It’s not enough to say, “Just keep trying. You can do it.” Blanket statements hold little meaning for small children. They seek facts, evidence, and concrete advice. Often, they want to know the right way to get something done.
My sweet girl has always loved the water. She has never really been afraid of pools, but she has never wanted to swim independently. Spoiled by a community full of very warm and very shallow, kid-friendly pools, we’ve been able to introduce her to swimming in the safest possible way.
She loved the Mommy & Me classes from the very first day. Splashing while singing left her in a state of relaxed exhaustion after each class.
We’ve always tried to prioritize time spent in the water, but we haven’t always prioritized swimming lessons. One summer we tried to share private lessons with a friend, but the scheduling didn’t work out. Often, the group lessons at the community pool conflicted with baby brother’s nap schedule. Friends suggested survival swimming (no thanks), lessons in another town (no babysitter for baby brother), and private lessons that would come to us (no private pool).
And so we just kept swimming with her, giving her some basic safety skills along the way. This seemed to work just fine for a while, until it hit me that she was very, very afraid of putting her head under water.
We talked about the options: Group lessons at her favorite shallow pool. Private lessons at a house one town over. Semi-private lessons at a health club. With worried eyes and a tentative voice, she begged me not to make her go.
“I can swim fine, Mommy. You can keep teaching me.”
Tears welled up in her eyes as she waited for a response.
“It sounds like you’re feeling afraid, sweet girl. Are you afraid that you will have to put your head under?”
“Yes. I’m not ready and I don’t think I can tell someone no.”
“Mommy will never ever force you to do something that makes you feel scared or unsafe. Never. But you do love to swim, and you have to learn to swim on your own so that you can be safe in a pool.”
With that, I told her the plan. A former neighbor, a young girl she loves and trusts, agreed to teach her private lessons. She wouldn’t make sweet girl put her head under water until she felt ready. She would just help sweet girl learn to float, swim to safety, and feel confident in the water.
All smiles, she jumped into my arms.
“I know I can learn with my friend! I know I can!”
But before her first lesson, I took her to the pool. We stood in the shallow end of the already shallow pool and talked while we watched other kids at play.
“I understand why you feel scared of going under water. It feels like you can’t control it. Like you might get stuck.”
“I don’t want to be stuck. I don’t like it when my chest hurts and I can’t breathe if I’m sick, and I know I can’t breathe under water.”
“I understand. That does sound scary. But you can hold your breath, right? And you can kick your feet, right? And you can paddle your arms just like we’ve practiced, right?”
“I know I can do those things, silly.”
“That’s it, sweet girl. You just said it. Sometimes when we feel scared, our brains send us the wrong message. Sometimes our brains tell us that we can’t do things, even though we can. We have to trust ourselves. We have to believe that we can do it.”
With that in mind, we ventured into the middle of the pool. I held her arms while she practiced her kicks. I held my hands under her back while she practiced floating. I let her try within her comfort zone.
And when a passing swimmer accidentally soaked her face, I reminded her that pools are just water, and water is fun. But I scooped her up and held her close, just to help her feel safe.
I didn’t push. I didn’t force her to perform. I didn’t ask her to add to her skills that day.
Instead, I cheered her on. I told her that I was proud and I reminded her that she should be proud too. And when she started to worry, I gently whispered the words she needed to hear…
“I believe in you, sweet girl.”
Two weeks into her weekly private lessons, my sweet girl has a whole new approach to swimming.
“I can dunk my head all the way under and hold my breath for so many minutes! It’s amazing!”
And then, overheard while running the bath that same night:
Baby brother, I know something that will help you with things. When you feel scared about something you just have to believe in yourself. Then things won’t feel scary because you know you can do it.”
The power of self-talk: It’s not enough to tell them that they can do it. You have to encourage them to believe in themselves, and you have to teach them to talk their way through the scary moments and tasks that arise.
Fear will always lurk somewhere around the corner, but nothing can take away the power of positive self-talk. That’s a skill that will last a lifetime…