Blog

I was tagged in a video from a TV program showing a dad with his baby attending a baby swimming class. It showed a little girl who was repeatedly dunked. She didn’t look comfortable and the big confusing mismatch were the cheerful enthusiastic adults. The tag line from the TV station read, “Doesn’t it make you want a baby?” I was asked what I thought about it.

To be frank, I wouldn’t have liked to be a baby in those hands. If this form of “baby swimming” makes us lose the ability to tune into the baby’s experience and make sure it feels safe and comfortable for her too, then this should not be considered an appropriate activity for babies, nor for parents.

Do not misunderstand me

I advocate for baby swimming, but not when it’s done this way.
Because it was on public TV I’m taking the opportunity to address something I’ve seen all over the world (and not only in baby swimming) and invite you to reflect and discuss in a constructive matter that will serve our children, and the experience we give them. My wish is for us to shed light on it from a child’s perspective because it can affect relationships and outcomes, in the short and long term.

The video clip is from Danish TV 4.

The instructor says:
- “Yes! Great job! - Really well done!”
The dad says:
- “I feel so proud. It’s extraordinary when somebody praises you and tells you, that you are doing so good. I’m so proud I get to have this experience with her (his daughter), and that it goes so well. I am very proud.”

The video clip shows a very happy and proud dad - that's great! He feels great about the praise, it’s easy to understand that, who wouldn’t? Being a parent is a tough task. When somebody tells you you are doing a great job, that feels good. So, so far all good.
Now let’s look at it from the baby’s perspective. Here is where is gets problematic. How is her reaction? What is she experiencing? Does she share that lovely feeling?

In the video you see how her father takes her on his back and submerge under water with her.
From her expression, she does not look secure or comfortable, and she certainly does not look like she is having fun. Later she is dunked, rather than the adult making it possible for her to submerge herself with her parent as a guide.

Children learn in relationships

Children learn to understand their emotions in relationships and through experience. So if you look at her reaction and at the contrast between the adults' enthusiasm and the child's rather tensed expression you might ask: What is she learning here? And will this affect her and the trust she feels with her father? Will it affect her feelings toward water activities and swimming in the long run?

Rather harsh one could say, she is learning that this is how swimming with her dad is - The activity is for the adults and she is used as an object. She gets dunked by him, and while she feels overwhelmed and insecure, the adults are enthusiastically cheering instead of tuning in on her, reacting and adjusting to her needs and comforting her. The child is left alone in her reaction and emotionally confused.

When there is such difference between her feelings and those of her parents and the other adults, it will not have a positive effect in her emotional development. Emotions are at the heart of how we humans encounter our world. Emotions even fuel our intelligence. A little baby is born with all the emotions but needs help in understanding them and does so in relationship with her parents and other important adults.

Your baby mirrors you

When your baby is little she mirrors her reactions in you. For example, when your child is sad you respond with a sad face saying; “Oh my darling, you look so sad, come here.” You take her up and into your comforting arms. You carry her and her sadness and soothe her out of it. You help her to restore the calm within her.
When your child expresses joy, you share it and also put words, tone and mimic to it. You might even find ways to elevate it together.
This responsive relationship helps your child learn to know herself from within, it grows trust and strengthens the bond between you.

Out of this trust, the opportunity for deeper learning is also created. Because our emotions are interlinked with our intelligence it is important that we learn to understand them and not like earlier beliefs to suppress them.

If the child doesn’t have responsive adults around her that are capable of tuning into her emotions and responding to them, she might cooperate, but suppress the emotions the adults are neglecting. At worst she could loose her inner compass and it could negatively affect the trust-bond between parent and child.

Fortunately, most parents are attuned and responsive with their babies and in this relationship they both grow empathy - the ability to read and understand other human beings.

Don't drown empathy by dunking babies

What I urge us all, parents, teachers, program managers, school owners and leaders to do is to reflect and make sure that this natural human instinct is not drowned by dunking babies.
We need to make sure it is cultivated and nurtured, and I know from experience that baby swimming might even be one of the best activities for parents to see, become aware of and develop their instincts of how to best help their child to healthy emotional development.

Baby swimming with equal dignity

We all win

With this approach to baby swimming there will not only be more joy, but empathy and compassion will also grow for both. It will strengthen the important trust bonds between them and our children will grow up smarter and stronger – and we all win!

Be mindful - your child's brain and your relationship matters!

A mother with a 6 month old baby is concerned, contacts me and asks: "He gets very upset every time we submerge him, shouldn't we comfort him? Shall we keep on doing it?"

I answer with a question: "What do you feel?"

Mother answers: "I want to comfort him and it feels wrong to keep dunking him, but I have been told that it will give him the wrong signals if I comfort and if we stop."

-Of course he must be comforted! And of course you should stop doing things to him that makes him feel so uncomfortable that he cries.
In the water and activities you do together, it should feel nice, fun, interesting and safe to be with you.
It's also important that he gets the right emotional response from you. When he cries, he is clearly communicating that something is wrong and hard for him to handle. He needs your help.

You instinctively feel that you want to comfort and help him. Listen to that instinct, it's good, it's empathy talking.

A small child is very sensitive to stress and it's important due to healthy development that your child feels safe with you. You should never be the one that intentionally and repeatedly expose your child to that kind of stress your boy is feeling.

Why do teachers tell parents that they should not comfort and keep on submerging the child?

Baby Crying

-They do so because that's what many learned on education and training earlier, and some still do unfortunately.
There is so much new knowledge today. It is important that parents and teachers in baby swimming, learn more about how to take good care of the child's growing brain and the significance of the quality in a relationship for a healthy development and life. We must help each other to do good.

In baby swimming, there are many naturally occurring trust situations where children and parents can strengthen the important trust-bond between them.
Parents can, in the water together with their child, learn and experience many of the amazing things that builds relationship, develop parents leadership and how they can support their child's emotional development and a lifelong joy of learning.

Focus on the water (and on land) must be on a relationship based on trust and respect, so it will be enriching and good. In the water, learning and understanding of the relationship can be lifted to fantastic new heights, that's why I believe it can become the best activity.

The pictures are borrowed from the web. Source unknown.

Risk taking is important to humans physical and mental development. We naturally seek them and when doing so by own choice we feel free, alive and capable.

I'm always fascinated by how children naturally are capable in seeking (for them) appropriate challenges and communicating their desire and needs. This they are able to communicate as young as only a couple of months. What they need is adults that is willing to and tries to understand them.

Unfortunately there is a tendency to prevent children from trying and from taking risks. There is also a growing blaming culture where parents or caretakers feel or place guilt when children hurt themselves while exploring.

The message from us to our children when doing so is: "I don't believe in your abilities." The other message is "If you fail, I am to blame and I don't want that."

That is not a healthy path - children need to explore to learn and adults need to take responsibility of their own fears.

There is no doubt that children need us adults to keep them as safe as possible. But we need to understand the duality of risks, there are negative and positive risks.

We have to respect children's belief in their abilities, their curiosity and willingness to interact with the environment and learn about life.

Gunnar Breivik, Professor emeritus of social sciences says; "Let children take risks, it's their right as human beings. It effects their learning and wellbeing."

I think this is a refreshing approach and I can see how important it is and how it benefits both children and adults.

What are your thoughts?

To swim with buckets and toys offers a little extra resistance. We adults know that. With a helpful intention we might try to take the toys from our children while they swim.

But it's not always children voluntarily will hand over their treasures.

This is where we must stop! Remind ourselves of who's seeing and experiencing a problem? If it's possible for my child to swim with her favorite things - so why not?

Seeing them down below the surface I have no doubt that it is possible and that they absolutely do not have a problem.

Experience has shown me that these children develop a very good knowledge of resistance which become a great advantage in their future swimming.

Imagine viewing life as full of opportunities to explore and learn from. That is a perspective we like - right?!

"You are my teacher. How you deal with love, conflict, sorrow, joy, pain, defeat, new things, people, variety, the way you believe in yourself, in others and me will also characterize me and shape my approach to all this and more."

It's a swindling thought but also great because it allows us adults to take the lead. When we become aware of and take responsibility for our own feelings, reactions and actions and focus on the quality of the dialogue and the relationship we are the best role models for our own and others' children. It's more about our self-development than on our ability to manage and control our children, and children give us the opportunity to self develop.

Jesper Juul, family therapist and author puts it as follows: "I do not think there is any relationship that at the same time is so accepting and provides personal development as the relationship between parent and child." Leading experts and researchers in neuroscience confirm and state that: "Self-development is the best gift a parent can give a child."

In the wonderful presence and joined play that water offers you and your baby, I know that the process gets a good start and it will become a both thrilling and delightful course.