My sister called me yesterday, clearly upset, due to an incident at my 4-year-old niece’s swimming class.
Before describing the incident, let me tell you about my wonderful niece, M., who is (of course!) a unique person with her own personality, preferences, and individual needs.
This amazing young girl is deeply empathic, displays care and concern for others and how they are feeling, often checking in with others to make sure they are ok if she senses they are upset or frustrated. She is wildly smart and insatiably curious, hysterically funny, charmingly engaging and magically persuasive. She is also quite sensitive, especially in a tactile manner, and does not like water in her face. She has been raised in a household where she is honored, respected, and her voice is heard.
So, back to my sister’s phone call. M. was at swim class—which she has deeply enjoyed up until now—and was working with a new swim instructor. All of the instructors up to this point have been very respectful of M.’s request to get her towel when her face has gotten wet (as naturally happens in a pool while blowing bubbles or splashing.) Knowing that she can ask for a towel if her face gets wet has been a source of security for M. while taking these exciting—yet sometimes scary—swimming lessons. My sister sits and watches from the sidelines with the other parents and caregivers during the lessons, observing and making sure M. is comfortable during each class. M. has been loving the lessons so far and proudly talks to me about the bathing suit and goggles she wears and how she blows bubbles even though she doesn’t like water splashing her nose.
While working with the new instructor, M. did not make the usual request to wipe her face with her towel after blowing some bubbles and splashing in the water (which was a huge leap for her, according to my sister.) As the lesson went on, the new instructor surprised M. by submerging her completely under water (without warning), and brought her back up, coughing. M. regained her composure and asked for her towel to wipe her face. She was told, “oh, you’re fine—you don’t need your towel, you’re ok.” (My sister watched and monitored M.’s reaction to make sure she was actually ok, and decided to wait and see what happened before intervening.) The instructor dunked M. a second time, after which M. began crying, asked for her towel (and was again told she was fine) and said that she wanted to go home. (At this point my sister was on her way to intervene, but walking from the other side of the pool where the parents were instructed to sit is quite a distance and took a moment.) M., sitting on the edge of the pool now, continued crying and stating that she wanted to go home. While M. was crying and saying she didn’t want to go back in, the new instructor grabbed M.’s arms, saying, “it’s your turn M.” and pulled her back into the water against her will. My sister reached them at this point and pulled M. out of the pool, stating, “I don’t force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and she doesn’t want to get back in the pool right now.” She then comforted a visibly upset M. The new instructor gave my sister and M. a dismissive look and continued the lesson with the other children. (After consoling and talking with my sister, M. decided to go back in the water with a different instructor who said they would just play and that she would not make M. do anything she didn’t want to do.)
When talking about the situation on the car ride home, M. asked her mom, “Why didn’t she listen to me?”
Why don’t we listen to our children? Would we ever pull an adult who does not yet know how to swim, kicking, screaming and crying, into a pool? (Some siblings play games where they throw each other into the water—this, to me, is completely different [and not necessarily ok either].) What do we think we can possibly gain by forcing anything upon a child, especially a new (and sometimes scary) skill such as swimming?
Contrast this to what I observed with M. a few weeks ago when she was in our cousin’s pool. Wearing arm floaties and a life jacket, she was able to float unassisted throughout the pool. (This is the method my cousin used to “teach” her own children and her best friend’s children how to swim. When the kids are ready, they start by wearing the arm floaties and life jacket combo which enables them to float around the pool unassisted. Over time they take off the life jacket and use two arm floaties, and then just one, until they are swimming independently. The decision to get rid of the life jacket and/or floaties is led by the child. Four children in our family have learned to swim without any formal lessons using this method which is just one of a limitless amount of ways people might learn to swim in their own time, and in the manner which works best for them.)
Back to M., in our cousin’s pool, wearing the life jacket with the arm floaties. M. began by floating away from me, then paddling, and then even splashing water on her face while trying this new swimming method for the first time. She asked for her towel to wipe her face twice after some splashes. The third time her face got wet, I asked if she wanted the towel. She looked at her towel up on the deck, far from where she was floating in the middle of the pool and said, “no, I’m ok.” She continued playing in the pool for hours, even blowing bubbles without asking for the towel to wipe her face.
M., in the pool, enjoying her independence given the support of a life jacket and arm floaties (and of course, familiar adults nearby.)
Why do I share all of this? It wouldn’t have mattered to me if M. wanted to wipe her face with her towel 100 times while in the pool. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if M. clung to my body while in the pool or said “I want to sit on the side” or any other choice she could have made. What I find fascinating is the amount of comfort she felt in the pool when able to explore the water on her own terms, and the freedom this gave her. She willingly and in her own time (given no outside pressure) got her face wet over and over in a situation where she was supported to make these choices for herself. How much more powerful is an experience when we are given the autonomy to make choices for ourselves while also the support to ensure we are comfortable enough to take risks?
There is so much more I could say about these situations. For example, that forcing children to physically do things they don’t want to do (or are frightened to do!) is supportive of rape culture. (Yes, there are various situations—especially those involving safety—that call for scooping children up and removing them from a setting. Trying to support a child in learning a new skill is NOT one of these situations and should not involve force.) Or that fear is never a good teacher, and that even if throwing a child into a pool seems to help them learn how to swim “faster,” (something mentioned to my sister by another caretaker sitting on the sidelines of the pool at M.’s swim lesson), it is still doing more harm than good.
Empowering children (in part) means that we support them in knowing their voices matter, and that they, not others, should be the ones making decisions about their own bodies. Empowered children may feel so heard and respected that they ask, “why didn’t she listen to me?”—as not being heard is totally out of the norm. If we can empower our children to make decisions about their own bodies, experiences, and even their own learning, imagine the world we might create.