5 Things You Must Do to Succeed in Teaching Your Kids to Swim

Safety comes first, but an important part of your goal is to make learning to swim fun, for yourself and your child. In order to do that you have to bring certain things to the party. Here are the five things you have to do to succeed in teaching your kids to swim.

Practice Patience

If you go into this process with a deadline in mind, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Be patient with your child and with yourself. Don’t rush things. Think of the process as being as important as the goal.

Your patience will let your child relax and explore, which are both critical to learning. Your patience will also let you relax and explore. You’ll have the ability to pay full attention to your child’s progress without judging it, so you’ll be a better teacher. You won’t put pressure on your child or yourself, so you’ll both be able to enjoy each other and the process.

When you’re patient, you increase the possibility of finding joy in each lesson. Your child will associate that joy with the lessons and with swimming.

Have a Positive Attitude

While you may be focused on what you’re trying to accomplish, don’t forget to give your child plenty of encouragement, both in and out of the water. Be sincere and positive. Remind him that what you’re doing together is going to keep him safe and healthy and that it’s going to be lots of fun, especially long term.

Watch What You Bring to the Water

Ideally, you should have basic water safety, CPR, and first aid training. The Red Cross and hospitals often offer this training.

Kids read your body language and are attuned to your mental and emotional state. They’re aware of tension in your body and whether your breathing is slow and steady or fast and shallow.

If you’re afraid or concerned, your child will pick up on that. Until you’re over your own fear, you’re not in a good position to teach your child. (Rather, you’re in the perfect position to pass your fear on to your child.) In fact, if you’re afraid, it’s going to be tougher for your child even if you’re not the one doing the teaching.

Prepare yourself before you go into the water by focusing on and visualizing your plan for your time in the water with your child. Remind yourself to let go of concerns about other things. Remind yourself that you’re doing something wonderful for your child’s health, safety, and future. Remind yourself that you want this lesson to be fun for both of you. Smile and take some deep breaths. Before you get into the pool, give your child a hug, a kiss, and a smile, and tell him you love him. You’ll set the tone for the lesson, and it will be serene, gently focused, loving, and effective.

Respect Your Kids’ Feelings

Don’t deny or minimize what your kids are feeling. Acknowledge it, be direct about it, and be matter-of-fact about it. Whether your child is angry about having to be uncomfortable or try something new, afraid of the water, happy about the opportunity to play with you, or proud of the progress he’s making, he’ll feel secure when you acknowledge his feelings.

There’s no need to be dramatic about it. Remain calm. All you have to do is say, “So you’re feeling angry? I can understand that. You’re feeling afraid? I can understand that.” Acknowledging and respecting the feeling is the first step to moving past the feeling.

If your child is afraid, avoid the knee-jerk reaction to deny his fear. It’s not helpful to tell him that there’s nothing to be afraid of or that he shouldn’t worry. Acknowledge that it’s reasonable for him to be afraid. Until he has the skills to be safe, the water is dangerous. That’s a rational fear.

If an activity brings up fear for your child, back off. Inch into it a little at a time. As soon as his fear starts to rise, backtrack to an activity your child is comfortable with and spend plenty of time in that comfortable, confident place.

Respect Your Kids’ Developmental Stages

Don’t compare your child to other kids. Everybody learns at different rates and in different ways. Some things may be easier than others for your child to learn. You may be great at predicting this, but you may also be taken by surprise. Be flexible and be prepared to deal with the reality of your child’s experience instead of your expectations of how things should be.

Bonus 6th Thing: Don’t Expect Perfection

You don’t expect your kids to be perfect. Why would you be? Don’t expect yourself to be perfect at this, and don’t expect teaching your child to swim to be easy all the time. If you keep your goal in mind, though, you can maintain the perspective you need to make teaching your child to swim an experience you’ll both enjoy.

Time to Play! Getting into the Pool

Kids learn by playing. The more you can make learning to swim fun for your kids, the more they’ll like it, the quicker they’ll learn, and the more fun you’ll have teaching them.

If your kids are working on getting into the pool by themselves, try having them play this game.

How would different animals get into the pool? Try it like a cat, a bear, a butterfly, and a hummingbird. How about a crocodile—check out some cool Youtube footage of that—a duck, a frog, a tiger, a dog, or a hippo?

A word of warning: make sure to screen the Youtube possibilities before you share them with your kids. There’s nothing like an errant viewing of a crocodile in a swimming pool to make your kids afraid of the water.

What’s your kids’ favorite animal to imitate?

The Top 3 Reasons to Teach Your Own Kids to Swim

Why did I teach my kid to swim instead of outsourcing the job? You’re probably thinking the answer’s obvious: I’m a masochist. I’m really not.

I decided to teach him myself for three top reasons.

My Top 3 Reasons

Reason #1: He had to learn.

There are lots of reasons to learn to swim. It’s fun. It helps prevent childhood obesity. You need it to do all sorts of amazing sports and activities. While I entertained visions of my son yachting and kayaking and surfing in his future, I have to confess that my main motivation was fear that he’d drown.

Drowning kills more than 2000 kids under five a year in the US. Drowning is the cause of 30% of all deaths of kids between one and four, and more than 75% of the kids who drown were seen by a parent less than five minutes before they were found.

(These statistics and many more are available from the CDC and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Perfect for those times when you find you’re just not worrying about your kids enough.)

Reason #2: I wasn’t happy with the effects and results of swimming lessons.

I love swimming, and I wanted my son to have that same joy. Swimming lessons were not giving it to him. (They also weren’t teaching him to swim.)

Here were the problems:

  • He was afraid. He didn’t know the teachers. The clock was ticking and they just wanted him to get into the pool. I hated that he cried and clung to my leg. I agonized over whether to force him to leave me, which I did. It was painful for both of us.
  • He was miserable. The pool was cold, and even though he was wearing a wetsuit, he spent so much of his time waiting for other kids to practice that he was blue—not his normal color—by the end of each lesson.
  • He wasn’t learning. The teachers didn’t adjust their teaching plans to fit his needs. The college kids who were teaching swimming as a summer job had a boilerplate swimming lesson structure, and if what they were trying didn’t work, they kept hammering away at it anyway. Week after week, I watched my son practice the same skills without getting better or learning anything new.

There are definitely great swimming lessons and great swimming teachers out there. If I could have had my son take three private lessons a week from the owner of his swimming school, the results might have been great. The reality, though, is that nobody cared as much about helping my son learn to swim, fast, and about making sure he was having fun doing it, as I did.

Reason #3: I thought I could do it, and it turned out I was right.

I knew my son better than anybody else. I knew how to swim. Beyond that, I figured I could learn.

Here’s where the masochism comes in. I’m a little bit obsessive, so I went into major research mode. I read dozens of books. I interviewed experts. I took CPR and lifeguarding classes. I spent a lot of time in the pool with my son and other kids, teaching them to swim. (We all had a good time doing that.) I used my experience as a former assistant preschool teacher to expand on my research and develop new and better techniques.

Now my son knows how to swim. The hard part is over. It turned out that it wasn’t hard at all. It was so much easier than watching him suffer in swimming lessons. It ended up being fun. It makes me smile just thinking about him jumping into my arms in the pool or getting a piggyback ride. The moment when he first realized that he was moving himself through the water? I got to see his face close up.

Teaching kids to swim

I did a lot of research and practice, and I’d hate to see that go to waste, so I’m going to share tips and tricks for teaching kids to swim here. If I can do it, so can you.

Any swimming lesson horror stories out there?