Sink or Swim

My little Aoife loves to swim. By the time she was 17 months old, she was crossing the pool at the YMCA with a bubble on, determined to be independent. She'd push my hand away and pedal off. I always thought she resembled a tiny seahorse, her little bobbed head rocking back and forth as she paddled around, upright with the little square bubble on her back.
Nearly five years later, she hasn't actually progressed much. She's an absolute fish, but she doesn't like to get her face wet and she can't swim at all. (Or so she thinks. A few minutes after the above photo was taken last summer, she ditched the life jacket for a boogie board and paddled out into deep water. She fell off the board and swam quite a ways before reaching sand she could touch. But that's another story).
In real life, she swims confidently and with strength as long as there's something for her to hang onto. A noodle, a life jacket, or the old favorite-- the bubble on her back. All of my attempts to get her to swim without such crutches have been pushed away.
This winter, I decided it was time to take the lesson into somebody else's hands. As much as I feel so strongly that I'd like to be my child's primary educator in many realms, the truth is that they just perform better for others. So it was with a long, guilty face that I informed Aoife on Monday afternoon that her swimming lessons would begin that day.
She was angry, but a lollipop in the car (really? but yes, I did...) soothed some of the initial anger. I promised her that it wouldn't be so bad. Liam was coming too. He's a confident swimmer, strong, but unschooled. He doesn't swim with proper strokes yet, because he's never learned them. So he was excited to become more skilled. Aoife not quite so much.
At the pool, they both got dressed and came cooperatively into the pool room with me. A teacher was at the edge of the pool with the 12 or so students, sitting on the side, and 3 teachers were in the water. The idea was that the children would be broken into ability groups. I quietly said to the teacher on the side, "She's absolutely terrified."
"Don't worry," she said, "She'll be with Emily, she's terrific."
And then she proceeded to ask each child to jump in and swim to a teacher.
I wasn't sure what to do. Should I walk back and clarify that Aoife was a non-swimmer? Should I walk back and reassure Aoife that she didn't have to swim, but that we could explain that she was there to learn how to swim?
I watched, my stomach in knots, as each child jumped in and swam to a teacher in the water. Some swam 10 yards, some 25. Some face in, some with real strokes.
I watched, my belly churning, as Aoife's face became more and more stricken with fear as each child dove in.
And then it was her turn, and she just threw herself in, and went all out. She managed to keep her head moderately above water and the teacher advanced to meet her. I could see her face beginning to crumple as the teacher helped her over to the side of the pool. The absolute sheer terror on her face made me want to curl up and die. I felt so awful. I jumped up and knelt beside her.
Oh, honey. I'm so sorry. That scared you so much... I didn't know what to say. I felt as if I had failed her. I thought about advocating for her, but I didn't. Her little heart was pounding so hard it felt like it was going to jump out of her chest. Her tears and sobs were some of the most genuine I'd ever heard. I felt absolutely mean. I couldn't believe I'd set her up for such terror.
Fortunately, "Emily", the teacher, was an absolute gem. She softly convinced Aoife that she'd be with her the whole time, and she'd never let her go. It was only Aoife and one other little boy in her ability level, and he was a better swimmer so she had Emily basically to herself. I rose after she had calmed and moved myself aside.
Without me there, Aoife performed beautifully. She put her face in the water and blew bubbles. She jumped off the side of the pool. She lay on the back with her head and ears in the water and kicked gracefully. She did, in effect, everything I'd been trying to get her to experiment with over the past 4 years in the 45 minute lesson.
When I picked her up, she was delighted with herself.
I congratulated her, and felt like giving her a present. All evening, I flashed back to her terrified face in the water, and her awful, wracking sobs of terror. I wished I could have gone back and leapt up and stood up for my daughter, instead of sitting there not knowing what to do. What should I have done? I should have protected her. Instead I sat there worrying that I would seem like a helicopter parent. You can't win.
It's hard to say what I learned. I learned that I should speak up for my child, but I also learned that by forcing her to try something that was scary, she accomplished something that she had perceived to be beyond her reach, and was incredibly proud of herself. I would never intentionally replay the situation that happened yesterday, but in the end the result was exactly what I had been hoping for. Aoife was pushed, and she succeeded.
And she was happy.

1 comment:

  1. Aoife proved something that I find absolutely amazing about children: their resilience. By pushing her lovingly, you helped her to work through fear and find that she could do it (!!) which is such a powerful thing for anyone at any age to realize.