Teaching our Kids to Swim

Teaching our Kids to Swim June 26, 2013

On Saturday, a high school boy almost drowned in our pool.  He didn’t know how to swim, didn’t tell anyone, so when a friend pushed him in the water, began to thrash and sink.  As he struggled, it took the other kids 10 seconds before they realized he was drowning and pulled him out.

As I write, a gaggle of kids swims again—it’s the last day of school and a humid 85 degrees.  And therefore the perfect time to preach on one of my most fervent parenting proscriptions—TEACH YOUR KID TO SWIM!

My parents were almost as rabid about swimming—probably because in Hawaii swimming is a survival skill.  I remember falling through a lifesaver float at the YMCA as a toddler, sinking into the water and seeing it bob above me. I took swimming lessons thereafter for years and years.

I was a slow learner, swimming with the remedial group.  For years and years.

Until all of a sudden I got better.  Somewhere around 6th grade it clicked, and during a summer swim session I raced a boy to be the  fastest swimmer in the group.   In another session, I ranked as a “shark.”  I never became a swim team level swimmer, but am pretty competent. I can even beat my husband, both in speed and endurance (which instills great pride because I can’t beat him in anything else athletic).

My kids were even worse than me.  Just as wimpy, just as cautious, just as slow.

But I was determined.  Like my mother before me, I enrolled my kids in YMCA swim lessons as babies, session after session after session. . .and they didn’t learn how to swim.

Here’s what finally worked:

  • Head dunking:  IMHO, the key to swimming is getting the kid comfortable with dunking their heads.  But cautious kids may never get comfortable unless you give some incentives.  When my mom heard me cajole my kids, she yelled, “Po-Po will give you a quarter for every face dunk this morning!”  We kept them motivated by contextualizing their earnings “You can buy an ice cream from the ice cream truck. . . 5 ice creams. . . a trip to Storyland!”  By lunch 6 year old Ling earned over $25 and was swimming underwater.  By afternoon, 4 year old Kai was doing underwater somersaults
lina and kai
Ling, my niece (in the no-no life-jacket), and Kai on the fateful bribing head dunk day in 2002
  • Daily swim lessons:   It’s hard to remember any skill week to week.  Daily lessons for weeks at a time can enable huge progress.  After the head dunk success, a month of daily lessons helped my kids swim rather than somersault.
  • Lose the bubble or the float: At our YMCA, the kids wore a bubble on their backs.  Ling made it to the 3rd level and still couldn’t swim.  You can bubble swim a long time without putting your face in the water, hence  go back to point #1.
  • If the carrot won’t work, use the stick:  Our current home came with a swimming pool.  This intensified the safety issue, especially with our 4 year old son who was extra resistant to point #1.  Bribing with quarters, even dollars didn’t work.  So we said he had to dunk his head 60 times before he was allowed to play in the pool.  When that didn’t work, we upped it to 120.  It took all summer, but he finally swam by the end of August.
OK, we let Ren use floaties. . .  after the 120 head dunks/day. It took thousands of head dunks before he swam
  •  Keep at it until it works:  Learning to swim’s more important than algebra or tennis or violin.  Algebra won’t save you if a friend throws you into a pool

The summer’s just begun.   Let’s get all our kids swimming. . . their lives could depend on it.


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