Monday, June 20, 2011

Weekly Column: Swimming Lessons in Confidence

After an hour of clingy, energetic play in the swimming pool, my five-year-old was ready for more independence. 
She’d been jumping into her daddy’s arms, keeping her head above water, and practicing her kicks while he supported her.  Last summer, she’d learned a few basic building blocks at swim lessons that helped her feel better about going under water.  This summer, she was slowly testing those leftover skills, working on re-building her confidence, one burst of bubbles at a time. 
When all seemed to be going perfectly, she pushed away, kicking and reaching towards the edge, and promptly sucked up her first nose-full of pool water as her face dipped under the surface. 
She sputtered away that hard-won confidence with hacking coughs which soon melted into angry tears.
Never, ever, was she going to try swimming again, she swore.  It hurt too badly when she failed. 
We could have chastised her for giving up, or we could have forced her back into the water.   We could have told her to stop crying and deal with it.  We could have shattered her fledgling excitement even more than that nose-full of water had done.  But when kids are learning a new skill or trying a new activity, they need support, not force.  They need calm guidance, not mandatory independence.  
The first steps are to help our children calm down while addressing their fears.  In this case, after helping her blow her nose to alleviate the sting, we congratulated her success.  After all, she did make it to the pool’s edge despite the nose-full of water.  It helped to tell her stories of when we’d gotten water in our own noses as children.  We sympathized, because we know how much it hurts.  With her love of stories, she wanted to know what happened next, which was that we kept trying, because with enough practice, it became easier to keep the water out. 
Next, we had to encourage her without pressing the issue.  Her daddy promised to be even more vigilant in keeping her head above water as they played and practiced.  Since we’ve traveled this route before with other activities and fears, she knew he was being truthful.  She knew he’d never let her go under water unless she was ready, so they started again slowly.  He asked if she’d like to try swimming by herself, but respected her negative answer.  As they played, we reminded her how to blow bubbles out of her nose while she’s swimming; when bubbles are blowing out, no water can come in. 
Finally, we had to be ready to back off for the day.  Our daughter is more likely to try something difficult when she doesn’t feel pressured or judged, and it was helpful to just sit back and see what she wanted to do, without a lot of fanfare.  We had to be tuned into her specific needs and level of readiness for such a big, new skill.  Letting her go at her own pace – which sometimes means two steps forward, three steps back – promises that the lessons she’s learning in the pool are her own.  
For our little ones, having a trustworthy supporter in their corner as they learn a new skill, whether it’s swimming or bike-riding or reading, will help them build healthy confidence and independence.


  1. Poor Mia! A nose full of water is a terrible thing! I'm glad you guys stayed calm though. How did she do the next day?

  2. You have great parenting advice! I am learning a lot, and storing it away for when my hubby and I decide to have little ones in a few years. :-)


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