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Sink or swim: Maria Pieri

Why is it, when it comes to teaching your kids a thing or two, the last person they want to listen to is you?

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My daughter is clinging on to me for dear life. I’ve insisted she removes the armbands and allows me to support her as she floats.

“Mu-mm-yyy,” she screams. “Don’t let go.”

Her limbs are flaying like an apoplectic octopus, grabbing at my head and arms. She’s spluttering, desperately trying to keep hold of me, while I’m trying — and clearly failing — to ease her gently away.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be here,” I say. “I’ll hold your head while you float.”

No chance. She’s not letting go for love nor money. She’ll only assume the starfish position if she’s full supported. She’s in no mood to go solo.

I try bribery, cajoling, blackmail, and just about anything else that might work.

“Come on, sweetheart, you’ll be fine. Just breathe, stay calm and let yourself float,” I say, encouragingly.

“But I’ll sinnnnnkkkkk,” she moans.

“You won’t sink, if you’re calm; and I’ll be here,” I reassure her.

“Mu-mm-yyyy,” she screams, again.

Then I lose my patience and pass her over limpet-like to her dad.

Armed with a float (a woggle) she’s far more cheery and, after I’ve calmed down a little, we try to get her to practise jumping in.

“Stand right here,” she says, gesturing me to move closer and closer to the side of the pool.

“You are going to catch me?” she enquires for the umpteenth time.
“Yes, I’ll catch you,” I reassure her, and she jumps — eventually — practically landing on top of me as she does.

This process is repeated again, and again, and again.

We’d arrived at this point after almost a year of swimming lessons (on top of baby swimming lessons some years back) and I hadn’t seen a stroke of progress. Standing in the spectators’ gallery at the pool, week after week, had been driving me to distraction. So we’re punctuating her swimming lessons with some play sessions with us. Frustratingly, it still doesn’t seem to be working.

Two weeks later, and my daughter is encouraging her little brother to join her in the pool. She’s up to her neck in water and swimming from one side of the kids’ pool to the other.

“Go on, you can do it,” she says, holding her arms out to him. His reluctance prompts her to climb out of the pool and join him on the side.

“Here, we’ll go in together,” she says. Taking hold of his hand, they jump in perfect synchronised swimmer unison, laughing and giggling.

WHAT?

That’s how easy it can be for things to click. That, a one-week holiday in the sun with a pool on tap, a bunch of kids and something called peer pressure. You can throw money and time at something but you can’t know what will make things work for your children. I’ve read somewhere that children are unlikely to master swimming before the age of four. Research indicates it would be quite exceptional for them, physically, to be able to do so. But this doesn’t, of course, change typical parent psychology, which dictates that you will drive yourself crazy trying to get your kids to do the things you feel they ought to be doing within a set time frame of development.

Our swimming pool stand-offs have begun to make me realise that it’s unlikely I’ll be the one who teaches my daughter to do anything practical. It’s been the same story with everything from cycling without stabilisers to turning cartwheels. For some reason, when I’m involved she seems to turn into a fragile, quivering, nervous mess.

My role? Well, it looks like I’m to be the one to set her up for life’s little challenges, then to stand back and watch her make her own way. Hopefully.

(NB: On our return from that holiday in the sun, my daughter jumped two stages at swim school).

 

Published in the Spring 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)