I stood on the side of a suburban swimming pool in a sweltering Texas backyard in a crowd of other parents, hefted my three-year-old daughter up on to my hip as she begged and wept, pried her tiny pleading fingers from my neck, and then threw her, forcefully, in a high, athletic arc, into the water.
Some of the other parents smiled approvingly, others clapped and cheered, and a few looked away with the strained-neutral expressions of people consciously deciding to ignore a present tragedy.
This was Survival Swimming, a well-regarded preschool swimming class, and every parent there had paid $200 for the privilege of throwing their crying child into the pool. We were spending the week with my sister-in-law and her family in Austin, Texas, and my daughter Beatrice was joining her cousins Rosemary and Louis in learning how to swim the hard way.
For more than thirty years, Cathy Vance (Ms. Cathy, to her students) has taught Survival Swimming from her home on the outskirts of Austin. On her website, she describes her method as “a prone-3-second gliding submersion with added mobility.” In layman’s terms, this means you throw your child into the shallow end of the pool (and not a drop, but a true throw, to get some horizontal distance from the pool’s edge). Ms. Cathy and her daughter stand waiting in their long-sleeved shirts and sunhats to catch the kids immediately as they hit the water. They allow the children one breath before simultaneously pushing their heads under the water and guiding them gently forward towards the pool’s edge, essentially propelling them underwater by the back of their head. (I apologize here if I’ve slightly mischaracterized Ms. Cathy’s method; it’s hard to remember a lot of technical details while watching someone hold your daughter’s head under water.)
Over the years, Ms. Cathy has taught hundreds of Austin kids to swim. Her manner is calm and firm, the way I imagine a horse trainer’s might be, and she specializes in teaching children with autism or sensory disorders to swim in just two weeks, children whom other swim coaches had given up as unteachable. Amidst the keen of crying children, Ms. Cathy exudes the implacable serenity of a cult leader.
“Parents should note that all children 11 months and older will be extremely anxious until they bond with the instructor and get comfortable with the prone-glide position,” her website explains. “The initial discomfort is well worth it.”
Pages of testimonials on her website read like the transcription of a tent revival, more than a dozen stories that all take the same form of suffering, endurance, and redemption: “my child vomited in fear, it was emotionally wrenching for us all, but we persevered, now my child can breathe happily underwater for hours and hours, she watches whole episodes of ‘Dora’ down there.”
On her first day Beatrice swam to the other side of the pool and pulled herself out, gasping and weeping, then half crawled, half dragged herself onto dry land. Tears, mucus, and pool water streamed down her face and her soggy swimsuit sagged over her skinny body.
“Please, Mommy,” she begged, “I don’t want to swim in the pool. Let me stay in the car, I want to wait in the car.”
At one point my husband swears she gasped, “I died!” which certainly sounds like something she would say.
Somewhere behind Beatrice’s jagged, sloppy sobbing I was thinking, how have I become the kind of person who pays good money to throw my child into the blandly smiling arms of a stranger in order to indulge the fantasy of not being indulgent?
Besides, Beatrice already had a swim class. Since she was one year old she has been taking lessons every summer weekend at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center near our house in Los Angeles, where for only $60 our daughter can learn to swim in a way that doesn’t involve permanent dissolution of the parent/child bond.
The Rose Bowl classes, with cheery names like “Starfish” and “Baby Beluga,” are heavy on clapping and singing and little rhymes and plastic toy seahorses, and infants blowing unsanitary bubbles amid much applause from their parents, who all cluster at the pool’s edge in dry swimsuits and sandals and occasionally call out a supplementary admonishment: “No splashing, Gavin!” “Myrna, don’t touch her hat.”
The class is upbeat, kind, affirming. It also isn’t particularly effective. After two years of swimming classes, Beatrice still couldn’t actually swim. Yes, she could blow bubbles from her nose, kick her legs while holding onto a foam noodle, but she couldn’t swim.
You know how you teach a preschooler to swim? Well, for starters, you take away their foam noodle.
The old “toss your kid in the pool” routine, of course, hearkens back to the days of yore, or so I suppose. Far from coddling their children with water wings and pool noodles, we Survival Swimming parents fancied they were doing something old-timey and brave, something like our forefathers did. Not our actual forefathers, mind you, but the same mythical ones who walked uphill to school both ways.
There is plenty of talk these days about how our culture overindulges its children. Everyone knows there’s too much softness, at least in a certain segment of the parenting population, too much hand sanitizer and too many gold stars just for showing up. Forget baby yoga, there are hard lessons little Miles should be learning. And yet, even when we try to be tough, somehow it still involves planning a carpool and writing a check.
When I was six years old, my parents enrolled me in a summer day camp that included twice-weekly swimming lessons at the local YMCA. I was a fearful kid, precociously aware of life’s fragility, skinny and freezing, and while I have very few memories of my childhood, I remember with perfect clarity standing on the side of the pool in dizzying, bottomless terror as the teacher stood in the water below me and motioned for me to jump into her outstretched arms. I was torn by crying and the shame of crying and at six, I was still young enough that the former won. I told my parents the swimming class was terrifying. They told me I didn’t have to do it anymore and so I didn’t. Six years later, shame had the slight edge on fear and so I taught myself to swim, tentatively and poorly, because it was too embarrassing to be twelve and still standing in the shallow end.
Looking back at it now, I can’t believe my parents told me I didn’t have to go. Learning to swim is important! Or I suppose it is, though I haven’t done it more than a dozen times in the last twenty years myself. The skills Beatrice will need to survive aren’t things like hiking and swimming, they’re restarting a router and evading creditors. Instead a lot of raising children involves training them to live in a mildly fictitious past, teaching them about the rhythms of pastoral life and the sounds that ruminant animals make.
Or perhaps instead we’re preparing them for a more-than-mildly fictitious future. After all, when the zombies get here, there won’t be any more pool noodles. We’ll all be lying around starving, wishing we remembered how to grow a pea plant in a styrofoam cup like we learned in kindergarten.
The not-so-secret longing behind the current obsession for zombie apocalypse is the desire to put to use all the canning and the churning and the Leatherman multi-tools you’ve gotten every year in your Christmas stocking and that copy of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook that you bought as sort of a joke but still read on the toilet, earnestly and a little sadly, privately sure that you could stitch up your own bullet wound if only it all came down to that.
How can you tell if a plant is poisonous? (Hint: If you bought it at Trader Joe’s, it’s not poisonous.)
The truth is, this is the world we live in and it has pool noodles in it. So why not just hug our kids and bake them some kale and let them bob around in a UV-rated duck floatie and tell them they’re wonderful just for being alive? What is your job as a parent? To prepare your children to live in the real world, or to construct for them a better one, so that someday when they go out to rebuild the world the right way they’ll have some model to draw on?
The truth is, I don’t much care whether Beatrice ever learns to swim. But learning not to quit, that really is important, learning to tough it out, to do the hard thing.
So did Beatrice learn to swim? It would certainly be convenient for this and every personal essay if anecdotes had such tidy conclusions. Instead I’ll say she sort of learned to swim. By the last day of class, she was eagerly waiting her turn in line, excited to race her cousin Louis.
“I’m swimming like a penguin!” she shouted with pride as my husband pitched her through a hula hoop and into Ms. Cathy’s arms.
Her crowning achievement was leaping (well, consenting to being thrown) off the six-foot waterfall at the far end of the pool and then swimming unaided to the other side.
“Did you have fun?” I asked when she emerged, sputtering, from the water.
“Yes!” she shouted.
“Do you want to do it again?”
Miraculously, she doesn’t blame me. She’s still young enough that she thinks that bad things just happen to her. She’s an inveterate user of the passive voice, and while recounting now the harrowing tale of the swimming class she will invariably say something like, “And then I was thrown into the pool.” So I seemed to have escaped the blame for now, but it’s only a matter of time before she realizes the person throwing her into the deep end was me.
In the meantime, she’s buoyant and brave and ready to swim for safety when the zombies come. I too survived Survival Swimming. I’ve never waged a post-apocalyptic battle, but having a child is already like walking around with a wound. You take all the love you ever had and let it walk free in the world, outside your body, where it can be yelled at and tripped over and heartbroken and thrown by some idiot into a swimming pool. Then you sit back and watch your kids swim and hope they forgive you.