Sticking to my Parenting Philosophy

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

When our dog Pesto was younger, we enrolled him in a training camp that came highly recommended. Supposedly, Pesto would become a well mannered pup, able to walk beside me without a leash and never jump up on people or other dogs. I enthusiastically enrolled him, and was surprised to see how harsh the methods were.  Pinch collars, loud German commands, with lots of negative reinforcement were used.  After a few months of this training, Pesto's behavior was worse.  He bit when cornered, became possessive of food and toys, and spent most of the day hidden under chairs.

When I finally realized that this training class was harming our dog, I cried big tears and we pulled him out. Cavalier King Charles are a sensitive companion breed, and this course was not speaking his language. We hired a miracle worker to undo the damage.  His strict boundaries (never let Pesto on furniture unless he's invited, make him sit and wait for his food, etc.) paired with lots of love and positive reinforcement produced the results we wanted, without any of the harsh punishment. Pesto learned that he was actually a DOG, not a human, and that he could trust our authority.  I swore then and there that I would never make a mistake like that again.  Hiring experts to help is sometimes necessary, but never hire someone whose philosophy is so vastly different from your's.  That's just a recipe for trouble.

Well, I'm sad to say that 5 years later I made this same mistake again, only this time with my 3 year old daughter. Lured by the idea of making her "water safe" (I fell into a pool as a toddler and still remember the trauma) I enrolled her in a "swim boot camp" where she was guaranteed to swim after 10 minutes a day, 10 days in a row.  The assumption, which still makes a lot of sense to me, is that all children instinctively know how to a) hold their breath under water, and b) kick to move in the water.  Other programs that spend months "teaching" children what they already know are wasting time and possibly confusing the children. Case in point, I know many kids who have taken traditional swim lessons for months or even years who still cannot swim, and I didn't want to get stuck paying for years of "useless" lessons.  So this swim boot camp seemed like the miracle answer for us.

Here's the problem.  The instructor states his "philosophy" on the website, which is that children cry to manipulate and show who is boss.  The teacher will ignore this crying and make the child do swim drills, no matter how much they protest.  Supposedly, after a few days of crying, the children undergo a magical transformation where they start to like swimming and enthusiastically participate in the class. He has a ton of videos on youtube demonstrating this very process, from crying on day one, to joyful swimming on day 10.

RED FLAGS GALORE.  I don't believe crying is always manipulation.  Sometimes crying reflects fear, anxiety, confusion, grief or overstimulation.  I don't believe in ignoring, distracting or suppressing a child's cries. I believe crying is normal and healthy and even therapeutic, so I let my child cry or tantrum if she needs to.  This doesn't make me a pushover parent.  Actually, I have very firm boundaries.  But these boundaries are never arbitrary, and I always try to explain my reasons why.

Another red flag- my child is highly sensitive. For the most part she is very cautious, easily-overstimulated, and she likes to take things really slow. I've done my best so far not to push her into things before she is ready. For example, at 3 years old, she *just* started enjoying some slides at the park. Not all slides, just some. She still won't even touch the swings.

This swim boot camp was a fast paced, sink-or-swim style that should have made me run for the hills.  Even if a ton of kids on youtube did well on this program, I should have known that this was a bad fit for us because it is totally contrary to my philosophy of respectful parenting.

But I signed the check and took her anyway, justifying it by saying that swimming is an important safety skill that she needed to learn as soon as possible. I prepared her a month in advance, telling her exactly what would happen, showing her the videos so she could ask questions about why the kids were crying.  I hoped this would help, and it probably did prevent some major emotional damage.

I won't go into detail about what happened in those 10 minute sessions because frankly, I'm still a little too upset to relive it fully.  Let me just say that it didn't go as I had hoped.  She never had that magical turnaround that I saw on all the youtube videos.  She cried and gulped water all the way up to day 9. After a few days when she realized that the instructor would just ignore her crying, she tried to rationally negotiate with him ("Can I have a rest? How bout just one lap? Can I try back stroke instead? Can I swim to mommy?") and was baffled when he ignored her requests, which to her were perfectly reasonable.  In a panic, she often swallowed big gulps of pool water that made her sick.  "Just smile, mom!  Even if she's crying or throwing up, just smile," was the instructor's advice to me.  Ughh.

He kept telling her how to feel and how to interpret the situation.  "Don't cry, you just swam great!"  "You're not scared!"  "Swimming is fun, isn't it?"  But my strong and very emotionally aware toddler  wouldn't let him define her feelings, "No, I'm actually sad.  I want to cry.  I'm scared. I don't like swimming under the water."

I didn't sleep much that 10 days.  I kept waking up in a sweat dreading the next day. Why did I keep coming day after day?  Am I stupid, masochistic, sadistic?  No. The instructor played upon my anxieties of water safety, and assured me that she, just like the other 3000 kids he had instructed, would be a happy swimmer by the end. It would all be worth it, but we had to finish what we started. I let him interpret the situation for me, and suppressed my own motherly instinct.  I was determined to finish that 10 days to at least give her closure.  Weirdly, she would say things after class like, "I miss the teacher," and "I swam great!", which made me believe she was handling it ok. I never had to drag her to class, but she did confide in me in the car on the way how nervous and scared she was.  I thought that by talking it out and reassuring her that the teacher would keep her safe, I was doing enough to protect her.

Sure enough, all the other kids I witnessed in the class did have that turnaround early on.  I watched, sunglasses hiding my tears of envy, as the kids jumped into the pool on their own volition, and happily swam the length of the pool.  Why wasn't this happening for my daughter?  What was wrong with us?

Thankfully, on the last day, when I was allowed into the pool to help coach her, she did a lot better. She even smiled some, and didn't swallow any water.  She made some jokes with the teacher and even pretended to be a frog.  She can indeed swim about 10 feet on her own, which I realize is amazing for a 3 year old.  After it was all over, the teacher once again tried to define the situation for us.  "Wasn't it worth it mom?  Some crying and spitting up pool water is nothing compared to being in a hospital on a ventilator, or worse- a coffin- if she ever fell into a pool. You should be so happy."  I shook hands, feeling manipulated, conflicted, and anything but happy.  I prepared to do a big debriefing session for my child (plus I scheduled a session with my therapist for myself!)

Thank goodness my child does not appear to be traumatized.  We went swimming the other day and she did great in the water, although declared that she still feels scared to dunk her head in.  I do believe his method "works", but at what cost?  I still have so many mixed emotions about it.  My therapist, after listening to me cry for an hour, suggested that even though Sisi didn't appear to be traumatized, probably in part because of our open communication and the fact that she did trust me all along, I appear to be very traumatized.  I have to agree.

After the Pesto incident and the swimming nightmare, I do hope I have finally learned my lesson.  Stick to my parenting philosophy, even if the "experts" tell me not to.  If my child is trusting me, I better trust myself.


sk July 23, 2014 at 6:50 AM  

Awesome post! I needed to read this. It's so easy to get pushed into things that others are doing for or with their kids-- even if it's not the best fit for your particular family. I struggle with this a lot. Thanks for your honesty!

Rachel July 30, 2014 at 4:46 PM  

That sounds terrifying for both of you! The swim lessons we took as kids were really gentle immersions - lots of splashing around and riding on the instructor's back to get comfortable in the water. Kids are all so different about swimming - some take ages and never really love it in the end and some warm up right away. I totally get wanting her to have it as a survival skill (pool statistics are SCARY), but how agonizing for you! I'm sure that she'll start gaining her confidence naturally as she's exposed to it more. She just needs to do it in her own time.

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