Archive for Swim lessons for children

Failure To Dive

At some point I decided to stop trying to be a better parent and just work on being a better person. I realized that it matters less what you do, than who you are.

Luckily, parenting gives me x-ray vision into who I am. I am able to see my generosity right along side my control freak tendencies within the same day—sometimes within the same thought.

For example: The entire time I was pregnant with Amelia I felt overwhelmingly responsible.

I actually thought, “Now I need to make the brain. “

And then, “Shit, I don’t know how to make a brain.”

I had five fingers and five toes on my to do list for the day.

I realized that there were 8 billion cells, all doing specific jobs, and just one of them on a long lunch break meant Spina Bifida.

This was the kind of pressure I was under.

Being pregnant is the most vulnerable experience. All I could do was drink green juice, stay away from soft cheeses and sick people, and sit on the sidelines of control shouting out my preferences, as something bigger than myself put together my baby.

Even when I was in the tremendous agony of labor, my doula said to me, “Just a few more hours and you’ll be holding your sweet baby. “ I couldn’t picture it. When I tried, the baby was this translucent ghost child.

And again, when Amelia was born and she went straight to the nipple and knew just what to do, I had the feeling she was a savant. In my mind I had to take her to some sort of nipple sucking school where she would have to learn the basics of nursing.

I am aware that I am not alone in this tendency to assume control of things that I cannot control, and that my futile efforts leave me panicky and self-critical. There are moments I see the same pattern in Amelia (age 7) and Josh (age 4).

For example, last night when putting Amelia to bed, in tears she proclaimed, “I am a TERRIBLE swimmer and it is so embarrassing. I am the worst swimmer in the world.”

She is a bad swimmer. I mean, that’s just true. She is 7. This is her second time in swim lessons and she’s not a natural athlete. She’s also careful and more concerned about form than about actually swimming the length of the pool. So there will be other kids just thrashing about toward the other side, while Amelia is trying to do everything just right: with her little cupped hands and deep breaths every third stroke. Her process is slower.   At the end of every lesson Amelia is supposed to dive into the water. She is terrified. She stands at the edge of the pool for five to ten minutes contemplating the dive, but in the end she can’t force her body to do what registers as dangerous no matter how many lifeguards come by and tell her that it’s safe.

This struggle makes her feel bad.

Sandwiched between them, I am putting my Josh and Amelia to bed. We talk about our day together. Amelia is sobbing and thrashing about in Josh’s bed and I’m trying to say soothing words that have no impact.

Josh pipes up, “You can do the Bob!”

We laugh. Amelia laughs. She says to Josh, “Everyone can do the Bob. It just means bob under water.”

There is a pause in the despair, then Amelia starts up again.

“I can’t even dive.”

I again attempt to comfort, “You will. These things take time. It’s ok.”

Josh interrupts me, “I have a great idea. Why don’t we get a button by the diving board and when Amelia is about to dive in, someone pushes the button and flings her off?”

“Then all her problems will be solved,” Josh boasts.

We crack up together.

“Instead of a diving board, it’s called a flinging board,” Josh continues.

I’m laying in the middle of Josh’s bed and Josh’s head is nestled in to me and my arm is wrapped around him, while Amelia is on the other side tucked in to me with her arm around my belly. I’m suddenly very happy.

I then know what to say: “Amelia you haven’t yet learned how to swim proficiently and that’s OK, but you know what I noticed?”

“What?” she asks.

Even though you feel bad about your swimming, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday you put on your bathing suit, jump in the pool with the other kids, don’t fight about going, stand on the edge of the pool and work up your courage to dive and basically don’t give up. It would be easy to say that you aren’t good at swimming and just throw in the towel (ha ha), but you continue to try. That’s what’s going to make you a success at life.“

Maybe you won’t like swimming. Maybe you’ll fall in love with something else, like dancing, singing, drawing, or acting, but no matter what, at some point, you’ll feel like you are not very good at it. At that moment if you are able to stick with it and keep trying, then you’ll be successful.

She calmed down. She took in my words.   She understood that it’s persistence and effort and a vision that lights the path, not talent and transcendence.

It’s true for me, too, I guess. I’m not in control of Amelia’s trajectory any more than I was in control of the sperm and egg meeting and forming a zygote and attaching to the uterine wall and then making a brain. I’m not in charge or control.

Maybe showing up with hope and vulnerability is all we have to do.   We must not resign and at the same time we must give ourselves enough space to grow.

Maybe Josh’s idea of a button that flings us into life so we don’t have to sit at the edge of life and plan it all out before taking the plunge is a genius idea.

Maybe that’s all I need to do now with this new baby inside, kicking my uterus, saying hello, preparing to enter the world in a mere three months, is to just give myself space and know soon that button will be pushed and together we will fly into a new life.

The Attach Place  Center for Strengthening Relationships

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

Parenting with love,

Jennifer Olden, LMFT

Here Little Fishy

Josh, my four-year-old son, hates water. He is desperately afraid of it and even the bathtub pushes his comfort level. He refuses to let me dump a cup of water on his head. The number of times I’ve shampood his hair I could count on one hand. So you can imagine how terrifying a swimming pool is for Josh. It’s exactly like jumping off a cliff without a parachute and imagining that just this one time you might fly and not die. I take him to the YMCA for swim lessons where the policy is to just force the child in the water while the parent moves out of sight. Here is a transcript of the usual conversation between the teacher and the student:

“AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” (Subtext: Mommy/God/Anyone save me, I’m dying.)


Swim instructor: Like a fishy. Yay! Slash splash. You are a sweet little fishy.

Young child:


Kids generally scream like this for two-three sessions and then—of course—they realize that they are going to be okay. On session number four, they magically transform into the happiest and most playful students in the class. Parents plug their ears, suffocate that caregiving instinct for the half hour of class and wall off their heart for the cause of an imminent skilled swimmer.

The ends justify the means. Maybe this is true. Drowning is the number one cause of death for small children and so a little screaming isn’t so bad when the other choice is high risk for death. Maybe this is the right thing to do. It’s considered to be the standard for children learning to swim.
But I realize that I’m not worried about Josh learning to swim. I am positive he will get this down quickly with my support and the more important lessons that some people never learn are: 1) Trust oneself 2) Be brave.

Because this is my bigger goal in parenting, I want to teach him to listen to that quiet voice inside that says, “Wait, this isn’t safe. It doesn’t feel right to me.” Or conversely, “I can do it. I’m scared, but I’m going to jump anyway.” And that courage is driven by an inner fire not an external pressure. I imagine this friendly relationship with oneself is the crux of a happy life, so screw learning to swim. Let’s just use the pool as the context for learning a deeper and more important lesson, trust oneself, leap when you are ready, and know that you will never ever be completely ready. A happy life demands risk, but its risk on one’s own terms, otherwise it”s potential trauma and loss.

Josh doesn’t want to wear his bathing suit. He imagines it as the first step toward the cliff, so we bring his bathing suit and once we arrive he is willing to put it on. He refuses to get in the water, but he’ll sit on the edge with his little starfish shaped hands gripping the side of the pool watching the other kids thrash around in the pool.

flat faced little swimmerHe’s nervous and I can see his little shoulders scrunched up. I walk over to him and whisper in his ear, “You are so brave. Just sitting here right now. So, so brave. You are doing a wonderful job.”

He looked at me doubtfully but remained seated. His hands loosened up a bit. I realized that my validation is a circle and when I validate Josh and see him as brave and enough, then suddenly and unexpectedly I see myself as brave and enough. Even though the swim instructors may see me as overprotective and other parents might perceive me as hovering, I am listening to a small voice inside of me that knows that risk titrated is still risk and that I am focused on a larger intention than learning to swim.
There is this sense that Josh and I really are in it together and I’m proud of us both.

felt safety with momThat night Josh and I are in bed together and talking about the swim lesson. I let him know that someday he’ll learn to swim and glide through the water and find that he can float. He is quiet for a moment and says, “I’d like to do that. Someday.”

• I think this swim lesson technique is used because drowning is one of the top five ways little kids die. So we parents have good reason to push swimming lessons. For the record, Josh is learning to swim—just my way: Slowly, with lots of comfort and validation and with his mom always present.
• If you taught your kids to swim the traditional way and this blog makes you feel guilty, your child is fine. It’s the climate of childhood that makes the difference, not the single event. The story about swimming is a metaphor as much as it’s about swimming itself.

The Attach Place  Center for Strengthening Relationships

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

Jennifer Olden, LMFT and Mother