When your kid keeps failing swimming lessons

Swimming lessons were never my thing. I passed Yellow, Orange, and Red, but got halted when it came to getting through Red-Maroon.

I hated getting water up my nose when I jumped in. I still hate getting water up my nose.

And I have yet to ever open my eyes under water — pool, lake, ocean, tub, anything — in my almost 32 years. Truly. I’m kind of proud of that one.

I wrote about our adventures (misadventures?) in swimming lessons for this week’s parenting column. Feel free to read it, if you’re the parent of a child who may possibly be stuck in the first level of swimming for the rest of their livessssss.


I didn’t need to see the progress report to know what it said. Our son didn’t pass. Again.

Swimming lessons had started off with such promise, a few months after he turned three. I’d purposely not done the parent-and-tot lessons because I wanted him to understand that swimming lessons were about going with the instructor.

He went with his instructor willingly, and did everything she asked. For a kid who’d cried and clung to me at a birthday pool party just days earlier, this was huge progress.

He didn’t stay at the head of the class for long. He continued to be enthusiastic and he enjoyed each lesson. But he wasn’t doing what he needed to do for the instructor to check the boxes on his chart. He wasn’t hitting his “outcomes,” or however they would phrase it in teacher jargon these days.

I watched from the sidelines during one lesson as the instructor demonstrated how to duck under the water. The students all copied her, while our son smiled and shook his head slowly. Stick my head under? Oh, no, thanks. Not doing that today. Still having fun, though!

When the term ended, it was no surprise that he hadn’t checked off all of the boxes. His little buddies passed Sea Otter with no trouble, and went on to Salamander and Sunfish and Crocodile and all of the other adorably-named levels. But we were still sad little Sea Otters.

So we did it again. And then again.

He’s like me, I thought. He’ll never be a good swimmer, but that’s OK. He’ll use a noodle or a floaty thing at pool parties, or afternoons at the lake. He’ll stick with swimming lessons for a few years, but reach a point where he won’t pass any further because he refuses to dive (ahem). I can dog paddle and swim on my back. I get by just fine.

But everything changed during our recent trip to Ontario. He was excited when he saw the sparkling aqua pool in my dad’s backyard, and went in cautiously — wearing a life jacket, clutching a kickboard, and clinging to our arms. He refused to so much as look at a pool noodle, or entertain the idea of taking off his lifejacket, and we didn’t push it.

The next day, we convinced him to try holding onto a noodle and we towed him around (still in his lifejacket). He loved it. Then we spent hours helping him swim around using the kickboard (still in the lifejacket). He was grinning constantly.

He graduated to swimming alone with the noodle and lifejacket. By the end of the week-long trip, he was leaping into the pool and swimming around solo, with either a noodle or a kickboard (and no lifejacket).

Nobody could believe it. Was this really the kid who has YET to pass the very first level of swimming lessons? Yup. But when you’re in the pool twice a day, every day, for a couple of hours, you have no choice but to get comfortable with the water — and that’s exactly what he needed.

Swimming lessons start up in less than two weeks, and both kids are registered. Yes, our son is going to be a Sea Otter for the fourth time (with his little sister as a first-time classmate), but I’ve given up caring about passing or failing. He’s learning to how to feel comfortable and safe in the water, and that’s the only thing that really matters.

So what do you think?

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