04 June 2013

Acting on a Gut Instinct at My Toddler's Swim Lesson

A friend of mine posted this Infant Swimming Resource video on Facebook a few months back.

Holy toddler survival swimming! The child in the video has to be 12 months, maybe 13? Whatever the child's age, he looks younger than Nerd--and he knows how to save himself if he accidentally entered a body of water.

Formal swimming lessons for our toddler had never really entered my mind. I was the overly-confident parent who thought I could teach her to blow bubbles and then put her in water wings until she was four. We'd get around to lessons when she was in preschool. But who has two thumbs and a fear of drowning? This mom. I was researching swimming programs in our area as soon as the video was over. I was not going to raise a child who shared my fear.

So I talked to a few of my friends about my interest in classes. Another couple, Ben and Krissy, shared the interest for their two young children, and we used lessons as an excuse to spend time together. We narrowed down swimming venues and eventually joined Mommy and Me classes together at an aquatic center between where each of us lives. Turns out the commute from our house is 30 miles one direction. To me, Nerd learning life-saving swim techniques would be worth the distance.

We arrived to our first class with a handful of other parents and their toddlers. Nerd was intrigued, but cautious. Once in the water, we formed a circle and sang along to "The Hokey Pokey". Nerd cried at times, looking to me for reassurance. While other tots tried blowing bubbles or kicking their legs behind them, I was distracting Nerd with lots of smiles and clapping and words of praise. Anything to keep her positive for the 30 minutes we were in the water. There were still some tears, but I figured she'd cry less with repeated exposure.

One thing you should understand: Nerd L-O-V-E-D the water last summer. I had her in the pool roughly once a week, and she took to it like a champ. In her floaty or splashing water while in my arms, she was a happy child in the pool. I asked Lauren, our instructor, if Nerd's behavior was normal. She told me that because it had been so long since Nerd's last pool experience, she had forgotten how fun it was. If Nerd had never been in the pool, the lesson would have been much worse--inconsolable crying and obvious fear. We had seven more lessons. Lauren put my mind at ease by telling me it would get better.

We attended the second and third lessons, and by a stroke of good luck, Ben, Krissy, me, and our children were the only ones in the class. But even with the small teacher-to-student ratio, Nerd's resistance to the lesson wasn't just growing, it was becoming downright uncomfortable. Not so much that she was howling in front of my friends. They were sympathetic and supportive. It was Nerd's distrust of Lauren. She was making a connection: pool meant lesson, lesson meant Lauren, Lauren meant bad.

This sucks for Lauren because she is a great instructor. She obviously knows what she's doing. She approaches Nerd with a calm and positive demeanor, walking away if Nerd really starts to lose it and banking on the moments when her crying is, um, less intense. There was even one "tough love" moment that I appreciated being a former educator. Lauren took Nerd in her arms, saying, "If you're going to cry with Momma, you're going to cry with me, and that's OK." My tot was only a foot away from me, wailing of course, but getting a moment of much-needed instruction.

Then the aquatic center changed the lesson schedule before the fourth lesson. They moved it to half an hour later so that they could combine us with other Mommy and Me classes, which were held in the same pool at the same time as another class for slightly older tots. This meant a lot of extra people in the pool room.

Nerd was as happy as could be, watching the lesson ahead of us and making friends with a little boy who shared our bench. She let me put on her swim diaper. She ate cheddar bunnies. She beamed when she made attempts at saying the word "pool". She even tried walking right up to the edge a few times.

When it was our turn, I scooped her up and started toward the water. Nerd saw Lauren and started crying. Out of instinct, I grabbed her stuffed penguin and brought it with us into the water. Hey, that's what washing machines are for, right? We were only on the second step, and Nerd started screaming, "Bye, pool! Bye, pool!" through her tears and snot. Lauren came over to us to gently ask about her penguin, and Mal screamed harder. She buckled her body and clawed at mine. If her penguin had been a real animal, she surely would have squeezed it to death.

I tried to move her hands and feet to the appropriate sections of "The Hokey Pokey". It was like trying to separate industrial-strength velcro. Krissy gave me a look of wanting to help, but the other mothers in the water were obviously disturbed by my child. We moved the class in a circle to encourage belly floating and kicking. Again, Nerd couldn't be pulled from my torso. And every time Lauren came near, Nerd would only shriek.

Eyes of parents from all around the room were watching the momma of the screaming child. Whether they were judging on the fact that I was pushing my child to her limit or that I allowed her plush binky in the water, I couldn't tell. But now I was every parent who ever had a child pitch a fit in public, and they were waiting for me to handle it.

So I did. Ten minutes into the lesson with all attempts at comforting my child having been exhausted, I removed my child from the pool. My gut told me this wasn't working, that Nerd needed time to forget Lauren and the chance to love the water--without an instructor. All three of us were dripping (penguin included) when I sat down with Nerd on the bench. I held her while she recovered, and we created an impressive puddle that ended up soaking our diaper bag. It took another ten excruciating minutes to change her into dry clothes, and our audience continued to glance over at us.

I walked out of the pool room, frustrated and confused. I was promised progress, and the opposite was happening. I asked the girl at the front desk for a refund for the remaining classes that we would not be attending. She could only guarantee a phone call from the instructor.

Out at our car, I strapped Nerd into her car seat, threw the wet diaper bag into the floorboard, and cried. I turned around in my seat to look at my daughter and told her how much I loved her.

Lauren left me a voicemail during our drive to ask us to keep coming to lessons. I appreciated her desire to push through, but my gut kept telling me we needed time.

Unfortunately, the frustration didn't end with me getting a refund. When I called the aquatic center back to speak with Lauren, she had already left for the day and I ended up speaking to a gentleman. I forget his name, but he must have been some sort of manager or owner. He listened to my concern about how my child was only putting up more and more of a fight, that I didn't think the instructor was a match for my child, that I felt we needed separation and the chance to come back when I felt she was ready, and he went on the defense:

Maybe she can sense your fear of water and she's reacting to it. Sometimes, you just have to be told things you don't want to hear. You're not doing your child any favors giving up on her now. I've been in this business long enough to know that you do a child this way, and they'll go off to kindergarten with serious separation anxiety issues.
Who in the hell did this guy think he was talking to? Had I spoken to one of my students' parents the way he was speaking to me, I would have been taken before the board and fired. But we weren't in a government-funded classroom, and I was the customer instead of the service provider. If he was going to play the "it's my profession" card, then I was going to throw down mine:
I think I know a little something about encouraging children to persevere and issues with separation anxiety. I was an educator for almost a decade before I decided to stay at home with my child!

This ass waffle would never know that I used to spend an hour trying to encourage a child on the autism spectrum to sit still in her chair or bubble in her scantron during CRCT, despite bouts of screaming, biting, and pencil-breaking. He would never know how I lost sleep over trying to figure out ways to teach my ELL students how to divide in a way that made sense or that I stayed after work every Friday afternoon to tutor kids who needed it.

But upon hearing "educator", he backpedaled a bit. No refund could be offered, nor any promise of a solution if the next four classes were only met with uncontrollable crying and koala-level clinging. The best they could do was offer private lesson conversions with a different instructor. I was more open to that idea, but the way the guy was handling the conversation had me fuming. He doesn't know my child. He hadn't been the one holding her in the water through four unbearable classes.

The conversation ended with him taking my name and number, promising a returned call from an instructor. No one called. I tried them this morning, again being told they would get an instructor in touch with me as soon as they came in for morning classes. Still no call.

I acted on instinct, and I stand by my decision to leave the class. It's hard enough to be a mom, and even harder when you are trying to enjoy a class that's meant to be learning masked by fun, like water safety instruction. If that guy thinks I'm giving up on my child, then he can just continue to think that way and be a jerk. I am staying open to other options they want to offer me, as long as they uphold their end to treat me as a customer who isn't satisfied with the results I was promised. It looks like we'll get private lessons, or the Better Business Bureau will be getting a phone call.


1 comment:

A. Hab. said...

Vikki. I am at a loss!! Gimme a minute, I'm sure I'll recover.

I read to Robert what the manager said to you, and he and I are both just so shocked and horrified. Who tells a mother that she is giving up on her child??? You are doing anything but that! And believe me (and I'm sure you can say the same thing), when you see people through the education system, you DO see kids whose parents gave up on them. Deciding to stop this style of water safety lesson isn't giving up. It's responding to your daughter's needs.

I completely stand behind you on this one, as I'm sure many moms and dads would. You haven't said, "and that was the last time we'll ever be in the water." You haven't said, "We'll never go to the beach or play in the ocean." Far from it--you're still waving the water safety and confidence banner. But you're right. This wasn't working. What in the world could she have learned while screaming and clinging to you?

I share your unease with the water--I don't think mine is a full-blown fear...except when it comes to Mel. We're planning to put her in the lake this summer, and the other night I couldn't stop picturing her sinking to the bottom, never to be found again. Robert had to remind me that he and his dad are excellent swimmers (his dad was on the university diving team when he was in college in the 70s), that Mel will never be in the water without an infant lifejacket plus a float, and she would never be without at least two adults present at any given moment. I'm worried that my fear will translate to her--I don't want her to be terrified of the lake, like I am (in the 6 years we've been together, I've never actually gone in the lake water yet).

But that night when I kept picturing the worst, I asked Robert if I could be the one who got to lay down the rules and decide when enough was enough. He didn't hesitate to agree. He promised I would be the only one to hold her when we go out on the boat. He assured me that I would get to say when she'd had enough, even if it wasn't very long by other people's standards. It won't be "giving up" if I decide that she's not ready. That child will be given every opportunity to be comfortable around water.

But the thing that ass-hat manager needs to realize is that we can't always control what our children are afraid of (rationally or irrationally). But dammit we can teach them how to be safe. Just like you're still doing.

I'm proud of you for following your gut and responding to your daughter. But I'm even more proud that you're still considering alternatives to achieve the goal of teaching her how to be safe and confident in the water.

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