What to do When Swim Lessons Don't Go Well

Sometimes swim lessons don’t go as planned. I’ve seen this from time to time in my years as a swimming instructor. Anything can go wrong, from crying and screaming to refusal to participate or ignoring the instructor. Maybe your child was excited before you left the house but fell apart at some point before or during their class. Maybe they didn’t want to go at all. It can be frustrating for a parent. You’re spending time and money on lessons with the hope that they’ll learn to be safe and confident in the water. But even if things aren’t going well, don’t give up. Before you abandon your lessons, try these tips for quelling flare-ups and adjusting your child’s attitude.

Remember, with no offense intended, children can be master manipulators. They’re not evil, they just know how to get what they want. The bond between you and your child is a strong one. It started before they even came into the world, sharing genetics, blood and hormones. As soon as they exited the womb, they started developing a chemical bond with both parents through skin-to-skin contact. This touch-relationship increases oxytocin production. Known as the “love hormone”, oxytocin cements feelings of affection and tenderness. This is a wonderful sensation, and it shouldn’t be discounted. But it also creates a loophole for children to manipulate their parents more easily than they can other adults. When it comes to necessities like learning to swim, it benefits your kids to be more detached. Thankfully, because the instructor doesn’t have the same chemical bond that you share with your child, it’s easier for them to judge the child’s true level of fear.

Be patient and positive

The most common cause for misbehavior at swim lessons is true fear, followed closely by a plain-old “I-don’t-wanna-do-it” tantrum. Kids want to please their parents, but they also know exactly what they can get away with without crossing the threshold for getting into trouble. A tantrum paired with a declaration of “I’m scared!” is a great way for a child to maneuver their way out of something they don’t feel like doing. But swim lessons are not the time to allow your child to have their way. Learning to swim is lifesaving and 100 percent necessary, no matter where you live. The best thing you can do is to keep pressing onward. Be patient and encouraging, but don’t give in to your child’s tears. Some kids simply need more time to warm up to the idea of swimming or to the pool environment in general.

Change it Up

If you’ve been going to lessons for a while and you always receive the same reaction, try making a change to the pattern. The solution could be as simple as having a different person bring the child to class. Kids know what they can get away with, with each parent. I’ve seen kids who cry as soon as they get to class when Dad brings them, but come with a smile when Mom takes them.

If that doesn’t work, try sitting out of sight or leaving altogether when it’s lesson time. This makes putting on a show a futile effort, and kids often calm down quickly when there’s no one around to humor them. Of course, you’ll want to let the instructor know that you plan to do this so they can reassure your child that you’ll be back when the lesson is over.

Trust Your Instructor

If your instructor has been teaching for a while or has children of their own, they’ll have a good sense of who is actually scared and who is putting on a show. Though I’m not a mother, I’ve worked with children for the last 12 years teaching gymnastics and swimming, as well as serving as a summer camp counselor. I’ve seen every kind of outburst there is to see. In all my years watching over children, I’ve developed a sixth sense for crocodile tears and how to work through them.

One of the biggest mistakes parents make is not talking to the instructor for advice. Parents may think they know best, but sometimes fall victim to the bond they have with their child. Children who are coddled have a much harder time working with an instructor and often try to get out of swim lessons. Try to follow the swim teacher’s lead. If you undermine the instructor or make deals with the child that aren’t on the teacher’s agenda, you’re thwarting their efforts to adjust your child’s attitude. I find that being firm and presenting a united front is far more effective than pitting parents against teachers. It’s the same concept as one parent being lenient and the other enforcing all the rules. Don’t make your swim teacher the bad guy.

Taking Time Off

If you decide to take some time off from formal swim lessons, don’t quit pool time altogether. Go swimming with your child regularly, but don’t push an agenda on them. Play games, splash each other and be silly. You can throw some balls out into the water and help your child retrieve them or sink some dive toys on the steps and have them reach down to grab them. This valuable play time builds your child’s relationship with the water. That way, when you do begin lessons again, their association with water will be a good one. You don’t want their most recent memory of the pool to be of throwing a fit, being frightened, or having a bad time in general.

Following these tips can make swim lessons a valuable experience rather than one of fear and frustration.