Every summer, in an attempt to escape the New York City heat, I pack up the kids and take them to visit my parents in San Francisco for a few weeks (where as Mark Twain probably didn’t say, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”).
This year, I wasn’t able to go due to work. But, because I think it’s important for my kids to spend time with their grandparents and assorted West Coast cousins, my husband and I decided to send the three of them out alone for a month.
They’re ages just-turned-14, almost-10, and 6 ½. They’ve spent weeks alone with their grandparents before, so we figured it wouldn’t be a problem.
And, initially, it wasn’t a problem. All three were excited about the upcoming trip. (Though I suspect what they were most excited about was the fantastic meals, new toys, and undivided attention they were about to receive; Mama didn’t raise no foolish children, they know where they’ve got it good).
But, the night before they were scheduled to leave, as we were packing their bags, my almost-10-year-old burst into tears.
Now, as a rule, this is my toughest little dude. Setbacks that would send other kids into hysterics roll off his back. He’s not a complainer. We didn’t even know his arm was broken because he was so stoic about it! This is the boy who jumps into new situations head-first, damn the torpedoes/full speed ahead, life’s an adventure, carpe diem!
This is the boy who was now crying under his blanket that he didn’t want to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.
Granted, he’d just come off a pretty tough school year, which might have made him more vulnerable to any kind of upset overall. The question was: What to do about it?
Usually, I have a pretty firm policy when it comes to commitment. If you asked me to sign you up for a class or activity, you have to finish the entire semester–even if you decide halfway through you really aren’t that into it, after all. If you say yes to a party invitation, you have to go. “I don’t feel like it,” the morning of is not a valid excuse. If you picked out the outfit, you have to wear it. You get the picture.
But does that apply to sending a sobbing 4th grader across the country for a month?
I wasn’t sure what to do about that one.
I tried talking to him. Which is tough when he’s got his face buried in a pillow and his head covered with a comforter (yes, in the middle of NYC’s most recent heat-wave).
Finally, however, we were able to get to the root of the problem. It’s not that he didn’t want to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s per se (he liked the food and the toys and the undivided attention). It’s that he didn’t want to take the swimming lessons we’d set up for him out there.
Oh. Well, that’s a horse of a whole different color, isn’t it?
Here’s the thing with swim lessons. I’d been meaning to sign him up for several years now. But he’s so busy during the school year, and in the summertime it’s such a schlep to get him to the nearest pool from our house, that I’ve let that slide.
So when my mother pointed out that there was a YMCA down the street from her house in San Francisco and that they could take all the kids for lessons while they were there, I jumped at the chance.
I really do believe that learning to swim is important. Unlike other sports that you do just for fun and overall fitness, this one really could end up saving your life.
I tried that argument with my son.
It didn’t fly.
He was OK with going to Grandma and Grandpa’s. As long as he didn’t have to take swimming lessons.
Why didn’t he want to take swimming lessons?
He just didn’t.
Was he scared?
Was he self-conscious?
Was he afraid he wouldn’t be able to do it?
He just didn’t want to, that’s all.
Well, that clears everything up.
I had a similar situation with his older brother years earlier. My then 5-year-old didn’t want to take swimming lessons, either. (In his case, at least there was a reason: the water was too cold.) So I got him a wetsuit and I took him to the pool and I told him to get in.
He didn’t want to. He was visibly scared. But, he did it anyway. Because I told him to, and because the instructor and other kids were waiting.
Ever since then, I’d been asking myself whether that’s a good thing to teach a child: That even when your instincts are telling you not to do something, you should do it anyway. Because of peer pressure or a feeling of obligation or simple politeness.
On the one hand, overcoming your fears is an important skill to learn. (As the saying goes: Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.) On the other hand, saying no when everyone else is urging you to say yes is a special kind of courage. One that a lot fewer people possess. (And one that everyone pays lips service to… until that “no” is aimed at you.)
So what to do? Force my son to take swimming lessons and wait for him to realize that I knew best, after all? Or allow him to evade the task for another year and teach him that it’s okay to avoid things that make you uncomfortable indefinitely? Cajole him into the pool and prove that see, there was nothing to be afraid of, after all; isn’t this fun? While demonstrating that other people know what’s best for him better than he does?
I certainly don’t have the answer to that one. But, he’s in San Francisco right now. And that swimming lesson is looming. Am I hoping that my son gives in, or sticks to his guns?
I’m hoping that he gives in, because that would make it easier for me (and he’d finally learn to swim, to boot). But, am I certain that would be best in the long run… Not in the slightest.