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

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