Thursday, October 26, 2017

Swimming: A Parent's Job Begins Where Lessons End

After I taught Bowen how to swim last summer, I nevertheless still had to take him to real swimming lessons to teach him correct stroke form and side breathing so he could be faster in the water. My promise to him is that he can decide to stop swimming lessons when he can show me correct freestyle, breast stroke, and backstroke. I usually take him to the Sunnyvale Swim Center, where I can do a lap swim while he's getting his lessons, but one day, the pool had an event so I had to watch him do his lesson instead.

The other kid in his class had a mom who was obviously a triathlete, since she was sporting a Garmin Triathlon Watch. (Serious athletes have a Garmin, the "fitness" people have smart-watches) She made the statement to me that once her child could learn to swim maybe they could "train" together, swimming in separate lanes.

I thought for a moment and said to her, "No, you should play with her in the water for at least a bit. Because there are some things only a parent can do." After I taught Bowen how to swim, I deliberately arranged a "playtime in the pool with Daddy" session every week for him. Part of it is that some of my fondest memories of my late father were of my 2 brothers and I assaulting him in the pool. Our dad was of course much stronger than we were, and could one at a time, pick one of us up, and throw him away, and by the time one of us swam back, he'd already have similarly disposed of the others, but it was always great fun.

When I think about it now, this deliberate play was extremely valuable to us in terms of water safety: it taught us never to panic or to be scared no matter what happened in the water. As long as we could hold our breath, sooner or later we'd surface and be able to breath again. Even if it was for only a short moment before our Dad would throw us or drag us underwater again, we learned to grab quick gulps of air in between. Because it was our Dad doing this to us, it was always fun and never scary. There are few swimming instructor in the world that can do this for you (the only time I actively saw a swimming instructor playfully throw a kid was at the Sunnyvale Swim Center, so they do exist): and to be honest, that's not their role. Their role is to teach correct swimming form, not prepare your child for the day when he/she falls off a dinghy, sailboat, or grabs a swim ladder only to have it come off in her hand. As a result of this sort of play, Bowen has no problems jumping into an alpine lake, or even coping with difficulties when his mask floods or his googles come off in the pool. He knows to just float up in the water, readjust, and then play on!

The best thing about this kind of practice (which ranges from throwing your kid into the water, to pulling them under the water, flipping them around while in the water, or a "race" where each of you are allowed to pull the other person back from the finish line) is that it creates fond memories and a strong bonding experience. This isn't just anecdotal data, as research in pediatrics note that this is a particularly important role for fathers to play:
Fathers engaged in more roughhouse play, and their involvement in play with preschoolers predicted decreased externalizing and internalizing behavior problems and enhanced social competence. (
  1. Jia R
  2. Kotila LE
  3. Schoppe-Sullivan SJ
Transactional relations between father involvement and preschoolers’ socioemotional adjustment. J Fam Psychol2012;26(6):848857)
I see a lot of parents who seem to think that their role in water safety ends when they drop off their child at swimming lessons. I urge those parents to reconsider: their role really begin when the lessons end. Play with your kids in the water.

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