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Nov 15 2012

Should My 8-Month-Old Already Be Competing?

By at 9:40 am

As he toweled off, my husband asked me, “How old do you think the youngest Floater ever was?”

My 8-month-old son, Carston, had just completed his first swim lesson as part of the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy (LKSA) at the JCC in Newton, Massachusetts. LKSA is a seven-level swimming program designed to teach kids to swim safely; it begins at level one, Splasher, continues on to Floater, then Kickers, and eventually ends with Flyers.

I’d been motivated to sign my little splasher up for safety reasons and, honestly, because I’d heard kids nap better after they swim. My husband, on the other hand, was ready for our son to become the next Michael Phelps—or more appropriately, Mark Spitz. 

Neither my husband nor I are very good swimmers. As with so many things related to parenting, we’d like our son to do better than we have.

But we also parent in an era where every child is raised to be a superlative—the best, the earliest, the first. It used to be such superlatives were only relevant in college or high school, but more recently the younger set has been expected to excel more than ever before. Now, I realized as my husband dried off, even infants aren’t an exception.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’m a sociologist who studies children and competition. I wrote my dissertation on elementary school-age kids who participate in competitive after school activities like chess, dance, and soccer. I’m well aware of parents’ concern that their offspring must succeed in tournaments in childhood, lest they be unprepared for the tournament of life. Acquiring a glittery collection of educational credentials is part of this story and I’ve become accustomed to the notion that a good preschool leads to a great elementary school, middle school, high school, and then a stellar college–and graduate school, too, of course.

Even with my background I was shocked to realize that my not-yet-1-year-old son was already part of the achievement race. I understand that some parents subscribe to the Tiger Mom mentality, popularized by Amy Chua in her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua accurately captured my husband’s attitude toward my son’s swim lessons: “The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal… that medal must be gold.”

While I certainly want to see my little man excel academically someday, and find an activity he is passionate about, I don’t think that has to happen so early in life. I don’t think he’ll be unsuccessful if Carston doesn’t rapidly progress through the seven levels of swim lessons–and he still might yet make the Olympics. What matters is that he be exposed to activities while he is young so he can find something he loves and enjoys. It may be swimming, it may not be. But if he does love it, he should stick with it even if he is the slowest progressing Floater ever.

From my research I know that early achievers in certain activities often burnout or stop progressing as quickly as their peers. When those young superstars are no longer the superstars, they often become discouraged and drop out. The child who my not shine as brightly, but who has a true passion for his or her activity, may yet be the superstar in the end.

According to the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy, the youngest Floater ever was 9 months. Obviously Carston is already “behind,” so there’s really no rush for him if he loves swimming.

In the meantime, he actually does sleep after his swim lessons, so at least those restful naps are helping to grow his brain…

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