. . . and when do you need to know it?
I was reflecting on this the other day at our ice skating lessons. There is a little boy, a 3-year-old, who just does not like being there, but grandma picks up him and his (twin?) sister from Montessori school every weed and brings them out to the skating rink. The first few lessons he cried and cried. Now he often just sits stubbornly on the ice while grandma yells out on the rink that he is just manipulating them.
As anyone might, I reacted instinctively to this scene with disgust. I shared my disgust with friends. “Ice skating is so optional,” I opined. “Why can’t they just wait a year and try again?” But luckily my better angels began to reason with me, suggesting that I try to empathize, see where this family might be coming from.
I live deep in hockey country. Our parish no longer has regular Sunday school for kids over 5; we have given in to the reality of the hockey season. (I live in St. Paul, Minnesota, where despite what you hear on Prairie Home Companion there are oceans of Catholics, and many of them are grateful for Saturday “anticipatory” mass so they can head off to hockey on Sunday morning.) In this setting, ice skating is just a thing you need to know.
That may sound crazy, but having done the same thing to my own dear child, I can understand it. [Be warned, this is not a pretty remembrance.] When Violet was 3 and 4, I felt quite strongly that learning to swim was not optional. It was a safety requirement, and she was going to take lessons and that was that. The first summer of lessons was OK. Expectations were low, and she enjoyed the wading pool where the class was held. The second summer was tougher. They left the wading pool and went into the regular pool, where she would sometimes refuse to leave the side. Still, she said she liked swimming lessons, I assume because she enjoyed the water.
That winter I kept the lessons going. My friends’ kids took lessons, and my kid needed to learn to swim too. She like the idea of swimming lessons and was always willing to go. But she was almost never will to do what the teachers said. In particular, she refused to jump in the water. Not refused, exactly. She stood in line and waited, but when the time came she would take a deep breath and . . . “no wait, just a second.” Another deep breath and . . . “OK, next time I’ll do it.” Another deep breath and . . . “I just can’t do it!”
Here is where I stepped in and made a mistake that I regretted but learned from. I could see that she wanted to jump. I knew she liked the water. Just a tiny push from me, I thought, and she move past her fear and plunge in. So next lesson I made a deal: jump in the water, and I’ll take you out for ice cream. A win-win deal, right?
Not really. Instead I had a devastated child who neither jumped nor got ice cream, but instead cried all the way home from swimming lessons after another failed attempt. All she got was the idea that she had let mom down in addition to once again disappointing herself. The child was not ready to jump, and no amount of cajoling or enticing was going to change her readiness. If anything, I had increased the intensity of the situation in a way that made it harder for her to jump.
Still, she claimed she wanted to go back the next week. And we did — I had not yet figured out that even a very bright 4-year-old was not necessarily a reliable source for choosing whether or not to continue an activity.
I think the nail in the coffin for swimming lessons came the week that her shrieks echoed through the high school: “Help me! Help me!” She was in no danger. The very lovely swimming instructors were encouraging her to use a kickboard while they also held her afloat to move her across the water. Violet hates being held in the water, even now. The sense that she might not have total control of her body in the water makes her panic.
We discontinued lessons, and she’s never taken another one. We started taking her to indoor waterparks, where she could play in the water and have a great time and maybe even feel motivated to try some of the things kids her age were doing, but only if she wanted to. She has taught herself to swim, a strange-looking dogpaddle that has her nearly vertical in the water, but effective enough to allow her to pass the swim test at Concordia camp this summer. She does not like to play in the water the way I did as a kid; that is, she loves to play, but she does not like to be touched or even to think that you might be about to touch her. I’d love to pick her up and toss her like my dad used to do to me, but she would hate it.
My idea seemed so logical. We live in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, we go boating with grandparents in the summer, we love the water. Ergo, swimming lessons are a necessity, if only for safety reasons. Ergo, my child needs swimming lessons, and she needs them now so she can be safe in the water.
Of course a 4-year-old is only safe in the water if a parent is there, no matter how well she takes to lessons. I certainly don’t plan to send my 8-year-old to the swimming hole unattended either, even if she were a brilliant swimmer. But at the time I felt so sure that learning to swim was just what a person does, and it wasn’t until my water-loving, reasonably even-tempered child had a public meltdown that I considered another perspective.
This episode helped open my mind to the idea that we learn when we’re ready, no sooner and no later. Violet learns a lot of things sooner than expected, but if she’s not ready for something, there is absolutely no pushing. Thank goodness she helped me figure that out before Victoria, who is even more unwilling to be pushed than Violet. I try to handle learning with a lighter touch than would be “natural” for me, especially with Victoria, because the pushback can be so strong that we end up delaying learning rather than helping it.
But I think that may have to be part two of this post!