“I’m not gonna do anyfing today!” my three-year-old son shouted at the teenage swim instructor who prodded him to get in the pool. He was crying angrily, afraid he would “sink” at his first week of swimming lessons.
We signed up for swimming lessons through the city program. It was a budget-friendly summertime activity I had been sure my son would love. Last summer we spent our days at the beach and the local pool, just a mile from our home. He loved every minute of swimming as a two-year-old, why was he resisting so strongly now?
“Just get in, buddy, and afterwards I’ll give you fruit snacks,” I chirped nervously from my perch next to the pool, trying not to interfere but wanting desperately for him to just try it. I looked at my friend whose daughter was in the same class and weakly tried to defend my decision to put him in the class. “He really liked swimming before, I thought this would be a good experience?” She graciously assured me that it was good for him to be stretched like this.
Each day the lessons were about the same: complete refusal to get near the water, followed by gentle reminders from me that the teacher would not, in fact, let him sink. He reiterated his disapproval at this whole deal, but after watching the other children jumping in and splashing around, he tentatively sat on the edge and dangled his bronzed legs into the cool water. All the while, I sat on the sidelines, trying hard to bite my tongue and let him learn, yet praying for just a tiny bit of progress.
He would periodically pop out of the pool and run, dripping, back over to me, begging me to let him get out. As I felt the stares of other parents, I wondered if should I buckle down, tell him to get over it and get the job done? Or maybe I was pushing him too hard? He had only just turned three a few weeks ago, and most of the other children were four or five. Maybe I should just let him quit – I wouldn’t want him to be traumatized by this or resent me for insisting he stay in.
There was an internal struggle as I searched for the right thing to do. As a child myself, I was allowed to quit many things that I wish I would have struggled through. I thought of how much I hated piano lessons in high school and how I simply would not practice. Finally, after years of wasting money on my musical endeavors, my parents acquiesced and let me quit. Now, like so many former child pianists, I desperately wish I would have continued.
When is it okay to let your kid quit something and when should we insist on continued participation against our child’s will? My husband, who had only heard the tales of the torturous swim lessons, insisted I push our son through the fear. That perhaps he was just testing limits, and should be strongly urged to continue the lessons. His position changed when we took our son swimming outside of lessons. “He does seem really afraid,” my husband conceded, as the pool continued to evoke fear even when mommy and daddy were in the water with him.
While I’m no “tiger mom,” like all reasonable parents, I do expect obedience from my kids. I just couldn’t tell if this was a case for demanding that he obey, or allowing him to do it at his own pace. I chose a combination.
On our way to the pool each morning, as he asked if he would be required to swim, I told him that all he had to do was sit next to the pool. Once we arrived, I told him to go sit down, even though he fought me. I nudged him to keep going each time he scanned the deck, looking for me, asking to get out.
I’m not sure if it was my words that helped, or if it was his own internal motivation pushing him to keep trying. By the second week of lessons, there were still a few tears, and we still began each lesson with a staunch refusal to swim. But little by little, he did participate, and I think he even enjoyed it. He allowed the instructors to hold him as they submerged him, and he stayed in the water for longer periods of time. At the end of every lesson, he proudly told me how brave he had been.
I don’t know if this foray into aquatics is a predictor of my son’s ability to persevere through hard things, or my own capacity to gently urge him to struggle through them. I’ll continue to speak with my son about why he wants to quit something and why sticking with certain things (like school) is so important. If the activity is causing serious distress and interrupting our lives with anguish or fear, I think it’s perfectly acceptable – within reason – to step back and allow my boy to watch from the edge.
In this case, I’m glad we loaded up and headed back to the pool each morning, amid the robust protests of which only a toddler is capable. In his own time, he came around, and now as the heat of summer lingers on, he begs us – goggles in hand – to take him to the pool so he can practice “going under.”
Once poolside, he eagerly jumps in – fearless and eyes shining with pride at his bravery and courage. In the end, my encouragement was only a small part of his marine victory. It truly was his own tenacity that sustained him through his fear of the water. I’m pretty sure, however, those fruit snacks helped, too.