Learn to Swim Companion

A guide for parents and learners

If you think sea monsters are a scary thought...

This is the beginning of Andrea’s Learn to Swim adventure with her son Jack through this parent blog. We will continue to follow Andrea and Jack’s journey through learning to swim over the next few months.

Where it all began…

We’re further down the line than this first post, but this gives you an insight to where we started.

I’ve taken Jack to the pool since he was around 12 months old and he’s always loved it. When we found some swimming lessons that fit in with our schedule my only concern was that maybe the first couple of times he might be a bit shy.

The first few lessons went well. He was joining in and seemed to get on well with his teacher. However, it only took one thing to change all of that. What follows is what went through my head and what I can only imagine went through his.

Jack: My name is Jack. I am 5 and a half years old. I’ve done two swimming lessons so far, and I’m nailing it. I love swimming, I love the water, and I love my new lessons. Mummy is proud. Daddy is proud. All the Nana and Grandad types are proud. This is great!

Mummy: Jack is my son. I’ve been taking him swimming since he was a baby and he’s always loved the water. He has confidence with water by the bucket load. He’s had his first two swimming lessons and has really done well. So far there is only one other boy in his class, but look, this week a little girl has turned up. That’s nice.

Jack: WHAT IS THIS??? WHO IS THAT? Mummy why didn’t you tell me?! Don’t they know I’m not going in the pool with a GIRL? OMG. What’s happening? Why have they done this? I can’t go in. I can’t even move. I can’t breathe! Mummy!

Mummy: Oh look, he’s shy because there’s a little girl. That’s cute. He is well and truly in that phase of ‘boys don’t socialise with girls’. But this is okay. We’ll get him in eventually. Come on Jack, no need to worry.

Jack: I AM NOT MOVING! WHY IS SHE LOOKING AT ME? WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME IT’S FINE? IT’S NOT FINE. HOW IS THIS FINE? I CAN’T DO THIS MUMMY.

Mummy: Okay, breathe. He just needs some reassurance. My mind totally isn’t racing ahead through the years…if he doesn’t get in the pool today he’ll develop a fear of swimming, then he will never get in the pool, then he’ll never learn to swim and one day he’ll get in trouble in the water…it will all be my fault. I am not panicking at all!

Jack: I’ve lost the ability to speak now and can only communicate with head shakes, wide eyes and a vice like grip on Mummy’s arm. What kind of parent are you anyway, making me have swimming lessons with a girl?!

Mummy: I am the parent. I am in control. I’ve watched Super Nanny. I’ve got this. Step 1, issue the threat of no TV…followed by no sweets, no anything… Why is this having no effect?! Okay, we’ll count him down to the end of the lesson, you’ve got 20 minutes to figure this out mate. Cool, calm and collected. That’s me.

Jack: WHY ARE YOU PUNISHING ME? AS IF SWIMMING NEXT TO A GIRL ISN’T ENOUGH PUNISHMENT FOR ONE LIFE?! AND NOW I CAN’T WATCH THE TV. THIS IS THE WORST DAY EVER.

Mummy: I’m not panicking. See this face? It’s the face of a parent in control. I can’t help but interpret every other parents’ sympathetic smiles as hiding the real thought we all have, which is relief that today it wasn’t their child having the breakdown. Okay, lets break every one of Super Nanny’s rules and undermine myself in one go. You can have all the TV, all the sweets, everything. Please just get in the pool? Pleeeeeease.

How can I find a solution?

Jack goes swimmingNothing worked. We got to the end of the session and he was dry as a bone. Jack no doubt felt awful and I felt like a failure of a parent. The following week I couldn’t even get him undressed. As stressed as I felt, I was still mildly impressed at the strength of the arm and leg lockdown manoeuvre he pulled on me. We were in and out within five minutes, both feeling like failures. Again.

We needed to change something. Swimming lessons for me, as I told Jack, are like school. There is no choice, you need to learn to swim. I wasn’t prepared to give up and I wasn’t going to let this derail him. So off I went in search of some help.

I spoke to some other swimming teachers I knew, which was hard because I felt like I’d failed Jack. Parent guilt is like no other. Admitting to it is equally as hard. However, the more you talk to people, the more you realise we all encounter the same situations. My initial ‘hard ball’ approach wasn’t what Jack needed. When this particular teacher spoke to me it was like a comforting hand on my shoulder and the problem didn’t seem so big any more. I had blown it out of all proportion. She suggested to take some bath and swimming toys with us and a slightly gentler approach might work.

The idea that a softer approach was okay was a revelation. So much I hear of parents is “I wouldn’t let my kids get away with that” and similar. This thought had kept me thinking I needed to be tough rather than give him the time he needed to work this issue out. So the next week I decided to follow the advice I’d been given.

The swimming seal toy to the rescue

I got Jack some swimming toys to take with us to his next lesson. I had bigged these toys up to being the greatest swimming toys ever. It gave us something to talk about that wasn’t the lesson, or ‘The Girl’ or what had gone wrong in the weeks before. He seemed particularly taken with the seal and that’s all we needed to talk about. In this situation we needed to ignore the negative and only look forward.

We got to his lesson and got him into his swimming costume. So far so good. He was happy to be taking his seal onto poolside, but he wouldn’t leave my side and I could sense his insides begin to knot up. He hid behind me and gripped my hand, and his seal.

I took some deep breaths. And a few more. If I couldn’t keep my desperation for this to be okay in check then we stood no chance. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my trousers and went and sat with my legs in the pool. I had to pretend that getting a wet bum was totally fine at this point. It wasn’t, but somehow I felt that wasn’t the priority here.

Eventually Jack’s need to be near me while he felt so nervous overtook his need to be away from ‘The Girl’ and the pool. He came and sat down and we dangled our legs in the pool. I showed him how seal floated and enjoyed being in the water.

Intermittently the teacher came over to ask if he wanted to get in. There was no ounce of pressure in her voice, not once.

He started to be brave, and put more of his legs in the pool. Not being one to back down from a challenge, I dared him to get in and out before the teacher and ‘The Girl’ got back. He did this and was clearly still very nervous but, finally I could see in his face he wanted to join in. His teacher swam over and had also clocked this very subtle change in his behaviour.

She lifted him in, complete with seal, and held on to him while she carried on the lesson. He cried but she just kept a hold of him, completely confident that he would be okay. After a few minutes the tears stopped, then he started chatting to her about his seal.

She carried on teaching the lesson as if carrying one of her pupils around and talking about a seal was the most normal thing in the world. I will be forever grateful to his teacher, because if she had faltered when he got upset then I dread to think where we would be now. Her confidence made him feel confident.

The seal also narrowed his world to something small and non-threatening he could focus on. By focusing on that, he didn’t get overwhelmed by the fear he was feeling. He left the lesson feeling happy with his confidence levels notched up a little.

I knew this was a turning point, and we could both go into the next week feeling confident. Neither of us would be shaken by the dreaded ‘failure feeling’.

We arrived for his lesson the next week a bit early and there was no sign of ‘The Girl’.

Jack: Where’s that girl Mummy? (Slightly disappointed tone)

Mummy: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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