When my husband and I signed our three kids up for swimming lessons six years or so ago, our motivation was simple: We wanted them to be able to save themselves in the water, if necessary. Swimming was a life skill they needed to have for their very survival, and we were determined to keep up the lessons until they were relatively strong swimmers.
With some fits and starts, we’ve seen them meet that goal — the boys at least. Within the last year or so, both went from being in awe of the deep end to spending all their summer pool time jumping off the diving board. At a friend’s backyard pool this August, our eldest twin spent his mornings doing actual laps, by himself.
The sight of him rhythmically pushing through the water end-to-end caused a shift in me. No longer was this just about survival; suddenly, I was thinking bigger.
Instead of dropping the swimming lessons and concentrating on his sister, who has yet to pass the swim test, I decided then that he and his brother would keep going with classes, to work on stroke perfection. Saving themselves was no longer the goal. I wanted them to be technically good swimmers. And when the swim instructor told us that the boys had reached the final level for lessons and would need to be on a swim team if we kept going, I got excited.
How much better would their skills improve if they joined a team and had to swim more often, with a coach guiding them toward excellence? Could we have found the sport that we could nurture in them until the college recruiters came calling? Might we be able to blow the “black people can’t swim” stereotype completely out of the water? (Ha ha!)
I could barely contain my excitement about the idea when I told my husband later that morning. And I could barely mask my disappointment when, upon hearing me talk about it, both boys declared, emphatically, that they did not want to be on anyone’s swim team, no way, no how. Absolutely, unequivocally no.
So here we are at a pivotal point in this parenting journey — one we haven’t experienced before.
What do we do when we can see real skills in our children, in need of development — skills that could benefit them later in life? How much do we insist? How hard do we push?
Since the kids were toddlers, we’ve been consistent about exposing them to lots of activities: music lessons, art classes, dance, basketball, soccer, golf, lacrosse, baseball. As long as they enjoyed the activity, we kept going. When they grew bored, we insisted they finish the term/honor the obligation (and not waste our money), but when it was over, it was over. No judgment or pressure; let’s just find something else.
And with swimming in particular, we thought, any amount of mastery on their part would be a vast improvement over our own swimming skills: Neither my husband nor I can swim at all.
But now it feels different. They’re bigger, stronger and — at least the eldest one is — really good at something, not just competent. At a recent lesson, a girl’s father came over to me to compliment my boy’s swimming ability. His own son, he said, was a competitive swimmer and by graduation had 19 schools offering him college scholarships. “He’s got it,” the man said to me, nodding his head in my son’s direction. “I’ve been watching him.”
I beamed, proud, envisioning a parade of recruiters at my doorstep in eight years.
“I don’t want to be on the swim team,” my son said, afterward. “It’s too much pressure.”
But then later in the day — after begging to be allowed to stay after his lesson to race his brother in the lap pool — he admitted that he dreads going to swim lessons only until he gets there. After that, “I don’t want to stop.”
“Sooo,” I asked him hopefully, “then do you want to just try swim team?”
“NO,” he barked, and proceeded to mime swimming freestyle as he walked away.
What are we supposed to do with these mixed messages? We don’t want to be the overbearing parents who force their kids into sports or other activities, but we also feel compelled to push them past their comfort zones.
Help us navigate these uncharted waters: Is it their desire that matters — or our sense of what they need and can do? Send us a life raft, parents. We’re in over our heads.
Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who works in communications at Constellation. She and her husband have twin 9-year-old sons, a 7-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her column appears monthly.