Don’t Force Swim Lessons


Dear Dr. Debbie,

My uncle has been getting on me about signing up my five-year-old for swimming lessons. While I agree that at some point it would be nice to have her water-safe, and possibly add to her enjoyment of summertime, I am reluctant for her to have to go through what I did as a child.

My memories include this same uncle teasing me about my hesitancy to jump in his backyard pool with my cousins. He insisted I get in and proceeded to try to get me to imitate leg kicks and strokes. My parents came to my rescue, and although they waited another couple of years before committing me to swimming lessons, I never really learned to enjoy swimming.

Just a Bathtub for Me, Please

Dear JAB,

Your uncle may be a swimming enthusiast but he hasn’t caught on to being a good swimming instructor. The best approach to anything, for some children, is at a slow pace. Enthusiasm from the teacher is great, but that gets lost if the child’s level of enthusiasm doesn’t even register on the scale.

Blowing Bubbles

A good place to start loving the water is the bathtub. With you outside the tub and your daughter in it, show how to blow bubbles underwater. That’s right, just dunk your face under the surface and blow. Once or twice the first time you introduce this weird new thing, then as she gets comfortable after a few bath times, count up to three in a row. Start early enough in the evening to have plenty of time for water play at bath time. The list of items you can bring to the tub is practically limitless: empty yogurt tubs, plastic drinking straws, (small) beach balls or rubber balls, plastic toy animals, a Frisbee, a turkey baster, a washcloth – not just for washing, of course. Did you ever catch an air bubble in a washcloth then squish out the air bubbles underwater? You want her to associate being in the water with having fun.

Puddle Jumping and Rainbow Sprays

Start your outdoor enjoyment of water on a small scale, too. Waterproof shoes or boots are essential gear for outdoor play. For grown-ups, as well! Find some nice spring puddles for the two of you to make a splash in. If you’re too muddy to come inside, use a garden hose to clean off first. Teach your daughter how to turn the faucet on and off – lefty loosey, righty tighty. The point is for her to enjoy this and to feel in control.

On a nice sunny day, when it’s warm enough to be in your swimsuits, try to make rainbows with the garden hose. As with real rainbows, the sun is behind you while you’re looking into the spray of water drops. Again, getting wet is just part of the fun.

Pool Time

A wading pool helps to acclimate a young child to being in the water. She can experience how her legs float out behind her as she walks, or just balances, on her hands. Practice more bubble blowing – you don’t have to get in the pool with her.

Ask around to find a time and place to take her to play in the shallow end or “baby pool” of a community pool. Plan to meet up with one of her friends (and the friend’s grown up). Once again, just to have fun. Go often. Hopefully this pool has opportunities for swimming lessons, so you want your daughter to enjoy this place for many visits before the formal lessons begin. While you’re just playing at the pool, she might observe a swimming class with children her age. At some pools, private instructors give one-on-one lessons.

You, too, will benefit from seeing other children (and relaxed parents) participating in swimming lessons. You need to put your experience with your uncle behind you and focus on your daughter.

Eat Your Vegetables

There are experiences and “lessons” that parents provide for their children because, well, these lessons are good for them. How about vegetables? I could go on and on about making vegetables fun for children rather than agonizing about a picky eater and ending up in a battle across the dinner table. Good nutrition is a universal need, so parents must provide it. Same with reading. Enjoy picture books with your child from the very beginning and model reading for pleasure and information yourself, and, barring a reading disability, your child will be so excited to learn to read when her neurological system is ready.

Swimming, according to child fitness guru Bonnie Prudden, is a natural ability for humans. She was a huge promoter of getting babies in the pool between one and four months of age. After that is okay, too, but it may take a little more effort to convince an older child that it’s okay to put her face in the water.

There’s a high likelihood that your daughter will encounter a swimming pool or open water at some time in her life. Drown-proofing is a safety precaution that parents and swim instructors can address to protect children. Learning to love swimming is a happy byproduct of important lessons in flutter kicks, rhythmic breathing, treading water, and arm strokes. You should approach swimming lessons as part of a slow, but necessary, progression of her being comfortable and competent in the water.

Work up a positive attitude to the idea of her taking swimming lessons. They’re good for her.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist  and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Register for upcoming parenting workshops on Zoom:

April 6 “I Had it First! – Teaching Conflict Resolution
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