I sometimes joke that it is a good thing that there wasn’t a water-birth option at the hospital where N. was born, because from his first bath onwards he has hated being in the water. N. has eczema, so our pediatrician encouraged us to bathe him infrequently, and I was more than happy to follow this recommendation – the fewer screaming bath sessions, the better! This was an early but defining moment for me as I began to discover how I would parent. One approach would suggest that I should have bathed N. frequently when he was an infant in order to get him used to baths, that maybe he would even have come to like them. But I simply couldn’t bring myself to subject my baby to something that he definitely found so terribly uncomfortable for the uncertain possibility that he might someday feel differently about it. I kept him clean, but rarely gave him a full bath. Today he still prefers sponge baths to immersion.
Despite N.’s aversion to water, or really because of it, I think it is important that he learns to swim. Tim is not a big fan of being in the water either (and I believe this is one of his many genetic bequests to N. – they are so similar in so many ways!). He is not a comfortable swimmer and hates putting his head underwater; in fact he was saved by his sister from near-drowning at age 12. So, I have occasionally taken N. swimming in the past few summers, and at first he would cling to me with an iron grip, then if we went often enough he would agree to stand on his own feet in the water, still holding my hand, then eventually walk on his own in the pool. Oddly, even when he was clinging desperately to me he really enjoyed going to the pool. But at the beginning of every summer we’d have to start the process of familiarization and getting comfortable in the water all over again. The first time Tim took him to the pool this summer, N. refused to get in, and sat on the edge dangling his legs in the water and happily scooping and pouring for a couple hours.
Clearly N. is not yet ready for formal swimming lessons; in addition to his hesitancy about getting in the water, he resists joining in group activities and following group instructions. He likes to watch on the sidelines for a long time before participating. So, I proposed that we institute “homeschool swimming lessons,” setting aside at least one afternoon a week for a Mommy-and-N. swimming date at the Y (this means that now he swims more often than he bathes!). So far, this has been really fun, and N. has been making great progress. He’s enjoying it so much that it’s been hard to convince him to get out of the pool to go home for supper! While we play in the water together and practice dipping our chins (working up in baby steps towards blowing bubbles and eventually putting our faces in!), we see kids in swimming classes in another part of the pool and we talk about what they are doing as the goal that we are gradually working up to. Sometimes as I shiver in the water, I look enviously at the moms reading their books on the pool deck while their kids take lessons from the teenage lifeguards; it looks a lot easier! But I am grateful to have the opportunity to help N. learn to swim at his own pace, and when we come home from our swimming lesson, Tim always tells me I am giving N. a great gift by helping him become comfortable in the water.
The “Unschool Swimming Lessons” might exemplify our family’s approach to unschooling, a label I find needs qualification and elaboration in order to convey accurately what we do in our homeschooling (but that’s a subject for another post). I’m not going to put N. in a swim class because I think he needs to learn to swim or because that’s what other kids his age are doing. But I am also not willing simply to follow his lead in this instance, as perhaps a “true” unschooler would; it is safe to say that he has never once said to me, “Hey Mommy, let’s go swimming!” I do think swimming is an important life skill best learned in childhood through practice and repetition (oddly, I seem to think swimming is more important than immersion bathing!) and I am not willing to leave it to him to learn whenever in life he might express the desire to do so. So I’ve tried to come up with a way to satisfy my concern that he develop a consistent level of comfort and skill in the water, a way that is fun and enjoyable for him and that respects his feelings, temperament, and learning style. That, at least in part, is what unschooling means for us.