Battle Hymn of the Dolphin Mother

Much of the buzz around Yale Law School professor Amy Chua’s new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother seems to have subsided by now, at least in my circles. For a while there, mothers and fathers of young children were frantically chatting at children’s birthday parties and sharing essays and posts on the topic of this mother whose book’s most incendiary segments were quoted in the Wall Street Journal, telling us that Chinese “Tiger” mothers are the best parents, pushing their children to succeed at all costs, and suggesting we stop paying attention to our kids’ self-esteem in the name of being the best of the best — at everything. Subsequent reviews of this book and interviews with the author made it clear to me that her book is likely to be a far more interesting read than the media would have us believe, because in fact it’s less of a “how to” book and more of a memoir in which she shares some of her failures and back-tracking moments as well.

At one point during the height of the hoopla surrounding this book, I was at a child’s birthday party. A friend mentioned to other parents that I had written a couple posts in the past about figuring out how and when to let Lyle quit activities, and a lively conversation ensued. This is true. In the past year we have had many such struggles, as he showed interest in activities that he then begged to quit (see soccer, violin, summer camp, swimming). In fact, looking through old posts to find these links, I am somewhat mortified by how long this has been a challenge for us. I did indeed let him quit violin, rather than taking the Tiger Mother approach of making my 5-year old practice for hours on end. However, I emphasized to the other mothers, I don’t allow him to quit everything.

I have allowed soccer and violin to be dropped, namely because the majority of the time I could see that he wasn’t deriving pleasure from either activity. Summer camp was not a choice, since it was our child care option last summer while I worked. I am happy to report that sometime over the winter, he announced he was looking forward to going back to the camp, and even complained that it wouldn’t start until July. I am not so naive as to think he’ll go every day without complaining, but it gave me the confidence to sign both boys up for the entire month of July this summer, which was a relief.

But swimming? This is where I am a Dolphin Mother because there will be swimming, Wonderfriends. First and foremost, it’s a basic safety issue. We live on the lake, for goodness sake, and the boys spend many summer days in the water. Even if we didn’t live on the water, it wouldn’t be optional for my kids because I think it’s a critical life skill. Baxter is doing great, swimming like a fish and building his skills. And Lyle? Well, Lyle has always loved the water.  He had a swimming birthday party last summer, complete with a cake depicting him in a pool. He is such a happy guy in the water, and has impressed me by telling me repeatedly in the past year that he wants to be on a swim team someday, that it’s his sport. I get this: swimming was my sport, too, to the extent that I had one, although I never accepted requests to join the swim team as a kid; I liked the solo nature of swimming.  My brother is also a great swimmer and was on swim teams when we were growing up.

But Lyle being Lyle, he’s not all that pleased about having to go to a class to actually learn how to do it. No, Lyle is the boy who sits waiting for his lesson, goggles suctioned to his forehead, telling me he can hardly wait to jump in, and spinning tales about his future as a swim team star – but then balks in fear when his lesson starts and it’s time to actually get into the water. He stalls, he cries, he holds my arm with a death grip and tries to pull me into the pool with him. Some weeks this anxious behavior starts a full day before, when he realizes swimming is coming up. With much cajoling (including, one Saturday, Baxter voluntarily abandoning his own lesson to help Lyle get into the pool to get started, which made me incredibly proud of him), he eventually gets in the pool with the help of an additional adult. This process can take 10 minutes of his thirty minute lesson. Within a few minutes, he’s doing everything he’s supposed to be doing, usually with a big smile on his face. Just like last year, he then gets out of the pool and says something like, “That was really fun!” or “That wasn’t even hard!”

Anticipatory anxiety: it’s enough to make a grown woman jump out a window.

However, rather than jumping (this time, anyway), I opted to take a look at the pattern of how this was going down. Because as far as I’m concerned, it’s not about forcing one’s child to do what one wants, no questions asked. It’s about supporting them enough to help them get to the other side of their fears and worries, where they’ll find that success. What I saw was that things broke down during the transition from land to water. Once Lyle was in the water he did great and enjoyed it, but he was losing important instructional time transitioning. And here is where I did something that I want to encourage all parents to do as advocates for your children: I asked for what he needed. I chatted with the lifeguard who had been helping us that day and she agreed with my assessment of the situation. I asked her if it would be possible for Lyle to get into the pool 5-10 minutes ahead of his lesson to make the transition and get warmed up before the lesson began. Sure, I felt a little uncomfortable, asking for this special treatment that would require a staff member to be 1:1 with him before his allotted time. But I think any quality program knows that children are all unique little individuals who have different needs at different times. And sure enough, she thought that was a wonderful solution, and we talked to the Aquatics Director about it, who okayed it.

Fast forward to yesterday, the second time we did this. There was no talk about “hating” swimming before we left the house. Instead, Lyle confirmed with us that he’d get his “warm-up time” before his lesson and then said, “Oh, good. I like that.” When we got out of the car at the Y, Lyle took my hand and said, “I love swimming.” All I could say was, “I know you do.”

Now he gets into the pool about ten minutes early with any available lifeguard and – even though there’s a slight tightening of his grip on my arm before he goes in and he tells me exactly where I should sit and watch him so that he feels secure – he gets in and is later able to begin his lesson on time with the rest of his class like a champ.

I’ll remember this someday when I’m cheering on the star of the swim team.

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6 responses to “Battle Hymn of the Dolphin Mother

  1. You are so wise, my friend. I can’t wait to read about both the boys’swimming successes as time goes on.

  2. It’s so amazing how far just a little modification of the environment can go. I never want to be “that mom”, and it’s hard to remember that it does always seems to turn out well when I’m willing to put myself out there in the best interest of my kid. Can we go swimming together in a couple weeks??

    I had wondered what you thought about Tiger Mother. I only read the WSJ exerpt, but I kind of enjoyed her assessment of the meaningless-self-esteem problem. Not the force-them-to-practice part, though.

  3. wow! i love this post, and am so impressed. what a great lesson and how lucky bax & lyle are. love you jodie!

  4. Yay for wise moms who know their kids! Their all different, that’s for sure.

    Swimming is a requirement in our family, too. And I have one reluctant one and one enthusiastic one. It’s taken me awhile to figure out that they are different and respond to different motivators and environments.

  5. good idea Jordan – I too have insisted on swimming lessons since we have a house on the Chesapeake Bay. My oldest knows that I expect her to take lessons until she is the best swimmer she can be. Every summer, no questions. We’ve had some through out the school year too, but let her decide when she she wanted a break. We’ll do the same with our 3 year old.

  6. This is a great post — such wise lessons. My son hated preschool at the beginning of the school year and would cry about having to go to school the next day almost as soon as we picked him up from school. The teacher assured us he loved school once he got warmed up. So in the end we realized (maybe he told us??) that he needed a transition period. Now whenever he’s dropped off, my husband or I stay in the room an extra 15 minutes. It seems to be just what he needs. No more crying or worrying about school. And that’s good for all of us!

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