Raise a Water-Confident Kid

When my daughter, Leah, was 6, I signed her up for a month of swim lessons, every day for half an hour, because, well, it worked for another mom’s kids. This mom had told me her kids’ skills didn’t progress until the third week, and a four-week block was the only way to go. Leah had taken lessons in previous summers but with little obvious success, and I fell for the mom’s advice. 


What I didn’t account for was my daughter’s persistent (read: stubborn) temperament or her willingness to wage silent battle by simply not getting into the pool. Oh, sure, some days she did, when the planets were aligned, but other mornings she sat on a deck chair and watched her toddler brother with his perky swim teachers. Even when she did get in the pool, Leah steadfastly refused to dunk. Indeed, she didn’t dunk until a year later while in a hotel pool during a summer vacation. The key? It was her own idea. 


Swim lessons often feel non-negotiable to parents because we care about our children’s safety. And there’s that pesky idea that because all our friends’ kids love swimming, ours should, too. But not all kids take to water like dolphins. 


First step, relax. Then keep in mind the following tips for developing water confidence in even the most reluctant youngsters, and chances are you’ll avoid poolside battles.


Go to the pool often. Taking your kids early and often to the pool is the single biggest factor for helping them love water, says Rebecca Harper, coordinator of the San Jose State University Aquatic Center.  “Start young and just get familiar. It’s all about getting comfortable around the water.” Regular visits make water normal. Sign up for parent/baby classes or plan to take your toddler to your local pool to play.


Play with them. Young children progress quicker when parents interact with them in the pool, so make water play a family experience. Children learn from playing. “If they can associate water with fun, they will love it,” says Heather Ramirez, founder of School for Fishes in San Jose. “Have water fights, go to the water park, go swimming. Anything fun helps!” A warm pool, 85 degrees or more, is especially important for reluctant swimmers and will help kids relax.


Confront your own fear. If you’re a reluctant swimmer yourself, you may convey to your kids that water is something to be afraid of, even if you try to hide your fear. Consider taking lessons, so you can comfortably join your children in the pool (you’re never too old to learn to swim), says Ramirez, and don’t overreact when your child is in the water. Children may go under, swallow some water or be a little scared. Reacting with fear will tell the child there is something to fear, she says. “Reacting with a positive reaction will let them know the water is an okay place for them to explore.”


Don’t pressure kids. Avoid pressuring or tricking your kids into skills they’re not ready for. Praise their baby steps and trust they will progress when the time is right. “A child’s first exposure to water should not be at a pool, it should be at bath time,” says Harper.


A good instructor uses games and songs to entice a timid or fearful child into the pool, introducing them to the water from the bottom up – from chin to mouth to nose and finally eyes.


Joanna Nesbit is a mom and freelance writer. Bay Area Parent Associate Editor Sara Solovitch contributed to this article.




Make a Splash


For any child, but especially the reluctant child, swim experts offer the following suggestions for a successful experience.


Shopping for lessons:

Look for a pool with a high ratio of instructors to students, as well as instructors skilled with working with kids.


Look for a pool that provides a non-threatening environment, emphasizes fun and doesn’t force skills such as dunking or jumping off the diving board.


Find out how instructors engage reluctant swimmers. Interaction should be positive and fun.


Ask whether instructors allow goggles. For some kids, goggles can make all the difference for going underwater.


When lessons begin:

Prepare your child for lessons by describing what to expect (check the pool’s website or talk with instructors in advance).


Allow your child to interact with the instructor without hovering to distract her (but don’t force separation).


Keep in mind that not all kids progress at the same rate. It’s normal for kids to repeat lessons at the same level multiple times and then suddenly to leap ahead.


Try private lessons if your child isn’t progressing due to the group setting or her own fear. Some kids experience performance anxiety in a group and do better in a one-on-one scenario.


For ages 6 and under, take time off between sessions to avoid burn out.


For age guidelines on lessons, talk to the pool staff or refer to their website for recommendations, but keep in mind each child’s individuality. My daughter was one of the oldest children in her level primarily because she wasn’t willing at a younger age to follow directions.


Most importantly, keep it light and fun, and try not to convey concern about lack of progress. Once your child gets past his reluctance, he will be splashing across the pool with the rest of the kids.


Note on flotation aids: Avoid water wings because they move the center of buoyancy to the arms, and noodles can slip out from under a child. Never leave your child unattended even with a flotation aid.


– Joanna Nesbit 

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