During the summer of 1988 Kyle took private swim lessons from one of the teachers at his Montessori pre-school. She was a certified swimming teacher who had a lovely passive solar, black bottomed pool in her back yard. Still four months away from his second birthday, he was not yet potty-trained, and so the first “lesson” was to not pee in the pool. It was a lesson that he took to heart, and once he knew he could feel the need to pee and get out of the pool, he announced that he would not wear diapers any more. I announced back that I was not going to clean up after him. We each agreed to our part of the deal, and he successfully transitioned to being diaper-free without any mishap.
The second lesson was to jump off the side of the pool. With me standing in the water to spot him, Kyle was to jump in to the water, immediately push up toward the surface, turn around and grab the side of the pool. Safety first. Over the next few weeks, he became a very strong little swimmer. He would jump in, turn and grab the side, get a breath, push-off and swim across the width of the pool to the steps where Tammy waited for him. All I had to do was follow behind him.
He liked to go to his lesson a bit early to watch the older kids swim. Tammy taught a diving class just before his, and Kyle cheered them on as they dove, flipped and cannon-balled. In the middle of the summer, Kyle started saying that he wanted to dive off the diving board. Tammy started working with him, teaching him how to dive from the side and soon he didn’t need me to be under water to help him turn and go to the surface. By the end of the summer, Kyle said he felt ready to go off the board in to the deep end.
On his last day of swim class, he had quite the cheering section. All the “older kids” and their attending parents stayed to watch him. Tammy was in the pool with two life rings. Kyle was to jump in, turn and go for the surface. He could reach for Tammy, or either of the two rings. I walked him up to the diving board, and the whole group of us counted to three.
And there he stood. The next few minutes were spent both encouraging him and telling him that he didn’t have to jump if he didn’t want to. He was adamant about jumping in, but each time we counted to three, he stayed still at the end of the board. At last, he said that he wanted to have me help him. He wanted me to drop him in the water.
I looked at Tammy; Tammy looked at me. I looked at all the other parents; they looked at me. I asked Kyle if that was really what he wanted. It was. I held him over the edge of the board, and had him count to three. That way, he could stop counting if he changed his mind. I told him I wouldn’t let go until he said “Go!”. He hit the water in perfect form, and then the surface was all too quiet for far too long. I looked at Tammy; Tammy was looking to the bottom of the pool. I looked at the surface where he should have come up. The other parents were all getting ready to jump in, as was I. Tammy went under and came up with a smiling Kyle.
Kyle tells me that he remembers the absolute quiet and blackness as he was suspended in the water, and then turning to see the leaves floating on the surface. I remember panic. Later, as Tammy and I talked about what had happened, her thought was that normally, the body has a certain amount of tension in it from the anticipation of hitting the water and so does not just sink. Because Kyle trusted me so implicitly, he was far too relaxed when he hit the water, and so he sank too far down.
From the vantage point that I have now, I see that as a very good metaphor. We parents want our children to trust us, and they by rights should. At the same time, there is a point when, even though the trust is there, they need to manifest a little bit of resistance of their own. We can do all we can to teach them to be safe and aware, and still, at some point we have to let go as they jump in to the metaphorical deep end of the pool of life. If they don’t have their own strength/resistance, they will drown. Maybe that drowning will be getting overwhelmed by the pressures of society, through loss of willpower, or even by kowtowing to the habitual lifestyle of the parents at the expense of the individual spirit.
There is something to be said for allowing the spiritual advancement of a child, even if it means that the child moves away from his or her own tribe and way of life. In early childhood, once the separation of “self” and “other” has been made, children are met with the paradox of choice. Their personal strength becomes rooted in their perception of right and wrong, good and bad. Their self-mastery is rooted in the trust they have that the tribe (their parents, relatives, teachers) will ultimately keep them safe. If the trust is there, they then have the basis (the diving board) from which to seek their self-mastery, their personal power in relation to the rest of the world. They also must trust that they will be allowed to expand and reach beyond the limits of their elders and seek out their own.
By the time of puberty, a child’s understanding of self-esteem, self-confidence, self-respect are becoming defined, and the result is refining of the whole self and maturation in to it. That passion of emotion as children grow is also the raw power of an untamed mind. As they learn to sense themselves, and are given the room to expand, they can learn to listen to their intuition in regard to caring for themselves, and for others. Given the support and the freedom, a child’s personal power of creativity and expression develops in to the willpower to follow their dreams. Decision-making becomes based in what one needs and understands about oneself, and may not necessarily agree with the tribal dictates handed down to them.
As with his swim lessons, I raised Kyle in a way that increased our bonding and trust even as I encouraged his freedom and trusted in his ability to make good decisions. The hard part of it was listening for when he started counting to three, and knowing when it was appropriate for him to say “Go!”. Sometimes, he wanted to go too soon. Sometimes, it required the strength to say “No”, and sometimes it required the strength to just be the life ring when he come up sputtering and grasping for safety.