Forcing a Child to Do What He is Afraid to Do

My husband Andy has taken Charlotte and Gemma-Rose to the swimming pool, and I’m sitting here bleary-eyed after a late night. Yesterday evening, we went to the parish trivia event. Our team didn’t win, but we ended up with a respectable score, and didn’t disgrace the name of teacher and homeschooling parent. We were good at answering questions on cars, vegetables, religion and sport, but we were hopeless at identifying celebrities. But we can live with that.

Andy came home, climbed into bed, and went straight to sleep. I lay awake most of the night thinking about fennel and Rolls Royces and the theme music to Gilligan’s Island. So Andy is feeling fresh enough to swim a few laps and I’m doing what I always do when I’m tired. I ignore the housework and disappear into the computer.

So Andy is swimming and I’m thinking about swimming. Swimming has been a weekly event in our lives for a long, long time. I remember taking our eldest children, Felicity and Duncan for swimming lessons years ago. One school holiday, we headed off to the pool for a week long course of lessons.

Duncan really enjoyed days 1 and 2. He must have been about 3 or 4 at the time. He wallowed in the baby pool, splashing with the other kids, playing with the toy crocodile he’d been given. It was all a lot of fun… until day 3. Day 3 was ‘putting-your-head-in-the-water’ day. And Duncan didn’t want to put his head in the water. He wasn’t ready. I expressed my concerns to the teacher. She didn’t want to know. She had a schedule to keep up with. This was day 3. It was heads in the water.

I begged and appealed and reassured Duncan, and he submitted to being thrown through the water from teacher to parent. But he was frightened. That evening, he did the begging. Did he have to return to the lessons? No. I decided that I couldn’t put Duncan through all that agony. He wasn’t ready. We cancelled the lessons.

Well, Duncan wasn’t ready for swimming lessons the next year or the next or the next. I started to get anxious. How could I tell everyone my son couldn’t swim? Was I a negligent mother?

When Duncan turned 12, I decided it was time to try and help him overcome his fear of water. I talked to him about how it was important he learn how to swim. He agreed we needed to do something about the situation. He could see he was at a disadvantage. He’d been invited to a couple of swimming parties and he hadn’t been able to join in properly. So with Duncan’s cooperation, I organised some swimming lessons.

I explained Duncan’s swimming history to the teacher and she treated him very gently. And Duncan, who had freely agreed to undergo the lessons, did his best to cooperate. I remember the day he put his head under the water. The teacher looked at me, put her thumb in the air and smiled so widely. We both cheered. Actually, I felt like crying with joy. The day Duncan swam a width of the pool was even better.

Sometimes I see other children at the pool who are afraid of the water. Their mothers say such things as “You’ll have so much fun when you can swim. Putting your head under the water is easy. Look! Everyone else is doing it. Once you get in the water and do it once, you’ll be okay.” Echoes of what I once said to my own son.

But will they be okay or will their fear just increase?
I found this quote from John Holt:

If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him.

Yes, I don’t believe pressuring a child to swim, or do anything he is afraid of, is the right thing to do. He’ll overcome that fear and learn when he is ready.

Duncan is now a good swimmer. He learned all the different strokes as well as the extras like tumble turns and diving. No one would ever know he had such a rocky start to his swimming career.

Now it’s Gemma-Rose’s turn to learn tumble turns and butterfly. She’s certainly not afraid of the water. She loves her Saturday mornings in the pool. She’s very different to Duncan at the same age. 

Duncan… yes, he was different. But that’s okay. Shouldn’t differences be respected? Shouldn’t a child be trusted to learn when he is ready?  Duncan got there in the end.

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  1. Reply

    Totally agree! They will do it when they're ready. My 10 year old used to be afraid of the water until she was about 6 or 7 years old. Now, she begs to go to the pool. I love the John Holt quote. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Reply


      I love the quote too. John Holt says so much in so few words. I am always mulling over things he said. He was a great observer of children.

      I guess it takes patience and courage to listen to a child, and wait until they are ready to learn to swim. There's so much pressure on mothers these days to push children on. I'm so glad to hear your daughter learnt to love the water in her own time. I'm glad you stopped by to share your story! Thank you.

  2. Reply

    My water fear was conquered at a much older age when someone explained that the key was knowing how to blow out air to avoid inhaling the water – I discovered that there's no need to be afraid. A combination of this and letting them imitate the others playing in the water has helped our children. We only have one left who doesn't swim but, because we have a backyard pool, we would have to keep trying to help him learn even if he was afraid.

    In our house, we've found that I'm too soft to be a good teacher but their dad instills confidence and makes it fun, even if he is quite firm. His way of teaching has resulted in much quicker progress than their lessons with an instructor.

    Duncan's experience reminds me how our children always learn so much quicker when they are completely ready – whether it's something academic like Maths or physical like swimming.

    God bless, Sue:-)

    1. Reply


      I was thinking about when you learnt to swim. You must have decided for yourself that you wanted to learn. It can't have been easy getting into the water that very first time, but you'd made the decision and you were fine. I remember how excited you were when you conquered this skill!

      I'm sure Duncan would have learnt to swim at a much earlier age if he hadn't had that traumatic swimming lesson experience. He did like the water until he was forced to progress at a faster rate than he was ready for. Yes, he was afraid to put his head under water but I think he'd have overcome that by himself if we'd been patient.

      We've never had a backyard pool and I can understand how you want your youngest to swim as soon as possible. It doesn't sound like he is afraid of water. Having no pressure placed upon him, and sharing in the good times of the pool, probably have made him associate the water with fun.

      I agree that the right teacher is essential. That first teacher was totally wrong and the second so perfect. I guess also that children have confidence in their fathers that they wouldn't have in strangers.

      As I was writing this post I also thought about the similarities of learning to swim and learning academics. We can really make children dislike such things as reading if we push too hard too soon. We need to trust and be patient. They all get there in the end.

      God bless!

  3. Reply

    Sue, I completely agree. When my daughter was preschool age I signed her up for a class that included gymnastics. Every class they forced her onto these bars. After a couple of months she didn't even want to go anymore. It was very sad that she enjoyed everything else they were doing but it was ultimately ruined for her because they insisted she spend a couple of minutes on these particular bars each class. Well written and said!

    1. Reply


      How sad for your daughter!

      Maybe some teachers are more concerned with their time schedule or plan of activities than with individual children… their needs and readiness. To be fair, it must be difficult to teach many children at once, and a teacher is pressured to show she is succeeding as a teacher. We are so much more fortunate being able to step outside the system and focus on each of our children and where they are at a particular time. We can afford to be patient and to treat fears with respect.

      I guess your daughter's gymnastics teacher thought that if she spent a few minutes on those bars every week, she would soon overcome her reluctance. It seems John Holt is right. Forcing a child to do something doesn't solve the problem.

      I am so glad you shared, Stephanie. Thank you!

  4. Reply

    Hi Sue, I was very blessed when it comes to swimming. When I was four, mum and dad put in a lovely big concrete pool. They paid for private swimming lessons which I loved. I have fond memories (which actually ARE memories and not stories or photos or videos or frigates of my imagination) of spalshing in the pool when we were filling it up and squealing that it was too cold!!!!
    I wouldn't be able to see it from Duncan's point of view (not that I havn't tried!), but thank you for sharing it. Lots of love,
    Sararose xox

    aka Brid Mairead

    1. Reply


      The right teacher makes all the difference. I'm glad to hear you've got nothing but good memories of swimming. It would be lovely to have a backyard pool! Summers would be so much fun. Enjoy!

  5. Reply

    Hi sue. You post took me back to my children learning how to swim. When brid was little-around 2,we put a pool in. We got a swimming instructor to come to the house and teach brid to swim n our pool. It was a great decision because I remember her getting the whole family together and teaching us safety and rescue techniques.
    It's wonderful when children are ready to learn. It takes them no time at all.
    We could do a meme on this topic.

    1. Reply


      It sounds like Brid really enjoyed learning to swim. She sounds like a real water baby.

      Yes, when children are ready to learn, it takes no time at all. I guess not all children are ready at the same age. And some are put off by being forced. In some ways mothers are under pressure to get their children swimming early, especially in a country like ours where swimming is a big part of our culture. Water can be so dangerous. It must be hard for a mother to know what to do… put safety first or let a child take his time.

      I am sure a lot of people have interesting stories on this topic.

      God bless!

  6. Reply

    My child that I thought would never swim just got his Boy Scout swimming merit badge. We started trying when he was around 5, I guess. He had sensory issues (although we didn't realize it at the time) and the cold water on his head was both painful and terrifying. We didn't push, but we tried every now and then, and spent a lot of time playing in the pool. At 12 or 13, he started swimming, and at 15, got his swimming merit badge!

    My current 10yo won't put her head in the water, but loves playing at the pool. We're just waiting til she's ready.

    1. Reply


      Congratulations to your son! I bet there was plenty of rejoicing in your family when he got his swimming merit badge. When our children succeed after a long struggle it really is a special moment.

      I wonder if friends pressure you because your daughter isn't yet swimming. I found that so hard. My son was getting older and he wasn't swimming. Looking back, I'm glad I didn't bow to that pressure but waited until Duncan was ready.

      I guess it's a bit like having a late reader. We know they'll get there in the end, but everyone outside the family thinks we should be doing something about the situation.

      Wendy, thank you so much for sharing your story. I am sure it will encourage other mothers in a similar situation.

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