Last night Zippy arrived at his first swimming lesson of the summer nervous but excited. No sooner had he gotten into the pool, he informed his teacher, “I’m up for a challenge.” She looked at us and grinned. I’m up for a challenge?!
Is this the same little boy who, almost three years ago, spent his first swimming lesson crying at the edge of the pool, pleading with me to take him home? He was terrified back then. Absolutely terrified. At age 2, he had slipped in the kiddie pool one day and fell under the water for a few seconds – which is what can happen if momma is sitting 2 feet away but gets lost in her thoughts for just a moment. Since then, Zippy has had a precarious relationship with swimming pools.
When my little peanut sobbed through that first swimming lesson, the momma in me wanted to scoop him up and run out of the YMCA, promising we’d never go back. But the psychologist in me knew that avoidance is a great friend to fear (and that my kid needed to be safe around water). When it comes to a phobia, as long as we can avoid that thing we fear, we rest easy (relatively speaking), but our feelings don’t change. It’s only by facing a fear that we can overcome it. Staying in a scary situation long enough gives our body’s fight-or-flight response a chance to subside and our mind a chance to see the situation isn’t as bad as we believed. (If you want to use fancy words, you can use “desensitization” and “cognitive restructuring.”)
When I was in grad school, I was bitten by a dog – a nice big chomp to the leg that broke the skin and left a nasty bruise the size of a softball. I had never been afraid of dogs before, but after that bite I would cross the street if I saw a strange dog approaching, even on a leash. (Avoidance.) It wasn’t until Hubby and I adopted a sweet little rescue dog 5 years later that I finally got over my fear. Well, eventually. Hubby insists I was all jumpy around the puppy for the first few weeks. But since we now own a 100-pound doberman, too, I’m going to call myself cured.
So instead of rescuing my terrified little boy, I made him stay. I didn’t want him to be further traumatized by the experience, but I knew he needed to see it through because leaving would only reinforce his fear. I told him we couldn’t leave, but I pulled a chair up to the pool’s edge in the hope that having me nearby would make him feel safer. I tried not to say much and let the teacher – who was amazing – handle the swimming stuff. She let him sit on the edge of the pool between turns, rather than hang
out in the water with the others. She always let him know what was coming next. She knew just how to encourage him without pushing too far, which was a delicate balance. I promised him we’d stop for a treat after if he was “brave” and did his best. By the fourth class he had stopped crying. (His teacher had told me that most kids settle in after three classes and she was right.) I moved my chair farther away. Then a little farther. Then a little farther. Eventually, I was back on the risers with the rest of the parents.
Zippy still didn’t love pools after that. Each time we went to the pool the next summer, he would play along the edge for a solid half hour before finally venturing into the water. If the water was any deeper than his waist, he clung to us like a frightened little monkey, insisting that we hold him tight. But over the course of the summer, he relaxed. And the next summer, his comfort increased. Which bring us to this summer – he is intent on learning to swim.
I watched my baby in the pool tonight, his skinny legs kicking furiously while he held onto a “marshmallow stick” for support, no adult holding on to him. I was filled to bursting with pride and love and excitement for him. How could this be the same child? Hubby reminded me that crying little boy was half his life ago. But still….he’s come a long way.