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When Swim Lessons Don't Go Well

Sometimes swim lessons don’t go as planned. I’ve witnessed this situation from time to time in my many years as a swimming instructor. Anything can go wrong: from crying and screaming to refusing to participate to ignoring the swim instructor. Maybe your child was excited about swimming lessons before you left the house but fell apart at some point before or during the class. Or maybe your child didn’t want to go in the first place. These situations can be frustrating because you’re spending valuable time and money on swim lessons with the hope that your child will learn to be safe and confident in the water, and then your child doesn’t want to participate.

If things aren’t going well, don’t give up! Before you abandon swimming lessons, try these tips for quelling flare-ups and adjusting your child’s attitude:

Remember (no offence intended), children can be master manipulators. Kids know how to get what they want. The bond between you and your child is strong. It started before they came into the world, sharing genetics, blood, and hormones. As soon as they exited the womb, they started developing a chemical bond with you through skin-to-skin contact. This touch-relationship increases oxytocin production. Known as the ‘love hormone,’ oxytocin cements feelings of affection and tenderness. This is a wonderful sensation, and it shouldn’t be discounted. But it also creates a loophole for your child to manipulate you. When it comes to necessities, like learning how to swim, it benefits your child to be detached from you. Thankfully, because the instructor doesn’t have the same chemical bond that you share with your child, it’s easier for them to judge your child’s level of fear of swimming.

Be patient and positive. The most common cause for misbehavior at swim lessons is fear, followed closely by a ‘I-don’t-wanna-do-it’ tantrum. Your kid wants to please you, but they also know exactly what they can get away with, without crossing the threshold for getting into trouble. A tantrum paired with a declaration of “I’m scared!” is a great way for your child to maneuver their way out of something they don’t feel like doing. But swim lessons are not the time to allow your child to have their way. Learning to swim is lifesaving and necessary. The best thing you can do is to keep pressing onward. Be patient and encouraging, but don’t give in to your child’s tears. Some kids just need more time to warm up to the idea of swimming or to the pool environment.

Change it up. If you’ve been going to your child’s lessons for a while and you always receive the same reaction from your child, try making a change to the pattern. The solution could be as simple as having a different person bring your kid to swimming class. Kids know what they can get away with, with each parent. I’ve seen kids who cry as soon as they get to class when one parent brings them but come with a smile when the other takes them.

If that doesn’t work, try sitting out of sight or leaving when it’s lesson time. This makes putting on a show a futile effort, and kids often calm down quickly when there’s no one around to humor them. Of course, you’ll want to let the instructor know that you plan to do this, so they can reassure your child that you’ll be back when the lesson is over.

Trust your instructor. If your instructor has been teaching for a while or has children of their own, they’ll have a good sense of who is scared of swimming and who is putting on a show. I’ve worked with children for many years teaching gymnastics and swimming, as well as serving as a summer camp counselor. I’ve seen every kind of outburst. In all my years watching over children, I’ve developed a sixth sense for crocodile tears and how to work through them.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is not talking to the swimming instructor for advice. You may think that as the parent, you know best, but sometimes you can fall victim to the bond you have with your child. Children who are coddled have a harder time working with an instructor and often try to get out of swim lessons. Try to follow the swim teacher’s lead. If you undermine the instructor or make deals with your child that aren’t on the teacher’s agenda, you’re thwarting the teacher’s efforts to adjust your child’s attitude. I find that being firm and presenting a united front is more effective than pitting parents against teachers. It’s the same concept as one parent being lenient and the other enforcing all of the rules. Don’t make your swim teacher ‘the bad person.’

Take some time off. If you decide to take some time off from formal swim lessons, don’t quit pool time. Go swimming with your child regularly, but don’t push an agenda on them. Play games in the water, splash each other, be silly! You can throw some balls out into the water and help your child retrieve them or sink some dive toys on the pool steps and have them reach down to grab them. This valuable playtime builds your child’s relationship with the water. That way, when you do begin swim lessons again, their association with water will be a good one. You don’t want their most recent memory of the pool to be of throwing a fit, being frightened, or having a bad time.

Following these tips can make swim lessons a valuable experience rather than one of fear and frustration for your child - and you.

Lizzy is a WSI-certified Red Cross swimming instructor with many years of experience teaching infants, children, and adults how to swim. 




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