Anyone who knows me will agree that I am emphatically NOT a Tiger Mother. My children watch embarrassing amounts of television, eat a lot of processed garbage (we are both a Goldfish house AND a chocolate milk house, argh), and they have never touched a violin, to the best of my knowledge. Although Penn did receive a dissectable plastic model of the human body for her birthday, it wasn’t because I want her to start studying for the MCATs…it was because she loves skeletons.
Some of my friends have had their kids enrolled in classes since they started walking: soccer, gymnastics, musical theater, ballet. Not that they are Tiger Mothers, either - they are following their children’s interests, experimenting to find their kids’ “thing” – the activity they love and are great at, the thing that they will end up chauffeuring their kids to for years and years, the thing that will drain their bank accounts and pad their kids’ college applications. That thing.
Penelope’s forays into organized activities have been….less than stellar. We did a mommy-and-me music class together when she was little, and although she loved the CD’s and knew all the little hand motions that went with each song, she spent each 45 minute class session running amok (going in the opposite direction from the other kids during the marching songs, using the maracas as throwing stars, smacking her pudgy hands on the window glass, screaming during the “goodbye song”). Goooood times.
We also tried soccer last summer. Here’s how that went: soccer coach lines the kids up for a drill. She tells the kids to start running, to touch the orange cone, and then run back to the start line. Penelope starts running, her thin white legs pumping, flying across the field. She keeps running and running. The poor 19-year-old soccer coach is yelling her name, blowing a whistle; I’m chasing her with Vivian bouncing along in the Ergo carrier. She keeps running until she slams into the chain link fence, she bounces like a stunned bird, then turns around and runs to the left instead of going back to the start line. We got a refund for the rest of the soccer session.
We’ve been enjoying a period of relative cooperativeness and compliance lately, so I thought I’d cross my fingers and sign Penn up for swim lessons. I have learned a lot about my child’s personality and motivations in the last year, so I knew I’d have to set her up for success before starting the lessons. Every day for a week before her first lesson, I’d say, “hey, Penn! Swimming class starts soon! Won’t it be fun to swim by yourself?”
“No,” she’d say. “I want to swim with you.”
“Well, I’ll be there, too,” I’d say. “You will just be able to swim without holding onto me.”
“Nope,” she’d answer. “I like hanging onto you.”
A few days before we started the lessons, we went swimming with some friends. My friend’s little girl, five months younger than Penelope, had just conquered the whole swimming thing. She could jump from the steps and swim under the water for a good ten seconds, wiggling into her mother’s arms.
Penn watched this carefully. She tried a few jumps herself. She came up from underwater sputtering, but smiling. “Again, again!” she said. I marveled at the power of peer pressure – Penn just wanted to be like her friend, and if that meant swimming alone, she would do it.
On the way to her first swimming lesson, I said. “So, are you going to swim like Alafair? All on your own?”
“Uh huh,” she said casually, as if I’d asked if she would like to eat a banana later.
And she did. In her first two lessons, she went from blowing bubbles in the water to leaping from the side and kicking like a smooth little eel under the water toward the teacher. With each leap, her teacher moved farther and farther back, forcing Penn to swim longer and longer.
The other moms sitting next to the pool were enjoying their half hours of kid-free time – reading, talking to friends, texting. I, however, found myself acting like a fan at an Olympic swim meet.
Every time P jumped, I held my breath as she held hers. Every time she swam a bit farther, I would squeal and applaud. I couldn’t help myself. I found myself taking pictures and videos, getting close up to the edge of the pool for a better view. I loved the determination on her small face, the shy smiles of pride she gave the teacher when she accomplished something. I loved to watch her collect the high fives the teacher offered. I loved the way she leaped from the side of the pool, her little legs akimbo, no fear or tension evident in her tiny body. I couldn’t wipe the stupid smile from my face. “I’m a trout!” I heard her yell at one point, and I called my father immediately to tell him. The first time she swam from the stairs to the wall, I cried.
It all felt so MOMENTOUS – like she was passing onto a new plane right before my eyes. After the first lesson, I apologized to the teacher for being such a dork. “I’m just so excited for her!” I said.
The teacher smiled. “It’s fine,” she said. “It’s nice to see such a proud mama.”
We had a week of glorious improvement, of huge strides. I started fantasizing about the junior swim team. That was a sport I could live with, I thought to myself – bustling meets, exciting races, few injuries.
Then, we went to a swimming party – and we saw the flip side of the peer pressure coin. Another of my friends has a son just P’s age who has also been taking swim lessons. We had been talking on the phone about the kids’ progress and it sounded like they were at the same place – just starting to travel through the water on their own. We had tried to get them together to practice, but this was the first time we would be swimming together.
Benny and Penn stood together on the side of the pool, counted to three in unison, and flew into the water – and it became clear that they were the yin and yang of swimming. Benny could tread water and dog-paddle, his blond and curly head bobbing at the surface. His arms did most of the work to carry him back toward the wall. Penn, on the other hand, was an underwater glider, holding her breath, kicking her slim legs, and holding her arms near her sides. After surfacing, she watched Benny swim for a moment – and then decided that she wanted to do it the way Ben did.
Unfortunately, P just can’t do it. She struggles to tread water, her head sinking and slipping until just her nose and mouth are at the surface. She swallows water and gasps. Over and over again, during that pool party and at the gym pool the next day, we had her jump – and every time, she tried to dog paddle, sinking like a stone.
I found myself growing more and more disappointed with each jump. I’d watch, wait, and then grab her by the arm. “Hey, Penn,” I’d say. “How about you try it under water again? You’re really good at doing it that way. You can go so much farther and faster that way.” But P shook her head. Benny is her best friend, and if Benny swims with his head up, she wants to swim with her head up, too.
On Father’s Day, I suggested that we all go swimming together as a fun activity, but I was aware that there was a small part of me that just wanted Penn to practice and get back to the underwater glide again. P was tired and cranky, and it wasn’t as warm as it had been. “Do you want to swim?” I asked her.
“Maybe later,” she said.
So instead of asking, I told her it was time to go. We got to the pool, and another one of her friends was there, a non-swimmer. Oh good, I thought. Penn will want to show her her best technique. Nope – back to the dog-paddle struggle again, the fish-lips at the surface. I noticed that if I positioned myself far away enough, she’d eventually duck under and swim toward me, but she surfaced with a look of worry instead of triumph – I’d pushed it too far, and although she could do it, she was a little scared.
I talked to my mother later that day and told her about how frustrating it was – how well Penn had been doing, how she had backslid, how I had gone from clapping and crying to criticizing and cajoling her to do things differently. “But she’s having fun, right?” my mom asked. “She likes it?”
Yes. She is having fun, whether swimming steady as Michael Phelps or thrashing around like a hooked bass. She is having fun, and that is the important thing.
That Tiger Mother instinct – the wheedling, the suggesting, the correcting – is new to me. When Penn started swimming, I was so thrilled and happy to see her loving something so much, to see her doing something so well. To see her take a step backwards was disappointing, and it was hard for me to hide that. I don’t want to damage her budding confidence or make her feel like I only accept perfection, but I want her to succeed. It’s a tough balance to strike.
With a little reflection, I realize that the two steps forward, one step back thing is the way to growth. At that pace, you’re still moving forward. Swimming, reading, riding a bike, becoming independent…the process of mastering these skills is just that – a process. I’m still moving forward in the same way, in fits and starts, with regressions and progressions and stalls.
Since my own childhood, my parents have always let my sisters and I make strides forward and stumbles back. They have always let me know that I can make mistakes and that even if I do things imperfectly, they will be cheering my efforts on. When I ask for feedback, they give it honestly; when I need support, it’s there, whether they think I’m better off dog paddling or dunking under. And they have asked along the way – are you having fun? Are you feeling fulfilled? Are you getting something out of this, even if you’re almost drowning?
So at today’s swim lesson, I will try to keep the encouragement and curb the commentary. I will clap for effort. I will praise the will to get into the water and to try, the joy of jumping into something you haven’t quite figured out yet, the importance of learning to do it your own way.