"Is that your son?" a dad at my eight-year-old's swimming lessons asks, pointing. I nod. "He's a really good swimmer." My boy is hardly the next Ian Thorpe. But to me, the compliment is akin to winning gold. Because until my son was five, he hated the water so much that I worried he'd never learn to swim.
As a toddler, my boy clung desperately to me and howled when I tried to take him into the pool. Summers at the beach were spent with him perched resolutely on the sand, refusing to go near the ocean. And then there was the family holiday to Coffs Harbour, where my husband and I were torn between our daughter – who would've stayed in the water all day if we'd let her – and our son, who saw no attraction in the dazzling turquoise of the enormous pool.
I figured my son was somehow scared, but his fear perplexed me: he'd never had a bad experience in the water. My husband and I tried everything: cajoling, bribing, playing games, but it was of no use. Even if we somehow managed to get him into a pool, our boy never enjoyed it and soon conveyed his displeasure via his unequivocal instruction to "Get Out NOW."
Against this backdrop, swimming lessons weren't an option: the ensuing hysteria too stressful. He'll be left behind, I worried, as images of my boy sitting on the sidelines at school swimming carnivals flashed through my mind.
The breakthrough came when we were holidaying in Broadbeach a few Decembers ago. A pool noodle had been left in the water, and my husband eventually coaxed our son to have a turn on it. Buoyant on the noodle, my son could finally join in the pool games he'd missed out on for so long; his wet smiles and laughter the highlight of our trip.
It was when my son finally learned to tread water that his fear disappeared. Somehow, knowing that he could keep himself afloat, without a back bubble or floaties, seemed to make all the difference. But by then he was already six years old.
So he's had a lot of catching up to do. Intensives – where he has swimming lessons five days in a row – and a recent water safety program at school, where his whole year group had lessons every day for a fortnight, have helped him make huge progress. And now he's first in the pool; jumping in with abandon, diving for rings, and delightedly playing Marco Polo with his cousins in their grandmother's pool.
Still, I feel a twinge of envy during my son's weekly swimming lessons, when I see the lane filled with cozzie-clad mums and dads holding their toddlers. I watch these parents glide their girls and boys through the water, sing to them, and gently pour water over their faces. The toddlers' bodies are relaxed; the expressions on their faces content, as they experience the joy of being immersed in the pool. And I find myself thinking that this is how it should be. Little kids are supposed to love the water. Except that my son has taught me this isn't always true.
In our desire to make our kids water-safe, it's easy to despair if they're averse to water. But it's much easier to reason with a school-age child than with an irrational toddler, or a strong-willed preschooler who refuses to get in the pool. Although it's exasperating, sometimes we just have to be patient.
Surrounded by ocean, learning to swim is non-negotiable; a critical safety issue for Australian children. But as that dad who admired my son's swimming ability commented after I told him the backstory, "It just goes to show. You don't need to start your kids on swimming lessons when they're six months old." It's a message worth remembering, especially for those of us whose kids are slow off the blocks.