Some kids jump into a pool with zero fear and start swimming as if the skill is hardwired into their DNA.
They’re declared “fish” by their parents. They jump off the diving board, race to the deep end, and dive to find treasure tossed to the bottom of the pool.
My son is not one of those kids.
W is 6 years old and can be described as cautious, thoughtful, and inventive. These are perhaps not the best traits for a late-blooming swimmer. Over the years W and I have been guests at friends’ pools and he’s been completely attached to the shallow end. To W, swimming pools were containers of water to bounce around in. You stood and tossed a ball in a swimming pool, you raced in three feet of water, you splashed, you played Marco Polo. That was it.
When we joined our local YMCA, W saw the defined lanes and realized there was more one could do in a pool. At the Y he was required to wear a lifejacket in the pool and was only permitted in the shallow end. Even though he had been talked to about pool safety, the importance and seriousness of it didn’t really hit him until he snapped on the red lifejacket. Hearing that click activated some fear in him, which is healthy, but with a kid who has an overactive imagination, it soon became a hurdle.
Oh, the things W started to think about that could happen in the pool …
My mother and I would bring W to family swim times at the Y and he was often skittish. He would cling to the side of the pool with one hand and walk the rectangle shallow parameter. I tried to teach him to swim, my mother tried to teach him — but he had this wall of anxiety and fear we could not get through.
I was not going to push. But can I just say, it is REALLY HARD not to push.
Swimming isn’t some extracurricular activity where you can be dismissive of it if your kid isn’t into it. It’s not like discovering your kid isn’t really enjoying soccer and deciding not to go back. Learning how to swim is a life skill that HAS to happen. If W didn’t at least learn the fundamentals of swimming, he could die. Of course I couldn’t verbalize all of this to him because the kid had enough scenarios dancing in his head.
I decided to talk to W about swimming lessons. He liked the idea of someone ELSE teaching him, so that was good to know. We found the next available class at the Y and signed him up. In the days leading up to it we kept things chill. Super chill. Maximum chill.
On the day, I could tell there were some big nerves, but also, just maybe, a bit of excitement. We got to the pool and saw that there were several classes about to start. A lifeguard pointed W towards some kids about his age and then class began. The teacher then instructed everyone to jump into the pool.
W nearly fainted. I got up and walked over and we realized he had been sent to the wrong class. W was then sent to the shallow end of the pool, to a class already in progress, a class comprised of mostly 3-year-olds. He was still reeling from being asked to jump into the deep end so when he was asked to get into the shallow end, he refused. He didn’t get in the water at all the first class.
Or the second class.
Or the third class. He politely shook his head and declined.
The morning of the fourth class, he begged me not to go. I could tell the class was not working. He wasn’t ready. Some kids just aren’t ready. I agreed to let him stop this class, but eventually he would need to take another class.
Months went by and a brochure for summer camp arrived in our mailbox. Awesome, wonderful, fantastic, summer camp. Where kids do crafts, sing songs, go on field trips … and swim every day. It was time to talk about swimming lessons again. I showed W the summer camp information and without pausing told him he would need to take swimming lessons before camp started. He got it.
We found a group class for his age range that looked promising and signed W up. The days before the class W was pumping himself up with affirmations, “I’m going to go swimming!” Then the first class arrived. He didn’t get into the water.
He sat on the edge of the pool for 15 minutes. I sat on the bleachers quietly watching him, knowing that this was HIS battle, HIS struggle. If I could learn swimming for him, I would, but he had to do this on his own.
Watching him grapple with his fear was heartbreaking.
The other kids in the class started coaxing him into the water, telling him it was OK, letting him know it was safe. He told the kids he didn’t want to jump so one of the kids (BRILLIANTLY) suggested he walk down the ladder.
So he did.
And just like that W was in the water. He had crossed the first hurdle. The other parents on the bleachers looked over at me, silently giving me support, which was so needed because it was all I could do not to sob over the breakthrough.
MY KID GOT IN THE POOL.
Over the next few group lessons W continued to struggle, but he never, not once, gave up. He was determined to keep pushing through. I could see what he really needed was someone who would focus on him, so he moved on to private lessons and everything changed. He found joy. He found pride. Last week he started to paddle on his own — genuine-actual-SWIMMING! It’s not graceful or pretty, but it is a beautiful sight to me. When I show W the videos I’ve taken, he sees the beauty as well.
W started camp a few weeks ago and every week the kids can take a swimming test to earn a bracelet that will determine which area of the pool they can swim in. Kids do not have to take a swim test — only if they want to swim in deeper depths. Even though W still has many lessons to go before he would be anywhere near ready for taking this test, he informed me the night before the first week of camp that he wanted to take the swim test.
This is a kid who would not get in the pool for lessons, but now he has the guts for the swim test. I couldn’t believe it.
I picked him up the first day of camp and it was clear he was upset. “I failed!” He said. “I took the test, but they said I wasn’t ready to pass it yet.”
I was so proud of him. “You took the test?!!” I swooped him up in a mama bear hug. Proud doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The next week he was the first in line to take the swim test. He failed. But he’s OK. He’ll just take it again next week. He found the inner THING that he needed to find in order to conquer this massive obstacle. This is huge. It’s something he will own for the rest of his life.
My kid is not a fish and I didn’t push him to be a fish, but he is a swimmer.