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My five year old is scared of the water

Patience (and maybe professional help) is key when teaching kids new skills

I am trying to teach my five-year-old child to swim, and he’s scared of the water. How do I help him through this to teach him an important skill?

Oh, hi. Good question. I’m a 39-year-old who’s still scared of the water. So, yeah, this answer might prove a challenge for everyone involved.

Let me explain.

We’ll start in the shallow end of the pool that is my own history. I grew up in North Dakota. We don’t have a lot of bodies of water. More rivers than lakes. But there was always a lot of birthday parties at Holiday Inns for me to go to, involving a dip in the pool.

You’d have thought that at one of those parties, I would have given it the old college try at floating or the doggy paddle or getting my hair wet. But, as I remember it, I didn’t. Never been all that bold of a person.

My parents sent me to swimming lessons finally in the fifth grade. I found out I really don’t like the sensation of water in my nose. That’s followed me into my adulthood, preventing me from ever using a Neti pot.

I remember standing on the diving board, being encouraged to jump by the instructor who waited to catch me in the water below. Mostly I recall how quiet it was during what felt like a lifetime. The only thing I could hear was my dad, yelling, “Just jump! This is getting awkward! The anticipation is killing me!”

And 39 minutes later, I jumped. That’s how my career in competitive diving got started.

Nah, I’m kidding. My career is in communications, if you couldn’t tell.

So, I didn’t learn to swim. And I don’t usually tell my big-people friends about that, because a person can only deal with so much sympathy and indignation. Yes, I am a grown-up, I promise. Just one who avoids cruise ships.

We take our kids swimming a lot, though. Mostly at hotel pools, because that’s part of the price. And I’ll be danged if I don’t get every single bucket of complimentary ice I’m owed in life.

Here’s what your kids need from you:

Patience. Every skill learned requires repetition. Keep taking your child to the pool, get into the water with them, and give them exactly as much help as they need. I don’t see the point in pushing them into doing anything they’re uncomfortable doing. “Push them in and let them figure it out” is terrible advice. Particularly when it involves an activity that can end in drowning. Be prepared to go slow. There’s no rush.

Instruction. I mean, seriously, there are way more options for swimming classes now than when I was young. Take advantage of that, and send them to class. My daughter was doing swim classes during preschool, swims in school and took lessons at the Aquatic Center. She’s like a fish now. I couldn’t have taught her any of that. It’s like doing your taxes; if you don’t know what you’re doing, let a professional help you out. Or you’re going to get audited, and nobody enjoys the dreaded parent audit.

Confidence. Don’t be the parent who berates their kids for not being instantly good at a skill. They’re not going to naturally think they can do this. You have to convince them. They’re going to cling to you and beg you not to let go, for quite a while. Put floaties or a life vest on them, and gradually remove your assistance. Eventually they’ll be floating on their own, and they won’t even notice. That is the moment to heap on the praise. And keep doing it. Let them know what a huge deal it is that they’re blowing bubbles in the water/doggy paddling for the first time/swimming the length of the pool/doing backflips underwater/doing all the stuff you can’t do at nearly forty years of age. Kids love compliments.

Air. You are essentially a walking, talking balloon. As long as you have air in your lungs, you should float in water. It’s physics, but don’t ask me to explain it.

I’m a communicator, not a diver, by trade.

Written by Kelly Hagen


Kelly is the Director of Communications at North Dakota United. He has been with NDU since merger in 2013, and worked previously with the North Dakota Public Employees Association since 2011. Kelly is in charge of coordinating and distributing print and electronic communications between members and with the public, is the editor for United Voices magazine, administrates the website and social media properties, and works directly with local leaders to build their own communications infrastructure. Kelly is originally from Wilton, ND. He received an Associate of Arts degree in journalism from Bismarck State College and a Bachelor of Science degree in mass communication from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Prior to his employment with NDU, he worked for the N.D. Department of Health, the Fargo Forum and the Bismarck Tribune. He lives in Bismarck with his wife, Annette, and their two children.

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