Knowing how to swim is important for everyone. We live less than a mile from the ocean. Knowing how to swim for our kids is doubly important. I hold these truths to be self-evident to my coast-dwelling family.
James has been in swim class at the local YMCA since he was less than a year old. We signed up for parent-child swim class from the moment I knew it existed. And...we suffered through parent-child swim class for as long as we were in it. From the first time we attended, he hated every minute of it. All of the other babies and toddlers were happily splashing and giggling, excited when their parents and caregivers took them out to the middle of the pool to the tune of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." If I brought James off the steps, he would shriek bloody murder and claw me until he drew blood. It was horrible. Yet I was determined, and I probably became even more so when he expressed this terrible reticence from such a young age. I'd sign up for swim class at least twice a year, and two to three classes in, we'd quit coming, because I'd give up. I could only stand so much shrieking and clawing.
At a friend's suggestion, the summer he turned three, I enrolled him in swim class at the city pool, hoping a change of scenery would help. Spoiler alert: this did not end well. He shrieked and kicked and clawed the poor high school kid teaching that class, too.
Things got a little better when he took preschool swim classes at the Y, without me (thank goodness, I didn't have to be with him anymore). His first teacher there was a calm, older lady, and he trusted her (unlike, apparently, his untrustworthy mother or that crazy high school kid at city pool). I thought we were really making progress.
Now, let me clarify: James has always loved water. He is not inherently hydrophobic. He has always loved wading, running through the sprinkler, sitting in the water at the lake and digging in the sand...he likes water. He's always excited when we're going to the lake, pond, or ocean.
Last Tuesday was no different. It was entirely too hot to do anything except swim, really. So off we went, to Swan Lake State Park. We met friends there, all of us with picnic materials in tow, and planned to have a grand time. Violet has a new float thing that she loves. It allows me to actually go swim in deep water, dragging her around with me. She sits in it with a bottle, looking very pleased with herself. While we were out there swimming around, James was at the edge of the water, and he got bored. We had forgotten his bucket and shovel at home, and for whatever reason, he wouldn't go get the one from beneath the lifeguard stand that was available for borrowing. When I had suggested that upon arrival (and discovery of the forgotten bucket) he whined that he was "too scared" to go get it. I, being the unsympathetic parent that I am, was not interested in catering to the irrational whims of a whiner, and informed him that I was entirely to big to get it for him.
His friend brought a couple of inner tube floats, so, as he stood at the edge of the lake, up to his knees, I asked if he wanted to come out closer to Violet and myself. I told him I'd be happy to hold onto him with one of the floats. It took him at least ten minutes of whining, going back and forth from the blanket on the beach to the water's edge, staring randomly at the inner tubes and then running away, before finally deciding to ask me if I would get one for him and then walk out into the water with him.
I was excited. I thought we were about to hit a breakthrough. I handed Violet to my friend, put the inner tube around James, and began walking into the water. He got up to his ankles - much shallower than he had been without the inner tube - and stopped. He stuck his lower lip out and whined, "Mooommmm-eeee, I'm scared! It's scary!!!"
I shook my head. "James, you're in ankle deep water. You go deeper than that all of the time. What's the problem? I'm right here."
"But I'm scared!"
This back and forth continued for two or three minutes before I said, "Fine, James. This is completely irrational, but if you want to come to the lake and stay on the sand, you do what you want. I'm going to swim."
"No, Mom, no!! I want to be with you! I'm scared! Don't swim without me! Take me with you!"
I looked at him. "Okay, James, you want me to hold on to you and bring you out here with the tube, let's go. This will be fun." As I reached for him, he stuck his lower lip out and prepared to complain about something again. It's his favorite activity right now, really, and he's great at it - finding something to be pissed off about, then pushing my buttons until I'm pissed off, too.
I finally let impatience get the best of me. The following is not my best moment as a parent. I said, "Come on, James, let's go!" I grabbed him and his ring and dragged him into the "deep" water. I was on my knees, so it's water that's chest deep for him, maybe, at most. He screamed at the top of his lungs, "No! Don't! Go back! I'm scared I'm scared I'm scared!!! Take me back right now!!!!"
"No, James. I'm not taking you back," I said, trying to keep my voice low and calm. I was so frustrated. As I'm writing this, I can totally see that I should have been sympathetic and compassionate. I should have just allowed him to do whatever it is he wanted to do. But I felt like I was doing that before this, and he wasn't happy, but the only way he would apparently be happy was if I did precisely what he wanted me to do - which was to get out of the nice refreshing water and push him on the swings in the hot, muggy sunlight.
So there I was, on my knees in a lake, holding up my thrashing, hysterical, loud four year old in his damned inner tube. James was terrified, and instead of being kind, I was utterly and completely mad. "James, this is completely idiotic and irrational!" (there's that word again...applying it to a four year old, by the way, is in fact completely irrational). I started on a rant. "You need to trust me! I'm holding you up AND you have this float holding you up! There is nothing wrong here! Nothing! No! I am NOT taking you back until you calm down and stop screaming!"
He sucked in a breath and stopped screaming. "Take me back. Please take me back now." So I did. Then he wanted to crawl in my lap...which I should have let him do. But I didn't want to. I was still mad. I said, "James, I'm hot. I want to be in the water. I don't want you in my lap. It's sticky and I'm still irritated that you're freaked out by the water. I'm working on it. I love you, but give me some space, please. Go show Violet the slides or something." And...he smiled at the mention of the slides, and headed that direction.
"I'll make sure Violet doesn't go too far, Mom," he promised. He does always look out for his little sister; he's very conscientious. So why don't I focus more on that? Why do I get stuck on this water issue? It's ridiculous of me.
A friend with grown children, upon disagreeing with a major decision in her daughter's life, said to me, "I realized, Jessica, that I what I really want is for her to be like me - only better!"
I thought of this as James herded Violet over to the slides. That pretty much sums it up. I love the water, so I want James to love the water, too. I'm not scared of much of anything - sometimes, my husband would say, to my own detriment - so I want my kid to have very little fear, as well. But he's James, not Jessica. And as aggravated as I am, I need to learn to support that.
If one more person says, "Just wait til he's a teenager," I'm going to yell, "As long as he knows how to swim at that point I don't give a damn what he's doing!!!"