Chronicles of a mom whose child is learning to swim

Summer of three.nine
When Tej was over three years last summer, I decided it was a good time for him to start learning to swim. I would have liked to have him start earlier, but I didn’t know of any facility in our neighbourhood where such small kids can learn. So anyway, I and Harshad took him to the coach at a nearby swimming pool. He was the one who had taught both me and Harshad and we knew him well.

On the first day, I took Tej down to the kids pool, which is about 4 ft in depth, and introduced the coach to him. Tej was not interested in the coach but in watching the scenes all around. Children shivering at the edge, some sobbing. I knew this wasn’t the ideal setting in which to start. But what followed was a disaster. Tej just refused to get into his trunks at all. I stood with him by the side of the pool and thus passed the first day watching by the side. As did the whole of the month. Nevertheless, I used to take him there everyday and we would stand by the pool side and watch the other kids. The coach would give him a sweet everyday. Tej would happily take it and then tell me he was ready to leave. Harshad had taken out a monthly pass and we would run races, Harshad swimming, the two of us running and we’d generally fool around. But as far entering the pool went, Tej didn’t want to do that at all. “You don’t even need to get wet, baba’ll just take you around on his shoulders for a ride”, I told him once, thinking this was bound to be a winner! It didn’t budge him.

A new year, a new pool
So passed a dry summer of 2012. By the time it was Feb 2013, I started feverishly trying to think up of some idea that would help me to get Tej in the water. My goal this year had been reduced to that – just get Tej to enter the pool. I called up some other pools to find out if they followed any child-friendly methods to entice children into the pool. I didn’t find anything to encourage me. March rolled in and I still had no plan. I was beginning to lose my temper whenever Harshad behaved as though it was of not much consequence. In my mind, the key to Tej feeling like entering the pool was when there were not many wailing kids about. And that had to be done in March. Schools shut down for the summer in April and then you could barely move in the water without hitting someone. After another heated argument and feeling bewildered and perhaps hurt by my scorpion-like stingers, Harshad tentatively suggested we take Tej down to another pool in our area. It was a much smaller pool and I had never been there. In fact, I had not heard any good things about it. But the fact that Harshad was suggesting positive action, prompted me to eagerly fall in with the plan.

So the three of us went there in the first week of March. I immediately liked the pool. It was definitely a lot smaller than the one we were used to, but it was clean and well maintained and looked inviting. The other facilities were also good. And best of all, the shallow end was only three ft deep. Which meant, Tej would be able to stand in the pool with his nose out of the water. There was also a separate baby pool, if need be. All in all it looked good. We stood there watching the activity in the pool. One coach was whistling and timing a group of young swimmers. Their grace in the water was nice to watch. Even Tej seemed to feel good about it. We talked to him about how the sir there can help him learn how to swim like a fish. And how he would take good care of him and so on. He seemed ready this time.

We talked to the coach there and he said Tej could start straightaway. He informed us that if we paid up for three months in advance, we would get a discount. This would have meant being too optimistic about the whole thing. I was inclined to pay for just the one month. But Harshad thought otherwise. So with a little trepidation, since it was quite a bit of money and we didn’t know if he would even enter the pool, I signed Tej up for three months.

Into the Pool, Hooray!
This time around, on the first day, in contrast to last summer, Tej acquiesced. The coach, a young fit person, took him in his arms. Tej surprisingly, trusted him and let him carry him around the pool. I was thrilled but cautious. After all, it was only the first day.

But we did okay in the days that followed. We did have a little drama now and then, especially in the initial days. Sometimes, when I would be driving him to the pool, he would suddenly ask me to turn the car around and go home. Then I would pull to side of the road and engage into a lengthy discussion with him about why we were doing this etc etc. Then he would eventually agree to carry on. Sometimes, he would burst into tears and tell me he didn’t want to go. It used to be tough to get him to calm down and reason out the whole thing. It was time consuming as well as tiring to talk exhaustively and we would always be running late. But we never bunked a day. Better late than never was how I looked at it. Even if he got 20 minutes in the pool, it was still important for him to understand that it was a commitment that we were both sticking to. I would encourage him to talk about what was making him cry, what was scaring him and so on. He would eventually tell me he was scared of drowning. I would then tell him how he is the most important and most precious of all to me and how I would never let him come to any harm. And the reason why I was taking him to the pool was, so he can learn an important life skill. If I didn’t think it was safe, I would never take him there. Did I ever let him run or play on the road? That behaviour was not safe. But learning to swim would help him to in fact prevent drowning. I would also tell him that there are all those coaches in the pool. You think they would let you drown? I would ask him. And what does mamma do when you are in the pool ? Do I go away anywhere ? I sit throughout watching you. If ever you are in trouble, you can be sure mamma will jump in, clothes and all, because mamma can swim. That would always bring a smile to his face and he would feel comfortable enough to carry on.

Perseverance and Progress
Thus we were chugging along on bumpy tracks. A month passed and he had not made any visible progress – in the sense he was nowhere close to swimming. But in my view, he had made huge progress. He was no longer getting upset about swimming. He was getting more and more comfortable in the water with each passing day. He even participated in an Under 6, Swim-with-FloatPad competition. We were all very proud when he lined up with all the other kids and jumped in at the deep end (which he had never done without his coach in the water) when the whistle went. To prepare him for participating in the competition, Harshad had showed him some nice videos from the London Olympics – the lane tracks, the lining up of the participants, the final whistle. So, though Tej had only just started to learn, he was extremely composed throughout and kept going till he reached the end of the 50 mtr pool.

Initial Technique
In the initial days of his learning, he used to be told to hold the bar along the sides of the pool and kick his feet, freestyle manner. Then his sir would put him in a tube ( the coach had asked me to buy one for the early days), and Tej would then hold a float pad in his hands and kicking with his feet would do the rounds of the shallow pool. He was also taught how to blow bubbles in the water with his nose. At the end of each lesson, the coach would put each kid up on the edge of the pool and tell them to jump – 3 times, 5 times or whatever. Tej would insist on the sir holding his hands and only then he’d jump. At the time, when I would see the other children, who were around Tej’s age, jumping without needing to hold the coach’s hands, or doing their rounds in the pool without the tube, I would wonder, will Tej be able to do all that? I’m very happy to say that Tej now does more than I ever anticipated. He can swim freely without needing any flotation device. But between that stage and this, there passed three months which were tough for both of us.

Coaching Practice
His coach, as did all the other coaches, regularly threatened kids with spanking them or taking them down to the deep end, if they did not do as told. I thought this was ridiculous. I mean, here I was, telling Tej everyday that swimming was fun and safe and trying to get him to be comfortable with not just the swimming lessons but also his coach. And the coaches were doing their best to put the fear of a spanking/deliberate drowning in their hearts! And I never saw anyone say a word against this. This is a sad reflection of how parenting mostly is. Bully/threaten the child and get the child to do what you want. The irony is that when the child says she is scared to enter the pool, the same parent will push her in and tell her to not be such a scared mouse! I feel like telling these parents – you have actively helped the coach to scare the child and now you have the audacity to tell the child to not behave like a scared kitten or whatever!

Maybe some parent does have misgivings about this method of coaching but why not do something? Probably because their apprehensions are vague and undefined and they don’t know what else is to be done. The coach surely knows better, right? Wrong. The coach knows better than you, how to teach someone to swim. But the coach does not understand your child better than you do. In fact I would say, the coach might not understand kids at all. The coach does not know that your child is going to be traumatized by the yelling and the threats. That your child is going to be very scared of the whole process of learning to swim. That your child is going to plead with you everyday to not force her into the water.

First Test as Parent
The first time I caught him saying to Tej “If you don’t do this properly, I’ll spank you”, I remember being shocked. I and Harshad believe this to be the worst form of parenting where bullying becomes physical abuse. Anyway, I called up Harshad and told him that I had heard the coach saying such and such thing. Should I complain to the management and pull him out of coaching ? We discussed the matter and decided to first talk to the coach himself and then escalate if necessary. Accordingly, at the end of the lesson, I dried and changed Tej and told him to wait. His coach was still in the water. I walked up to the edge and said to him “You are doing a great job. Tej is enjoying his lessons and he has become very comfortable in water, more than I could have imagined. He is making real progress and I would like to continue his lessons even after the summer season is over. However, he does not need to be threatened or yelled at in any way. And he definitely does not need to be whacked. I don’t want him to be scared in any way. He will take some time, maybe he won’t do it in the time frame you have in mind, but it’s ok with me. I’m willing to bring him for as long as it takes. But I want him to like you. I want him to be happy about learning with you.” The coach listened to me and responded with “I’m not going to really whack him without reason!” I felt like rolling my eyes. Anyway, I tried again. “I know you are certainly not going to whack him (as if that was an option!!!), but he doesn’t need to hear it either. He will do whatever you want him to, but it will take time.” The coach nodded and I walked off.

After that point, there was a marked difference in how the coach treated Tej and how he treated other kids. The yelling and threats continued with the other kids – it did not deter him in the least. But he was always smiling and pleasant with Tej.

Once though, some weeks after the above incident, the coach tried to force Tej in to the deep end of the pool. Tej was not ready. Again I had to intervene and tell him that it will take time but don’t force him. He did not agree with me as he believed that Tej would never learn but I persisted. It was more important for me to have a happy confident albeit a non-swimmer Tej, than a scared swimmer. And if necessary, I thought grimly, I and Harshad would coach him if it comes to that.

Patience is a Necessity, not just a Virtue
The most important feature of teaching small kids or any kid for that matter, is to understand that each child is unique and should be allowed to learn at her own pace. This is tough to find and a big challenge in India. Because kids are never made to feel comfortable and are never allowed to do things at their pace. Everyone has to march to the tune of a pre-determined schedule. The part which gave me the shudders and still does, is that, in India, kids are regularly shouted at, hollered at to be precise, threatened and even whacked/pinched/etc, to help the coach/teacher/parent/whoever is in charge to accomplish their goal. In short kids are bullied and everyone, right from the coach, parents, the system, believes that ” Chadi Vaje Chamm Chamm, Vidya Yei Gham Gham” as the Marathi saying goes. Which can be compared with the English saying “Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child”.

According to personal experiences of friends abroad, kids in the American/ Australian / European countries are treated with a lot of patience and are never bullied into swimming by their coaches. There would be stray incidents of course but it won’t be the norm. Check out some of these videos of a swimming lesson of kids in the US and Australia.– the kid is so small but she is so comfortable.

Also, there is no idea of a fun element in the pool for children learning to swim in India. There is a separate baby pool at the pool that Tej goes to, which is only 2 ft in depth. But, and hard to believe as this may be, I witnessed even the tiny tots in there being shouted at by their coach. The babies in there were crying and wanting to get out and they were loudly and sternly told to do as instructed! They were told to walk in a train, which ideally is supposed to be fun for children. But the way it was conducted, no smiles, no love, no laughter, that no wonder the kids didn’t like it and wanted to get out. Check out these videos. this one

The worst I witnessed at Tej’s pool was older kids sobbing!! There was one 10 year old kid who was doing very well or so I thought; but the coach was repeatedly putting her in the deep end. She could swim but she was not ready to plunge in the deep. Swimming is a lot about confidence too. And that takes time and patience to build. I don’t know why the coach and her mum persisted with the routine. In the end, the girl was put in the charge of a lady coach; but no change in the results. The girl once even tried to escape from the pool; so the coach grabbed her leg as the girl made her bid for freedom. The girl slipped and scrambled and ran to the changing room, mother and coach haring after her. I saw them drag her out and push her in to the pool again. I was aghast. I saw kids older than her, about 12,13 years, sobbing everyday in the pool. A boy, about 12, one day, held fast onto a pillar crying, as the coach tried to prise his hands off and push him in. The mum was heard saying “He was doing so well initially, he has been at it for a month but he still can’t swim yet. He’s almost there.” Well, really! I couldn’t believe all these people.

I knew I would never have this happening with Tej, but seeing all these strange parents, made my resolve stronger. It’s July and I still take him swimming. He is learning to master the breast stroke right now. There are still times when he tells me he doesn’t want to go – those times I tell him we’ll ask coach if he can just play in the water that day. And we do do that. It’s a long road but at least it’s not a tearful one. And the joy is immense as I see him happily splashing, swimming, and jumping in the water. Tej trusts me, without knowing it, to ensure that not only does he come to no harm, but also that he is comfortable and happy. I hope to never betray that trust.

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