Staying Afloat In A Sink Or Swim World

As part of the summer activities in this household we participated in swimming lessons. Not your average YMCA class, we put our child in an Infant Swimming Resource Self-Rescue course. These lessons are different than the “Mommy & Me” style relaxed waterplay that happens in a group class. They are individual sessions, one-on-one with the instructor where the infant is taught how to relax into a back float in order to self-rescue instead of drowning.

While it’s a pretty scary thing to put your baby into the water with (what amounts to) a stranger while they struggle to learn the techniques, I felt like for our family, having a pool in the backyard, I would feel less panicky about unlikely scenarios if we prepare for handling them. I forced the dog into the pool last summer so that I knew he’d be able to find his way out if he fell in, why do things differently with my child?

I’m not about to advocate for the ISR instructors as the One Right Way and the Best Thing for teaching a child to swim. (They’re really uncomfortable to watch!) I learned myself in classes at The Y before I became school aged, so while my skills are sharp, I’m by no means an expert in the subject and I prefer taking this safety issue seriously. I talked to a few friends about how their children were taught to swim. Their experiences ranged from: no formal lessons just practice at home, swim class at the community center, and even another family’s experience of the “shock” technique, “throwing the kid in the water.” Different children reacted differently to the scariness of the pool and the process, and what worked for some didn’t work for others. One kid seems to have been left very wary of the water after her father took her to a similar course as an infant for safety around their watercraft.

It was definitely hard to watch my baby screaming because he recognized the instructor was going to be putting him underwater in a scary situation. Ultimately we ended up having to pull out of lessons a few weeks in, for unrelated scheduling reasons. But the practice is something that I still think was valuable. After all, if you have rehearsed how to react to a situation before you are presented with it under high stakes circumstances, you be more comfortable and calm about it.

The swimming lessons have made me think a lot about how we handle life in general. Learning to swim is a scary thing, so is life. It’s easy to give up and start “sinking” when all you have been able to do is “tread water”.

Just Relax and Breathe

I’ve been running around a lot lately, barely meeting commitments and struggling to have enough time to slow down and catch my breath. When you spend your life jumping from one thing to another, you wear yourself out. One of the lessons the ISR instructor drilled into the students is that they need to swim for a little bit, then roll onto their back and rest. If they keep swimming without rest, they will tire out and not be able to make it to safety. They have to train themselves to lie back, stop kicking, and relax. In life, you need to take breathers in order to be successful. Sometimes it’s hard to find the space to take a break, but as someone with a great support system, I need to take advantage of the opportunities for down-time to prioritize taking care of myself.

Jump in with Both Feet

Sometimes you have to do things that scare you. A lot of times in fact. Whether that is giving a talk, becoming a mother, or literally getting into the pool when you don’t want to, whatever it is, should be worth it to you. If it’s worth it, then that will help you find the bravery to face the fear even if you fail. When the stakes are big, the rewards usually are as well. I recently submitted a proposal to give another talk on failure, but this time to adults (peers and professionals) instead of children. I motivated myself with the fact that this could be a defining moment in my career. Even if no one else gets anything out of my talk, just the fact that I was accepted to give it is an accomplishment for me, that I would not have had if I had been too scared to apply.

It’s OK to Be Afraid

The first few lessons my Wiggly Little Boy was happily splashing and enjoying himself, blissfully unaware of the instructor’s intent to push him out of his comfort zone and make him float on his back. After the first big gulp of water he knew better and was not interested in getting in the water with her. As an infant, he really doesn’t have much of a choice if someone decides to put him into a scary situation, and as adults, life tends to hand us big, scary things on a regular basis. By teaching him not to run away from hard things just because they are hard, but still acknowledging how scary it is to be out of control, I hope I am setting a good example, for him in the future, and for myself in my life.

Trust Your Swim Instructor

The job of the ISR instructor is to push a child to practice their self-rescue skills by putting them into potentially dangerous situations, staying far enough back that the child is forced to stretch themselves, but close enough that the child is not actually in danger. Even a YMCA instructor practices a similar technique, equipping students with the building blocks of swimming in a controlled environment. Parents would never send their children to swimming lessons if they didn’t trust that the instructor would keep them safe. The children learn to trust the instructor as well after repeatedly experiencing the behavior that

Just like the other parents I talked to had different experiences with teaching their children to swim, they all have their own parenting styles and techniques. Some parents like to hold their child’s hand through life, giving them more and more freedom until they can (figuratively) keep themselves afloat. Others are more hands-off and prefer to let the child figure things out for themselves. None of this would work out well for a child unless they could trust their parents to be there for them when they legitimately need help. As a parent, I need to be the trustworthy one, who helps my child learn and grow. As an adult, I need to be the one to take care of myself and put all the good skills my parents instilled in me into practice.

I think that’s the lesson that swimming lessons taught me, that we’re all trying to do the best by our children at equipping them to survive in the wide world. Whether we keep them afloat with water-wings and life-jackets when they’re young, or with skills and confidence as they grow, we are training them for the day they set out into the world on their own.

5 Replies to “Staying Afloat In A Sink Or Swim World”

  1. Interesting … I haven’t heard of this before. I’ve been a ‘water baby’ my whole life, though … my mom started me with swimming lessons early, and I did swim team in high school.

  2. So glad you introduced your child to the water early. Swimming lesson have been around forever – I took them as an infant and I’m 47.

    I like how you’ve compared swimming lessons to life in general. Great analogies.

  3. Being near the Great Lakes, I know how important swim lessons are. I grew up learning to swim, and my kids have too. I did the Parent Tot style of learning. I can see the scariness and the rewards of letting it be a teacher and infant.

    I never really sat and thought how swimming and life lessons were so closely related. Thank you for reminding me that we can either sink or swim

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