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!