When Elayna Fernandez, a Dominican mother of three, was trying to teach her then-10-year-old daughter Elyssa how to swim, she realized she needed to do something first: get over her own fear of the water. “I was telling her, ‘You can do it!’ and ‘It’s fun!’ but my actions weren’t matching up with my words,” recalls Fernandez, of Fort Worth, Texas. “My energy around her was more fearful than encouraging, and she probably picked up on that. I needed to be a role model and a partner in the process of her overcoming her own fears.” After eight private lessons together, mother and daughter became confident swimmers.
Fernandez isn’t the only mom whose fear of water trickled down to her kids. Experts say it’s common for non-swimming parents to unwittingly transfer their phobias to their children, leading to a cycle of fear that prevents future generations from kicking their fins. According to a 2010 USA Swimming study, 60 percent of Latino children can’t swim; many come from families in which caregivers also lack this life-saving skill.
The best way to break this pattern is for both parents and children to dive in. Learning how to swim has quelled many of Fernandez’s apprehensions. “Before, I wanted Elyssa to explore but felt powerless to help, and that was a yucky feeling for me,” Fernandez says. Now, she feels secure in her ability to protect her water-loving kids.
For parents who aren’t quite as comfortable in the deep end, veteran swimming instructor Helen Garcia, owner of Helen’s Happy Swim School, in Oakland, California, offers non-swimming parents tips on how to encourage their guppies-in-training.
Begin by using this time as an opportunity to familiarize babies with water. “When he’s in the bathtub, get him wet and let the water go over his head and get into his ears,” Garcia suggests. “Having water in the ears is a very strange feeling, and he might not like it, but you have to keep doing it.” By age 1, kids should feel comfortable having water on their face.
These programs, for kids ages 6 to 36 months, introduce swimming in a small and comfortable setting and help toddlers develop the motor skills needed to swim. “Parents don’t have to be swimmers to participate—the pool is very shallow so they just need to stand in the water,” Garcia says. During classes, parents do exercises such as positioning kids atop the water’s surface on their tummy and slowly rolling them onto their back, while letting them kick their feet and splash.
It’s time to progress to private or group swimming lessons without parental involvement. “If kids aren’t comfortable in water by age 4, learning how to swim will become harder with every additional year that you wait,” Garcia warns.
Instructors at Helen’s Happy Swim School begin by engaging kids in fun, trust-building, and confidence-boosting activities. “We’ll play games like ‘How wet can you get the teacher?’ and the kids will sit up on the deck, put their feet in the water, and splash the teacher,” Garcia says. Non-swimming parents can practice similar exercises, such as this version of “Red light, green light”: Stand in the shallow end of the pool and position your kids on the edge; have the swimmers-in-training do quick flutter kicks when they hear the “green light” cue and abruptly stop when “red light” is called out.
A beginner’s environment can dictate whether the learning process is positive from the very start. According to Garcia, proper water temperature (80 to 82 degrees) is key for young swimmers. “Children don’t have a lot of body fat, so if the water is cold, their body will get stiff and they won’t want to learn anything,” she says. Another way parents can help keep their little ones happy in the water is to dress them in pool-ready attire. “Lycra-based swimsuits are ideal because the fabric won’t absorb water, whereas cotton boardshorts and T-shirts will hold water and weigh a ton,” says Garcia. “When children are carrying all that extra water weight, learning a skill such as kicking on a kickboard will be a lot more challenging.”
When non-swimming parents rise above their fears and conquer the water, it sends a powerful and persuasive message to their children that will resonate far beyond the pool. Throughout the learning process, parents and children can work as a team by acting as each other’s biggest cheerleader. “I’ve seen parents who were so inspired by their child’s progress that it motivated them to learn how to swim,” Garcia says. “Now, they can enjoy water activities together as a family.” It’s no secret that children learn by example, so walking the walk—or swimming the swim—will probably be a parent’s most effective form of encouragement.