Q: My six-year-old usually loves swimming with us, but after two formal lessons, decided he hates it. What should I do?
A: Many children shy away from the unusual sensory experience of swimming pools, particularly when surrounded by, touched by, and dependent on strangers. Since your son normally enjoys unstructured water play when in your presence, the unique environment or structure likely causes his distress. However, the only way to really understand your son’s perspective is to ask him. And the best time to ask him is when you’re alone together after a bonding activity (e.g., reading, laughing, playing).
The key to having a meaningful and effective discussion is to set aside your own agenda in the beginning. Yes, you want your son to overcome his fears, gain confidence, and be safe around water, but presenting your arguments, no matter how valid they are, will likely cause your son to cling more desperately to his own. Instead, empathize with his position (e.g., “It’s kind of strange being almost naked and cold in a loud echo-y place with just a stranger to help you, huh?”) Adults often resist validating children’s fears so explicitly for fear of giving them more weight, but the opposite is true. The fear is there regardless, but when an adult really gets it right, a child is far more likely to give credence to the adult’s view (e.g., “Mom really understands and still thinks I can handle it” as opposed to “Mom thinks I can handle it because she has no clue.”) To further show that fears are normal and acceptable, consider sharing a fear of your own.
When your son feels understood and lets his guard down, you can reiterate his concerns and express yours (e.g., wanting him to feel and be safe in the water, wanting him to prove to himself that he can do it), then ask him for ideas to address both. Think of a few yourself to lead him towards if he has none. For example, if he’s cold when he gets out of the pool, maybe you could toast up a big fluffy towel in the dryer and put it in a plastic bag (to retain heat). If he’s uncomfortable with strangers, maybe you could sit only a few feet away throughout the lesson. If the lesson is too long, maybe you could get him out 5 minutes early (when the time actually comes, he may choose to stay in, but knowing he has the option could make him more at ease). If the experience is just too strange and overwhelming, maybe you could bring him to the same pool and play out a lesson together. If your son proposes a solution that doesn’t address your concerns, you can say, “Hmm. That would help with ___, but can we think of something to help with ___ too?” You may have to address your concerns in baby steps and let go of your vision for how things should unfold.
While some children who are forced screaming into the water develop negative associations for life, others show up laughing and splashing at the very next lesson. In the latter cases, the children did learn to enjoy water and likely to swim, but what else did they learn? What did they learn about their parents’ respect for their feelings? About their ability to overcome challenges on their own? About their unconditional trust in their parents? About how to respond to the fears of others? If you model respect and let your son take the lead, chances are he’ll still learn to swim, but also gain confidence in your relationship, and more importantly, in his own ability to handle life’s challenges.