Thursday, July 17, 2008

Agony at the pool

Swim lessons. Oh, the agony.

I know my nearly 4-year-old son Will well enough to know that he’s not cut out for those cut-throat, throw-em-in-so-they-have-to-sink-or-swim private lessons that many parents take their kids to.

Will is scared of everything from storybook foxes to Johnny Appleseed, and he gets ferocious when forced into a situation that embarrasses him or makes him uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure, when forced to face the water before he felt ready, Will would have an earth-shaking kind of meltdown.

Fortunately we have the luxury of not owning a backyard pool or a lake house, so we feel like we can be a bit more lax when it comes to survival swimming timetables.

So for the past few years we’ve been moving Will through the Columbus Parks and Recreation swim lesson programs. The instructors are Red Cross certified and they’re trained not to force kids to move too far beyond their comfort level, lest they develop a lifelong aversion to swimming.

Enter timid Will. He did fine for the water comfort classes the past couple summers with Rob and I in the pool. But this week it was time to do a group lesson, with us dry in the background.
I couldn’t believe it when he marched up to his instructor the first day and got in the pool. (Although I had witnessed some promising confidence out of Will: He’d been running around the house prior to that first lesson, brimming with excitement. “I think I’m going to learn how to swim. It’s going to be easy!” he said at one point.)

That was before his toes touched the water. It wasn’t long after he’d climbed into the pool with his class, that he was climbing back out a bit. While all the other kids (many of whom measure twice his height and some of whom are a couple years older) hung off the side of the pool with bodies submerged, Will found his comfort zone sitting on the wall, dangling his legs in and then entering the water for his one-on-one turns with the instructor.

He happily flutter-kicked for her with his head above water. But when it came to anything that involved putting his nose underwater he told the instructor repeatedly he was “too nervous.”

So the poor instructor had to repeatedly try and fail to coerce him to do various things for a couple of days, and yet always he would go to her and make some smidgen of an effort to do something resembling a fraction of what she was asking him to do – a nearly imperceptible bob of the head under water, a “back float” with his arms wrapped desperately around her neck. Just enough to earn a half-hearted “good job.”

Apparently Will inherited his Uncle Graham’s early swim-shyness genes. My brother was so vehemently opposed to taking group swim lessons that my mom finally had to hire a private instructor for him.

And as I watched Will, shaking his head obstinately as his instructor coaxed him for the thousandth time, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. If this was a competition for best swim lesson student, he was running dead last. But at first he didn’t seem to mind all that much. I kept telling him I was glad that he was in the pool on his own and trying things (I didn’t emphasize how barely he was trying them) with his teacher. And we talked about the importance of learning to swim so that we can boat and water ski and go on pool play dates as he gets older. We also talked a lot about what a very nice teacher he had.

So for two days Will was surprisingly excited to go to lessons. And then yesterday’s lesson hit. I sent Rob with Will for the first time – knowing that the two of them have spent more time together frolicking in the water – and even under the water – than Will and I have. I thought maybe Rob could coax him into some aquatic bravery. But Will had hit his limit. Running on no nap and two days of little success, the pool must have loomed larger for him on day three. (He’d told me Tuesday that the pool seemed so big that he was worried the swim instructor might drop him and let him sink in it.) And so on lesson 3, all he managed was a minute-long dip in the water before he announced that he was too tired for swim lessons today.

I’d stayed behind with Owen, and when I heard our side door creaking open a half hour early, I knew we’d had a swimming lesson strike-out.

So we’ve been stroking Will’s ego, focusing on the fun we can have at the pool tomorrow when he’s not feeling quite so worn out. And I’ll be driving off to swim lessons this evening, wondering just how soon I’ll be driving right back.

Tell me your swim lesson war stories. Or maybe I’m the only one?

(Go here to learn more about Columbus Parks and Recreation Swim Lessons. Most kids seem to progress just fine in them. And at $30 for eight lessons it’s a steal. They’re in their final sessions now, so it’s something to file away for next year.)


Tashahart said...

My folks havea private pool so I've been teaching my now 3yr old since birth how to swim. She's almost got it, I swim right beside her, with my hand holding her belly as she proceeds to kick, kick, kick and move those arms. Maybe you should get in the water with him might feel a bit more secure knowing mommy or daddy in even closer.

Annie Addington said...

Yep - we went the mommy route Thursday. (See Friday's post....) You really don't need an instructor for these early water-comfort lessons but we need the motivation just to get to the pool regularly.

shannon said...

Nora was four when she learned to swim and had to because we moved into a house with a pool. We tried the YMCA first but the children never had to put their faces in the water and I noticed they all had this false sense that they could swim. I needed Nora to know how to save herself if she fell in so a friend recommended Ms. Joni Ressmeyer's group lessons.
I took Nora and Cavan, almost 2 then, at the same time. Nora was terrified and is very stubborn; she cried a little but trusted Ms. Joni very much and learned to swim. She went back this year and loves it. Cavan pitched fits, like most of the 2 year olds, but he also loved and trusted Ms. Joni and got to the point where he could save himself (sinking way down, then bobbing up and over to the side vertically but successfully). This year he can jump off the diving board and swim to the middle and to the sides and I am so relieved. He focused very hard at lessons and made great strides.
Ms. Joni doesn't play around (there's no throwing them per se- she tells them they are going to jump in and counts to three. If they need help jumping an assistant counts and swings them gently in. She doesn't let them cry or talk about why they can't do something). I liked it because when I tried this tactic on my own 4 year old, it didn't work. She pushed against me to a point I didn't feel would be healthy for me to push back. Ms. Joni is a third party, a teacher. She has an authority I don't have. At every step she made them feel safe and with the other children there doing it, too, they rely on each other for security. Ms. Joni's rule is, you can't cry when it's not your turn. They have to watch each other and support each other.
It was a stressfull process for me but it was also beautiful and encouraging to see how far they can come with a trusted expert leading the way.