girl swimmingWhen my daughter, Leah, was 6, I signed her up for a month of swim lessons. The lessons were every day for a half hour, because, well, that’s what worked for another mom’s kids. This mom told me her kids didn’t make progress until the third week, and a four-week block was the only way to go. Leah had taken lessons in previous summers with little obvious success, and I fell for the mom’s advice.

What I didn’t account for was my daughter’s persistent (read: stubborn) temperament or her willingness to wage silent battle by not getting into the pool. Oh, some days she did, when the planets were aligned, but other mornings she sat on a deck chair and watched her toddler brother dabble with the perky swim teachers. Even when she did get in the pool, Leah steadfastly refused to dunk. Indeed, she didn’t dunk until a year later, in a hotel pool during a summer vacation. The key? It was her idea.

Swim lessons often feel non-negotiable to parents because we care about our children’s safety. And there’s that pesky idea that because all our friends’ kids love swimming, ours should, too. But not all kids take to water like dolphins.

What Can You Do?

First step: relax. Then try these tips for developing water confidence in even the most reluctant youngsters. Chances are you’ll avoid poolside battles.

Go to the pool early and often. That’s the single biggest factor for helping them love water, says Ken Erickson, general manager of a swim club. Regular visits make being in the water seem normal. Sign up for parent/baby classes or take your toddler to your local pool to play.

Keep it fun. Young children learn to swim more quickly when parents interact with them in the pool, so make water play a family experience. A warm pool, 85 degrees or more, is especially important for reluctant swimmers and will help kids relax.

Confront your own fear. If you’re afraid of water, you may convey that to your kids, consciously or not. Consider taking lessons yourself so you can comfortably join your children in the pool (you’re never too old to learn to swim), says Lance Romo, program director at an aquatic center.

Don’t pressure kids or trick them into skills they’re not ready for. Praise their baby steps; trust they’ll make progress when the time is right. If your child is fearful or timid, try a swimsuit with a built-in flotation device for extra fun and buoyancy. She’ll move beyond it when she’s ready, says Erickson.

(A note on flotation aids: avoid water wings because they move the center of buoyancy to the arms; noodles can slip out from under a child. Never leave your child unattended, even with a flotation aid.)

If you’re afraid of water, you may convey that to your kids, consciously or not.

Shop for Lessons

Once your child is confident with pool play, he’s ready to try lessons. For any child, but especially a reluctant swimmer, Erickson offers the following suggestions:

Look for a pool with a high ratio of instructors to students, as well as instructors skilled with kids.

Look for a pool that provides a non-threatening environment, emphasizes fun, and doesn’t force skills such as dunking or jumping off the diving board. Find out how instructors engage reluctant swimmers. 
Interaction should be positive and fun.

Ask whether instructors allow goggles. For some kids, goggles can make all the difference when it comes to going under water.

When Lessons Begin

Prepare your child by describing what to expect (check the pool’s website or talk with instructors in advance).

Let your child interact with the instructor. Don’t hover and distract her (but don’t force separation).

Keep in mind that not all kids progress at the same rate. It’s normal for kids to repeat lessons at the same level multiple times, then suddenly leap ahead.

If your child isn’t making progress due to the group setting or her own fear, try private lessons. Some kids have performance anxiety in a group and do better one-on-one.

For ages 6 and under, take time off between sessions to avoid burnout.

For age guidelines on lessons, talk to the pool staff or refer to its website, but consider your own child’s individual needs. My daughter was one of the oldest children in her level primarily because she wasn’t willing at a younger age to follow directions.

Most important, keep it fun. Once your child overcomes his reluctance, he’ll splash across the pool with the rest of the kids. 

Joanna Nesbit is a freelance writer and mom to two children. Her son didn’t like to dunk either, but he got over it.

How have you helped develop water confidence in your youngster? In what ways can a parent make swimming less scary?