My daughter loves getting in the pool, except for one thing: Getting water in her face. I know this problem well.
When I was a kid, I hated being in the water. Hated it with a passion. Needed to be bribed, heavily, in order to even attempt the most basic aspects of swimming, like going underwater. And even then I still hated it.
When I was younger, there was a PSA that ran all the time on television about how little water it could take for a child to drown. It was intended to make sure parents didn’t leave a baby alone in a bathtub, but my brain catalogued it as evidence that drowning should be a constant fear when in the water.
So I recognized that level of fear and anxiety when Sprout was asked to put her face all the way in the water to blow bubbles (called Submarine Bubbles by her swim class instructor, as opposed to Motorboat Bubbles, which just involve putting up to your nose in the water).
“But what if it hurts?” she would repeat on a loop, with different levels of anxiety and tears.
That fear of potential pain would lead to stalling. To crying. To building up a wall of anxiety around something that she could actually do when she pushed through that initial moment of fear.
And I thought about all the years I spent, afraid of the water. Afraid of getting stuck underwater and drowning. Scared witless by a moment as a tween when I got the courage to swim in the ocean with some friends, only to fall behind and get pulled under by wave after wave as I struggled back to shore.
I didn’t want that for her. I wanted her to face this fear down.
We had an opportunity: A family trip to a lodge in Ohio, where four generations of my family were spending the weekend. The lodge had a pool in the back yard, and the weather would be warm enough for plenty of opportunities for Sprout to practice.
But we needed to bribe her to do Submarine Bubbles.
At first, it was one dollar if she did five of them. Then my dad offered a matching gift for the second set of five, so two dollars for that set. And the last set, the one where she threw herself into them with gusto, involved matching gifts (as a limited time offer) from a bunch of other family members, which brought her $10.
She was practicing. She was getting better. My wife and I were both feeling more confident she could keep this up.
But the night before her final swim class, when executing submarine bubbles for her teacher would determine if she moved on from Mini Fish 1 to Mini Fish 2, she went back into her stubborn, fearful refrain. I asked her to do one Submarine Bubble in the bath tub, and —
“But what if it hurts?”
There’s a frustration and a futility to arguing against an irrational fear. You can’t out-reason it. The only thing that we could do, in trying to help Sprout break through, was normalize the thing she was afraid of: Water in her face.
At one point, during her bath, I asked her if it would be worse to get hit in the face with water or a ham sandwich. We agreed that the ham sandwich was worse (especially if it had mayo on it). Then we made other comparisons, and I asked her if I could dump water from a pitcher onto her face while we joked about it.
With every comparison, she picked water in her face as being the better of the two options. With every splash, she laughed a little harder about the water in her face.
We had to get through this. We had to, because I was not going to pass on this fear. Whenever I’ve gone swimming with Sprout, I’ve always tried to be conscious of not showing any hesitance toward what she was doing, or signal any anxiety that she might pick up on. And I wanted to feel like my failures wouldn’t become hers.
When it’s your own child, it’s sometimes hard to remember that teaching isn’t always about successes. The Last Jedi put it pretty succinctly:
Because I know the fear, I can share with her what I know about facing it. Because I know the cost of letting this fear overwhelm your common sense and your courage, I can remind her of what she’ll miss out on if she forgets how brave she is.
One pathway to success isn’t going to work for all people, but passing on which roads point toward failure can help other people narrow their choices and find the way that works for them.
Let’s cut to the end: She passed the class.
As soon as she was in the water with her teacher, Sprout was eager to talk about how much she had practiced her Submarine Bubbles and showed her teacher what she could do.
After finding out she had passed her class, Sprout was full of boundless enthusiasm for swimming, and wanted to show us all the things she’d learned in her class, without the aid of floaties.
We had to reel her back in when she said that she wanted to jump off the diving board like some older kids she saw, but it was great to see her get past the fear, to feel pride in what she’d done, and to show courage when facing down something that only days before was still paralyzing to her.
At one point we had to start calming her down to get ready to leave, and my wife, commenting on Sprout’s newfound excitement for swimming, asked her “Where did you come from?”
And like the Pawnee Goddess she is, Sprout shouted back:
“I came from your belly, and I’m made of Spicy Chicken Sandwiches!”