It’s no secret that it was challenging for me to learn to trust my child’s snail-paced journey throughout years of watching him observe instead of participate. Fearing he would never move himself out of his comfort zone, we wondered if he needed a push from us. In the end, we committed to honoring his temperament and developmental pacing, which meant not forcing participation, listening to his fears and respecting his decisions. We watched in awe every time the excitement of an activity motivated him over the first hurdles. It was never our push that made him jump.
The other side of the coin is that some skills just have to be learned. Let’s start with an obvious choice, like safely crossing streets. Parents don’t let their kid run into traffic simply because that’s what lil’ Jimmy wants to do. They also don’t leave Jimmy on the other side of the road because he won’t cross with them. Jimmy’s hand will be held and his always-in-the-moment mind will be reminded a million times to “Look both ways!” until the People With Brains That Contemplate Consequences are certain he understands. Love & Logic’s “natural consequences” get thrown in front of the bus. Not Jimmy.
Other lessons are not as clear, but can feel just as critical.
Take swimming, for example. A sensitive topic in my household for a few months last summer. If Little Monkey hadn’t scared the daylight out of me with the pool-bobbing incident, I doubt I would’ve endured the initial phase of his latest swim lessons.
In the weeks after that nightmare, I signed him up for a couple private lessons through Seattle’s parks department. He participated well but continued to demonstrate the lack of fear that originally got him into trouble. Despite his inability to float, he kept trying to swim unassisted. On a few occasions he jumped in impulsively or lunged at me without warning. Obviously, at this point I was watching him like a hawk, so he was quickly scooped up. But I didn’t feel any better about his water safety by summer’s end.
Not wanting to enter next summer at the same level, we decided to take the plunge last fall and signed him up for intensive private swim lessons recommended by a friend. He dug in his heels, certain they would be “horrible!” With a little probing I learned that he believed that this swim coach would squirt him with a water gun. Ah, the rational fears of a four year old.
With a firm promise that his coach wouldn’t shoot him, and quite possibly a pack of Pokemon cards in hand as bribery, he willingly entered the pool during his first lesson. At his request and the coach’s approval, I was in the water with him for his first two lessons. Courtesy of the most methodical, safety-oriented, and efficient swim lessons I’ve ever witnessed, Miles learned to open his eyes underwater, swim with his head under, and begin to backfloat. To get there, he was pushed farther beyond his comfort level than ever before. It was painful to watch him struggle.
The third lesson consisted of me sweating on the sidelines with my teeth grit together, trying to hide my anxieties from both the coach and Miles. He screamed and sobbed a decent portion of the lesson. The swim coach heard his complaints but did not let him give in to his fears. She kept him moving, practicing and struggling his way through each critical skill. I felt sick to my stomach.
I spent that evening wondering if this lesson style was the right choice. DId I betray his trust by not just ending it there and calling it quits? Was he being pushed too far? Did I trust this coach and her judgment?
As I contemplated, I thought of all the parents of children with learning disabilities I interacted with when their kids came to me for evaluations and therapy. Many required months to trust me enough to follow advice or accept a diagnosis. I sympathized then, but I understand their hesitancies far better now that I’m a parent. Acknowledging that another adult may know what is best for your child is not easy to swallow, no matter the situation.
I came to believe that years of experience have taught this swim coach what children tolerate. She is not worried about their well-being as they go underwater, cough a bit, and correct themselves. At least not in the short-term. But long-term, she is absolutely concerned. She wants these kids water safe. To get there, she accepts the struggle as part of the learning process, like the countless falls toddlers take while learning to walk. She knew what my boy was capable of achieving. She knew that he needed to conquer his fears to move forward. While Miles and my brain were in fight or flight mode, hers was calm, cool and collected.
I dreaded telling Miles about lesson number four. I promised to take him to a favorite playspace afterwards. To my astonishment, that was enough to get him over the hump. Maybe he knew he needed it, like the toddler that keeps running despite scraped up knees. Maybe he found the outcome satisfying enough to account for the struggle. He entered the pool without complaint, seemingly forgetting his fears.
The reprieve didn’t last long. She asked him to stick his head underwater to retrieve a toy, and he completely broke down. In the skilled, graceful way that experienced teachers exhibit, she guided him back with ease, letting him repeat a skill that he found pleasurable and comforting until he calmed.
She moved him into snorkeling next, which was a completely new skill. “I DO NOT WANT TO SNORKEL!” he yelled and sobbed. Unaware of her motivation, I watched anxiously and questioned this choice. She introduced him to the mask by talking about its function and demonstrating its use. Then, the snorkel. She quietly put both on him. He protested throughout, but she assured him he’d be fine, and sure enough, soon he was excited to search underwater for toys. After he got the hang of it, they spent the rest of the session snorkeling around the pool to round-up tiny pumpkins. (It was October.)
I realized, yet again, that she had a clear plan and vision. The hardest skill for him to learn was how to transition from swimming forward with his head underwater to rolling over on his back to rest and breathe. With the snorkel, he could delight in swimming all around with ease. She took his biggest struggle out of the equation.
After lesson five I believed that he would have a chance at survival in a water accident. During lesson nine he took a “Clothes Test,” demonstrating the ability to fall in with clothes on, float on his back at length, swim to the closest exit, and other skills like getting his shoes off while floating. (He worked his tail off during 20+ minutes of testing.) We both walked away from this lesson stupendously pleased. Miles was thrilled with his accomplishment, and I was greatly relieved that last summer’s nightmare won’t be repeated.
I’m not sure how I’ll know when my boys need to be that far out of their comfort zone again. Right now we are contemplating decisions that could upset both of them, but we think would be for their benefit long-term. It is incredibly hard to choose between respecting their emotions and trusting in their resilience. I want them to do things of their own accord, but I also don’t want them to become paralyzed by fears. One thing I can count on: I am going to mess up a lot. I am going to error on both sides of the coin. Once I know I’ve gone too far in one direction, all I can do is apologize as we all learn from the mistake.
I’m glad I didn’t get in the way of progress this time. By learning to trust the coach, I didn’t rob my boy of these skills, nor the pride and satisfaction that resulted. Plus, how cute is a kid with snorkel gear? Sheesh.
Parenting is rarely clear cut. I couldn’t be more thankful that it comes with support staff.
(Pssst! I added a little video from one of his lessons to my facebook page. Head on over to see him in action. I always appreciate you “liking” my page while you’re there, too! Thanks!)