• Thu, Jan 16 - 8:00 am ET

I Should Just Face The Fact That My Children Will Never Learn How To Swim

shutterstock_171177725This might seem like an odd post for January, especially given that I live in NYC but more because the entire United States is parked in the polar vortex.  And I wouldn’t argue with you.  It’s an odd time to think about swimming, which is why I found it bizarre that my kids have been nagging me to take them to the pool for the past few weeks.  I don’t know where it came from — I haven’t noticed any of their TV shows talking about swimming and they certainly aren’t discussing it in school.  Yet both of my kids have been jonesing for their chlorine fix and I knew I was going to have to give in at some point as much as I dreaded it.

When we first moved into our neighborhood I signed up for a gym on my block.  It was really small (and cheap) and had fitness classes, a swimming pool and most importantly a children’s play room where we could go for a change of scenery during the winter.  But when we moved in 18 months ago it was the summer and the kids were fascinated by the swimming pool.  Lessons were free as members and every Tuesday evening I took my then 3 and 1/2 year old and my 18 month old.

Our first foray into swimming lessons were torture.  My son wouldn’t let go of me and cried in the teacher’s face.  He left us both with scratches all over our necks because he was holding on like his life depended on it.  My daughter liked the water enough, but her panicked brother made her nervous — like he knew something terrible that she was missing.  She never cried but she wouldn’t let go of me.  Lessons consisted of me cajoling and encouraging while trying to keep a hold on my bathing suit top.  The kids never left my hip and we stopped going after 3 weeks.

Not that I really minded.  I don’t swim.  I grew up a poor Puerto Rican in urban Queens.  I don’t think I saw a swimming pool other than on TV until I was 10.  I learned to swim in my early teens because we moved to Long Island and I felt I should at least know how to not die if I was submerged in water.  And that’s pretty much the extent of my ability.  I know how to not die.  I’m not afraid of the water and I certainly love jumping in and out of a pool on a hot day, but no one would ever call me a swimmer.  Not even a little bit.

I would love my kids to learn to swim, but I’m thinking it just might not be in the cards.  When we went to the pool last night, the lifeguard tied wet noodles (those flotation thingys) in knots around their waists and threw them in to the water where I was waiting.  They both went completely under before bobbing back up looking shocked and horrified.  That set the tone off poorly.  Over the course of our time in the pool they stayed glued to me just like their first few times but they found the nerve to let go of my neck and hold on to my hand or arm or even the side of the pool.  It was certainly progress and I was proud.  But these kids are going to be 5-years-old and 3-years-old in a matter of weeks and their skill and comfort levels are not exactly impressive.  I’m beginning to think their aquatic fate will be the same as mine — the best they can hope for is learning how to tread water.

(photo: nrt/Shutterstock)

You can reach this post's author, Carinn Jade, on twitter.
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  • Andrea

    You MUST keep trying!! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so in your face about it.
    But swimming is a life skill that they must have. You started them really young (which can go either way), so there is no need to give up hope yet.
    The 1st few times I took my kids they were hysterical too. I kept trying. At the very least, like you, they should know how not to die.

    • Carinn Jade

      It’s so interesting to hear you say I’m starting them young because most of their peers have been in class since they were 6 months old. Maybe they still have a good chance.

    • Andrea

      I can go either way. Depends on the kid. But don’t let that discourage you, they are still very young and can learn. They might surprise you.
      The same kids that were in hysterics the 1st few times they took swimming lessons are now in swim teams. Not saying that’s the goal (again, goal should be “not die”), but it can happen!

    • AP

      Dirty secret: Kids don’t learn that much in swim lessons at 6 months. In the lessons I’ve taught, while I do see some kids getting something out of being in lessons for the first three or four years of life, I don’t see parents getting much return on their investment below the age of 4.

      I’m happy to see parents who can afford it signing their kid up, but in the long run, it gives them no real advantage over the kids who start at 4, 5, 6.

    • http://www.ambiencechaser.com/ Elizabeth Licata

      I used to work with large groups of 3-year-olds, and it really varied. Some would be very new to the water, some could doggy paddle. One kid could actually swim, like for real. That one was an outlier. Most of them would either be carried around in the water or would do that thing where they hold the instructor’s hands and be pulled around while practicing putting their faces in the water.

  • Véronique Houde

    I was deathly afraid of water until the age of 8 when my parents signed me up for the first level of swimming lessons (where I was with a bunch of 4 and 5 year olds)… 8 years later, I became a lifeguard, and 11 years later, a swim instructor and a swim coach – my kids ended up winning the games for their level (introductory) at the city games ;). So don’t worry – they can get over their fear, and the older they get, the more rational they will become about being in the water. Trust that you will find a great instructor that will help!!! :)

    • Carinn Jade

      That is the most incredible story!!!!

    • Véronique Houde

      Thanks ;)! ANd yeah… Never let jerk lifeguards throw your kids in the water ever again, especially only with pool noodles around their waists. That’s definitely NOT the way to get them less afraid of water ;) lol. They’re fucking idiots.

    • darras

      Agreed with Carinn that’s an amazing story of achievement!

      And I was rather O.o about throwing the kids in as well. I can’t believe some people do that! Way to help kids develop a life long fear of water. Good grief!

  • justmytwocents

    pool noodles.? where are the life jackets? they should wear those…much safer. you can put them on and take them yourself and just sit on the steps and get them used to the water (in addition to lessons but maybe not with someone who just threw them in – that’s brutal). you can go slow and easy. they can take classes with younger kids if need be. they just need to feel comfortable in water before they can be expected to do anything else.

    they have adult classes too. you need to find an instructor who makes you feel safe and if you feel safe and they see you swim they’ll want too as well.

    good luck. take it slow. keep trying.

    does your area have a splash pad?

  • jane

    I agree. Keep trying. Knowing how to not die in the water and swim a short distance to safety is critical.

  • Sherri

    You really do need to keep trying. Eventually they’ll catch on and feel comfortable. I always felt so bad for the kids in middle and high school who had to stay in the shallow end during swim class. It is one thing to teach a scared 3-5 year old and another to teach a scared adult. :-/

  • Tinyfaeri

    Have you tried having someone else take them to the class? Their father, or a family member or friend? Sometimes kids react differently around one parent than they do around others.

    • Carinn Jade

      I think this may be the best answer. School drop-off goes way better when I’m not the one doing it so the same stands to reason for swim class.

    • Andrea

      Oh I forgot about that! That’s another thing the swim school did: if the kid wouldn’t let go of mom, they asked mom to go wait in a different room. They had one way glass, so mom could still see, but the kid couldn’t see you.
      A lot like in school, they do calm down once mom leaves.

    • Tinyfaeri

      Good luck either way! It really is a good thing for them to learn – and as someone who failed swim class at the local pool until she was 11 (I can’t make myself blow bubbles out my nose to save my soul), earlier is probably better. Though I can swim well enough to not die. :)

    • Justaguest

      This. I had swimming lessons as a kid (I was under 5, though I’m not sure exactly how old) and I wouldn’t go with anyone except my oldest sister. Not my parents, not my other sister – it had to be her. Children are weird.

    • Tinyfaeri

      Wait. Did you just call me normal? I can still be weird as an adult, right?

  • Vanessa

    I don’t think throwing them in the water with a pool noodle at that age is a very good way to learn to get over their fear of the water….I have my 15 month old in swim lessons and I’ve seen how they teach the older children. That’s definitely not how they do it!

  • Ann

    Not everyone has to be a champion swimmer, but everyone needs to know how to save their own a$$ if they happen to fall into water, a pool, lake, off a boat, God forbid. I grew up on Long Island and learned to swim because my father worked in a health spa when I was born, I live in Florida now and my kids were in the water from the time their umbilical stumps fell off and they all swim at different levels, no one is winning any awards but they can save themselves. Please keep trying for the kids sake!

  • Jessie

    I agree with everyone else, don’t give up!
    The problem here is that both of them seem to have had a somewhat traumatic introduction to water, and naturally that can be really detrimental. I was horrified at the thought of swimming without clinging to the edge of the pool until I was in high school, because my very first swim instructor when I was about five was a horrid woman who scared the shit out of everyone and I have no idea how she ever got licensed to teach children. My little sister couldn’t swim until she was about 18 years old because she almost drowned when was three and was scared of deep water. Your kids seem to have had a bit of a trauma themselves, especially thanks to that dumbass lifeguard (which he should NOT have ever done that, it’s ENTIRELY unsafe and he should have known better).
    However, my mom still never gave up on taking us to pools and to the beach, even if we never left the shallow end or clung to her or the pool’s edge the whole time, because she knew that eventually we would overcome it and at least learn how to not die. Today, I LOVE swimming and will even swim at the pool or beach in this weather (of course, I’m in California, so the vortex isn’t QUITE as problematic), and my sister loves swimming too even though all she can do is not die. This should be your goal for your kids, too, if only because swimming is a necessary survival skill and it’s better to know it and not use/need it than to need it and not know it. :)

  • AnotherMel

    I started my son in lessons just before 3 – it was bad timing. He entered a clingy phase at the same time, plus it became obvious that the instructor had never taught children this young before and wasn’t very good at it. We took a class with a friend of ours and her daughter (a transition class you go in the water with them the first few times, then you sit on the edge of the pool and leave part way through, etc.) and I thought it would be ok in part because of that. It was a disaster.

    He did not like or trust the teacher and he had major rage when I didn’t go into the pool. He made himself throw up the one week – that was the last week he went. And it was rage, he’s not scared of the water – my parent’s have a hot tub that they turn down when we come over so he can go in it and he’s regularly gotten himself under water and then come up all smiles (and the dunking wasn’t always on purpose).

    The instructor makes such a big difference. Last summer, we put him in a private lesson with someone we & he knew and he did great! Keep trying because swimming is so important as a life skill.

  • Alfreda Wells Morrissey

    5 and 3 is not too late. Considering you don’t have your own pool it is normal for them to be scared of the water at this age. In my personal experience, swimming lessons before 5 suck. When my daughter was 3, I would sit her on the side of the pool and say: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a big fall” and have them ‘fall’ into the water while holding their hands. I do not submerge them on the first time. The first time you start by letting the water go up to their chin. Then gradually let the water splash the face more, then go under till the mouth is covered but not the nose. Gradually move up until they are jumping off the edge, going under then pull them up.

    I did this with my eldest when she was three, then put her in swimming lessons and she reverted from being completely submerged to not wanting to put her face in the water. At these ages they do take into consideration the level of the student only their age. At 18 months we do this, at 3 we do this. It is only 5 years old where they start teaching swimming with no floaters.

    Once my eldest turned 5, they put her in the normal system and now she can front crawl. I got her to doggie paddle so at least she wouldn’t drown in our pool. I also taught the neighbor’s daughter to doggie paddle starting at 5 and she was scared to put her face in the water at 5 too. Now she is comfortable in the deep end even though she still does doggie paddle. I do not want to teach more advanced strokes because they have techniques for that at swimming lessons, but only once they hit 5. You are at the perfect time to start real swimming lessons or even begin getting them comfortable in the water. That part is not hard to work on.

    The key is to move slowly at the pace of the student. Do not push them in, do not submerge before they are comfortable, build trust. At 5 years old you can also communicate with the child. Tell them what the goal is try and if they are not ready, respect their limits. You have plenty of time. With enough exposure, they will learn when they are ready. You do need to keep the exposure though. If you never take them to the pool, then they will not learn. Also try different teachers. Your child may connect better with somebody else.

    Good Luck. Don’t lose hope.

  • AP

    I’m a swim instructor (certified through the Red Cross and the YMCA) and I think your kids WILL learn how to swim! I think you need to find another place to teach them, though, since the pool you took them to seems to not be the best for teaching kids.

    First, truly little ones should have a 1:1 adult to child ratio. It helps a lot when the parent isn’t completely frazzled and distracted making sure two little erratic ones don’t drown.

    Second, it’s a HUGE bonus if a kid comes into swim lessons with a parent who’s already done the water adjustment bit ahead of time. Just getting the kid in the pool and dragging the kid around in the water on his/her front or back while acting cheerful and holding a rubber duck helps immensely since they won’t be afraid of being in the water or being splashed- and you won’t end up paying for weeks of your kid sitting on the wall yelling “NO” as the instructor begs them to please, just sit on the top step please and you don’t have to go in any further if you don’t want to.

    Third, work very hard on keeping a positive attitude towards swimming. I’ve seen many inner-city parents turn kids into great swimmers without ever getting into the pool with the kids. (My own parents can’t swim, and they raised two competitive swimmers and lifeguards.) Take the kids to lessons, and give them as many chances to practice: bring them to rec swim, keep swimming opportunities in mind when you sign them up for preschool, daycare, afterschool, camp, etc. Make sure they know that learning to swim is important for health and safety, and is non-negotiable.

    Good luck!

  • Kay_Sue

    It took me, personally, forever to learn. I hated the entire experience, and although I know how to swim, I still don’t like it. Some folks just don’t care for the water, I guess.

    • Carinn Jade

      That’s just how I feel. I would blame Jaws but I don’t particularly like pools either.

    • Kay_Sue

      My mom says I must have been a very well-behaved cat in a previous life. My aunt said I must have been a very poorly-behaved one to be a human this time around…

  • ranch mom

    Everyone needs to know CPR and how to swim. These are lifesaving skills.

  • Momma425

    Why are you in the pool with them?
    My daughter has been doing swimming lessons every summer. Some sessions are more successful than others- but I haven’t seen ANY swimming lessons where parents are supposed to be in the water with their kids.
    I used to teach swimming lessons, and we had parents in the water for BABIES, but at 3, 4, 5 years old were going to class and just having their teacher. You might want to look into that- the kids might do better without you in the water.

  • Jan

    We grew up poor. We never got swimming lessons until we went to school (around 5-6) and every year for 2 weeks we had 3 hour swimming lessons. Australia’s surrounded by sea and it’s a hot country so a lot of people have back yard pools so swimming is an essential life skill.

    My sister takes her own children to swimming lessons and she says her oldest didn’t start properly swimming until they were about 6 anyway.

    So at the moment for your kids it’s not about throwing them in the pool and expecting them to swim but getting them used to the water. They’ll pick it up in due time!

  • Diana

    I hated the water as a kid and only learned to swim at 10 or 11. Theres no age limit on it you know.

  • Katherine Handcock

    Definitely don’t give up — on them or yourself! There is no age limit on learning to swim. If it helps, my kids have been in pools since 4 months and, at ages 5 and 3, they don’t swim independently yet (although both of them are inching towards it.)

    If they’re nervous being in the water, start out just sitting at the edge of the pool, dipping feet and hands. Pour water on one another’s arms, shoulders, neck, and head. Make the time in the pool totally about play and totally NOT about developing skills until the pool is just a fun place to be. Then you can start again.

    Getting them used to using lifejackets or puddlejumpers (floatation devices that have a band around chest and both arms — they won’t keep your head out of the water, so kids have to practice the motions with arms and legs they need to steady themselves) is also a great way to go. In fact, they may feel reassured wearing them if they’re old enough to understand how they work — or you can demonstrate by putting one on yourself and showing how it’s impossible to sink.

    And I will second those who suggested that someone else take them in the water. Kids pick up on nervousness really, really easily (either of the water or your dread of “Oh, is this going to be a nightmare again?”). If a parent is nervous, they figure they should DEFINITELY be nervous.

    They will be fine, and so will you!

  • AE Vorro

    It’s up the author, of course, and her children’s tastes about whether or not to push swimming. However, water safety is something most people don’t think about.

    From the guys at Freakonomics:

    “In a given year, there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States. (In a country with 6 million pools, this means that roughly 550 children under the age of ten drown each year.) Meanwhile, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every 1 million-plus guns. (In a country with an estimated 200 million guns, this means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns.) The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million-plus) isn’t even close: [A child] is roughly 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident at [a pool owner's] house than in gunplay at [a gun owner's] house.” (Source: http://freakonomics.com/books/freakonomics/chapter-excerpts/chapter-5/)

    Don’t want to use scare tactics, but sometimes it’s worth exploring the numbers! Either way, best of luck!