all over the world couldn’t stop talking about this guy in Ohio who has studiously avoided keeping up with news, any news, in the era of President Trump.
Some aspired to his disconnection, others scolded him for disengaging. I just want to know why he decided to do it in Ohio rather than in Australia.
I was late to this magazine story on color, which was much beloved by a few friends. And now I understand why.
It’s the kind of Times story, at the intersection of culture and commerce, that makes you look at your world anew, pulling back the curtain on what we see every day and don’t think about.
• ‘Toxic Culture’ Stymies Australian Politics’ #MeToo Moment: A culture of secrecy and abuse that starts in university politics, women say, has prevented more accusers from speaking out about harassment by politicians. (International)
• Australian Court Hears Public Testimony in Cardinal Pell Abuse Case: A pretrial hearing for Cardinal George Pell, accused of “historical sexual offenses,” will determine whether his case will go to trial. (International)
• U.S. Allies Jostle to Win Exemptions From Trump Tariffs: Countries mixed appeals to friendship with threats of retaliation. But the lobbying frenzy risked undermining the ground rules of world trade. (International)
• New Zealand Party Is Faulted After Sex-Assault Claims at Youth Camp: The Labour Party of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is under fire for not calling the police after four 16-year-olds reported abuse at a party event. (International)
• A High-Speed Auto Race Across Australia, Past and Present: Peter Carey’s novel “A Long Way From Home” follows a married couple and their bachelor neighbor on a bumptious 10,000-mile endurance contest. (Books)
• Andy Griffiths, the Down-Under Kids’ Author Known for His Butt Jokes, Now Builds and Builds on His Hit ‘Treehouse’ Series: His books are wildly popular among young readers in Australia, Europe and the United States, where a new one hits stores March 13. (Books)
• The Author of ‘The Book Thief’ Has a New Y.A. Novel Coming This Fall: More than 10 years in the making, Markus Zusak’s “Bridge of Clay” Hits Stores in October. (Books)
• ‘They Grew Up in the Water:’ A childhood bond that anyone raised near a creek, river or ocean will recognize. (Australia Diary)
• Larry Page’s Flying Taxis, Now Exiting Stealth Mode: New Zealand has opened its skies to self-piloted electric planes financed by one of Google’s founders. (DealBook)
• 36 Hours in Auckland: The New Zealand city is laid-back and outdoorsy, but its sophistication shines in its expanding art scene, thriving fashion industry and a new generation of chefs embracing native ingredients. (Travel)
• Sailing into a New Zealand Harbor, and Recreating History: Traditional Maori sailing vessels and customs are celebrated in a New Zealand arts and culture festival. (International)
… And We Recommend
The New York Times Magazine has published its latest music issue, which is really a digital gem.
Each year, editors and writers choose 25 songs that tell us where music is heading. It’s published in partnership with Spotify, and you can listen directly to the songs from the article, or with the Spotify the playlist collecting them all.
It’s a bit like Triple J’s Hottest 100, except with context, built for your phone not the radio.