I was a foolhardy child. Never bothered to foster a healthy fear of death till I was at least twenty-five or so. When I was six, overly excited about swimming with my scouting troop, I ran to the edge of the pool and jumped in the deep end. No matter the fact that I couldn’t swim. I sank to the bottom and was retrieved and resuscitated by a crew of friendly lifeguards and my troop leader. After which, I was promptly banished from swimming/running/otherwise not thinking things through.
That mortal awareness must has skipped a generation. My son thinks everything through in excruciating detail, and if things don’t add up, he’s not on board. For the most part, it’s a non-issue; he’s smart, funny, kind, and usually breezes through life. But when those fear buttons are pushed, he’s paralyzed by anxiety and negativity.
This morning he was spiraling downward, wrestling with all kinds of angst about going back to camp. See, on Friday, at his swim lessons, he worked up the bravery to try the diving board for the first time. But when he got to the end, he slipped and fell in. The instructors and the lifeguards were there to catch him. The nurse called me and said he was badly scraped and bruised. When I picked him up, he was covered in lacerations that ran from his wrist, all the way down his arm and back. He was not happy.
And he wasn’t happy this morning when I told him to go back and try again. It’s hard. I don’t like it. What if I hit my head? What if I never pass the Deep End Test?!
All of his protests I heard and acknowledged.
Sometimes I’m parenting and I see myself from the outside. This was one of those occasions. A little voice was whispering in my ear, “This is a LIFE LESSON opportunity.” While my Mel-brain was grappling with not wanting to be a hard-ass parent who pushes their kids to do crap they truly hate.
Let me let you in on my little parenting secret. I’m a dedicated follower of the parenting school of wing-dinging it. In fact, we’re all just making this up. And we’re doing it on the fly.
I took a deep breath, and then I explained (more or less this), “Sullivan, you’re going to go to camp. You’re going to continue taking swimming lessons. And you’re going to give it your best effort. Some things are hard. Some things you have to do even though you don’t like it. Sometimes we try and we fail, but we should never be afraid of failing. You’re safe. You’re brave. And you’re strong. I know you can do this.”
What I didn’t tell him is that I never learned to swim after I was pulled from the swimming pool. And it doesn’t bother me, except when I see the sailboats on Cayuga Lake. When my stomach twists up with a longing, but then I think, what if I fell in? Or worse, what if one of my kids fell in?
His lip was quivering and it was about time to leave, so I scrambled. “Okay. When you pass the Deep End Test, I will take you to the mall and buy you any video game you want. ANY. VIDEO. GAME.” And I could see the gears churning away in his head; calculating all new cost/benefit ratios based on the addition of this shiny new carrot I was dangling. He brightened. And agreed.
It’s profound how my children’s struggles are a microcosm of my own. There’s always a Deep End Test lurking around the corner, isn’t there? And if we back away in fear, we’ll be stuck treading water forever.
Maybe we’ve fallen. Maybe we’ve been battered and bruised. And maybe it’s scary as hell. But if we face up to it, there’ll be a new Mario Kart game at the end of that long, dark tunnel… or even sailing lessons, perhaps.