My son is scared to jump from the side of the pool into the water. The action is required in his swimming class before he can move up to the next level. He asks me why it is necessary. I have no good answer.
He is not a child who acts on blind faith. He acts on fact and reason. He wants to know why.
When I say to his teacher, “Could you please tell him why he needs to learn how to jump?”
The teacher says, “Because it’s fun.” Not quite the answer we were looking for. When the teacher notes my son’s reaction as he sits shivering on the side of the pool, he mumbles a follow up about needing to learn how to jump into the water in case you are ever on a boat. Again, this does not move my son to jump.
I know what it is, this fear. He does not trust that the teacher will rescue him when he goes under. The pool is deep, the bottom uncertain.
At the beach, he jumps off the sandy cliff cut by a tide pool over and over into the shallow water. I say, “See? You can do it. You are jumping into the water.”
“It’s not like the pool,” he says. We both know that is true.
When I was his age, I would blindly jump into the pool, not even considering the bottom. I was not risk averse as he is. I know that while this aversion may hold him back in some ways, generally it will mean he will live a longer and happier life. At least that is what I hope.
In many ways, I am not risk averse, which has been a blessing and a curse throughout my life. At my son’s age, I nearly died because of my recklessness. It was winter. My sisters and I were in the vacant lot next door, climbing an apple tree. I must have slipped on a snowy branch because the next thing I knew, I was hanging by my neck in between V-d branches.
I was hanging. Dangling by my neck.
My sisters screamed and tried to help me but they were too small. My mother, washing dishes in the kitchen, saw us from the window and ran out in her bare feet. She quickly pulled me from the tree. Because she was there, she saved my life.
And I know how she felt in that moment. That horrific feeling of parental dread when you are collapsing within as you watch your child in distress and danger. The utter helplessness to turn back time.
When he was one, my son nearly choked to death fifteen minutes into us entering a remote vacation rental. As our son was grasping for breath, my husband and I realized even more fully than we had ever done before how very much he was intertwined with us. We could not imagine a world without him.
And yet part of modern parenting is constantly imagining that world and trying to find ways to fight against it, while at the same time finding a way to balance the desire to protect with the child’s desire for and need of independence.
As parents we either do too much or too little protecting. We either do too much or too little allowance for independence. There is not one person I know who has found the perfect balance. It is an imperfect art. An imperfect science.
Actually, it is not only an art and a science. It is an instinct. You see it with the mother duck trying to get her ducklings safely across the road. The cat with her kittens in her mouth moving them to a safer location.
So if it is partially an instinct, how do you help your child over his (rational) fear of doing something that is potentially dangerous? Yes, he could possibly drown if he jumps in the pool, but with his teacher right there and lifeguard nearby, it is unlikely that he would.
After I fell out of the tree, I was no longer allowed to climb trees. This was added to my list of things that I could not do, which included spinning around as my mother believed this would bring on a seizure (I had suffered a petit mal seizure as an infant, most likely brought on by high fever). I was also not allowed to ride a bike.
Then, after my father died, all restrictions fell off me and my mother scarcely knew what I did or did not do because she was not around. Even when she was around and half-heartedly tried to place restrictions on me, we both soon forgot the restrictions and went on as we were. The way I was going on was in increasingly more dangerous ways. I risked my health. I risked my body. I risked my life.
It was only years later that I understood the lessons from taking these risks, but they were lessons that also might easily have been taught me by a parent: love yourself. Be kind to yourself. Be gentle. Yes, you can push against these boundaries, but always remember that I am here to love you without judgment.
On our way to swimming lessons this week, my son said, once again, that he did not want to jump in the pool. He said, “Will you tell my teacher that?”
I told him that no, I would not. I said, “It’s between you and your teacher and it’s your responsibility to talk to him about it.”
He said, “Well, I’m really mad at you then.”
I said, “That’s okay. Be angry with me. I still love you anyway.”
And he said in an angry voice, “I love you, too, Mummy.”
When it came time to jump, he told his teacher that he didn’t want to do it. The teacher cajoled. Next to him a much smaller child jumped over and over off the edge and into the water where his mother waited. My son looked at me, pleading with his eyes for me to intervene.
As much as it pained me, I turned my head.
They reached a compromise: he would jump, but only if he could still hold his teacher’s hands.
And this is what they did.
One day, he will jump on his own. His face will go under the water and in that moment when he is in the water and I am on the side, we will both panic. But then we will remember that beneath the water there is beauty. Bubbles, the pull of gravity, quiet. A reverse birth, a leaving of the air and a return to the quiet of the womb. Then, once again, pushing up to light, breaking the surface again to breathe and to see your mother’s face.