Sink or Swim

The water is warm and crystal blue—the exact color of his eyes. We approach the pool together, his hand gripping tighter to mine with each step.

“Don’t worry buddy, I’ll be right here watching you the whole time. I’m going to sit on that blue chair,” I reassure him, pointing to a lounge chair next to the pool.

“Actually, you can sit on those blue chairs,” the swim instructor informs me with a flick of her hand, motioning toward another set of chairs tucked around the corner behind a tree. She puts her hands on my son’s shoulders and pushes him toward the water. He looks at the pool as if it’s full of snakes.

“It’s okay, Ev! You’ll do great! I’ll be watching right over there!” I tell him as I make my way to the out-of-view seating area. I plop down next to an older couple—grandparents no doubt—who smile at me.

“She doesn’t like the children to be able to see their parents during the lesson,” the grandmother informs me with a shrug.

I force a smile back, and joke that I typically don’t leave my child in swimming pools with strangers. The swim instructor had come highly recommended to us through a local mom’s group on Facebook, but technically, I knew nothing about her. My eyes lock on Everett through the branches of the tree between us, and I wave at him.

The lesson starts out innocently enough: three kids sit on the first step of the pool, kicking their legs with the upper halves of their bodies out of the water. Everett turns to look at me every thirty seconds or so. I wave to him again, and then move behind a bigger tree branch so my presence won’t be so distracting. Another mom joins me in the sitting area, a friendly acquaintance I recognize from town. We swap pleasantries and eventually both pull out our phones to catch up on e-mails.

After a few minutes of kicking exercises, the swim instructor and her assistants pull the children into deeper waters to practice putting their head under water. Everett starts to cry.

“Stop crying!” I hear the swim instructor bark.

My head whips around on instinct. I stand up from my chair and stare at the pool between the tree branches, squinting my eyes to get a good look at the situation.

“Stop crying! You’re four! You’re too old to be this scared!” she scolds.

I am stunned, frozen behind the tree branches, which suddenly feel more like prison bars. Who does this woman think she is? The grandparents next to me remain stoic and unalarmed, like human screensavers. 

Am I going crazy? Is anyone else alarmed by the way this instructor is yelling at my kid? Just as I wonder if I should yank my son out of the pool and run for the hills, his cries stop. I sit back down, and call my husband.

“Hello?” he answers on the second ring.

“I don’t like this,” I say quickly, “I don’t like it at all. I don’t like her. I don’t like the way she’s talking to Everett.”

My husband asks a series of questions, and we decide to finish out the last ten minutes of the lesson to see if it gets better. The swim instructor barks, “Stop crying!” at my son half a dozen more times. At one point he asks for me, and she says, “Your mommy’s not here right now; she went to the bathroom.”

I am shocked by her bold-faced lie. Everett is looking at the tree branches, searching for me, but he can’t see well between the tears in his eyes and the water dripping down his goggles. There are two minutes left. I am standing behind the tree branches, stuck, imprisoned in the waiting area. I want to take an ax to that stupid tree. I want to slash every branch from the trunk until there is nothing standing between him and I.

The second the lesson ends, I break free from the waiting area and run to the side of the pool. He sprints into my arms with tears in his eyes and chattering teeth. I wrap him up in a towel and scoop him into my lap. His goose bump covered legs drip water all over mine.

“I’m so proud of you, buddy. That was really scary and you were really brave and I am so, so proud of you.”


As soon as we get home, I hop online to the Facebook group where I first found out about this woman. I do a quick search for “swim lessons” and pull up multiple threads where her name had been mentioned. There are dozens of recommendations for her, all stating some rendition of the same glowing review.

My child was terrified of the water on the first day and was jumping in the pool by the third.
She’s a magician – I don’t know how she does it.
By far, the best swim instructor in town.

Again, I start to feel a little bit crazy. Am I overreacting? Am I coddling him too much? I picture Everett on the soccer field in a few years, a red-faced coach screaming at him. I picture him at summer camp, homesick, asking to leave. I picture him at his first job out of college, working for a narcissistic boss who steals credit for other people’s ideas. Trials and unkindness are part of living in the real world. Am I doing my son a huge disservice by letting him quit swim lessons? Am I teaching him to give up, to walk away from a challenge, to quit simply because the instructor wasn’t nice? 

Am I teaching my child that it’s okay to quit the minute something feels hard?

These questions haunt me for the rest of the day, as my mind ping-pongs back and forth between we are never going back there and maybe we should give it one more shot. One minute I’m convinced that the swim instructor was truly awful, and the next minute I think I’m being too sensitive. One minute I think this decision doesn’t matter very much, and the next I worry that this decision will set a precedent for all similar situations we might encounter in the future.

Voices are whispering into both of my ears at the same time, and it’s impossible to distinguish which one I should listen to.

Be an advocate.
Suck it up.
Trust your gut.
You’re overreacting.
Protect him.
Challenge him.

My heart says one thing while my brain argues another—it’s an epic case of emotion versus logic. Who will win today? I keep listening.

You’re doing the right thing.
You’re being a helicopter parent.

That last statement startles me, like the crack of an unexpected firework.


Later that afternoon, I am walking on the river trail with my friend Christina. We are each pushing a double bob stroller with two children strapped inside, bribing them with snacks to keep them quiet. I tell her about the swim lesson, and that I’m wrestling with what to do.

She listens quietly while I ramble, “I don’t know. I can’t decide if I should listen to my gut or if I’m just being a helicopter parent.”

I practically cringe when I say that phrase out loud. It’s buzzing in my brain like an annoying fly. I keep swatting at it, but every time I turn around, there it is.

Christina laughs. “You?! A helicopter parent?”

I smile at her. Sometimes you need a friend to be a mirror—Christina knows I let my kids eat food off the floor and run free at the park. 

She continues, “That lesson sounds horrible. You should trust your gut.”

I nod, all the while wondering why that is so hard for me to do.  

My mind flashes back to a series of moments, a montage of other times I’ve trusted my gut. I remember the time I called the pediatrician and described what would later be diagnosed as an inguinal hernia in my eight-week-old baby. I remember the surgery, my husband and I praying in the waiting room, the relief of it all being over. I remember sitting in the ENT office three years later, staring at a Dr. Suess drawing on the wall, describing what would later be fixed with ear tubes and a tonsillectomy. All of those memories drum up the same feeling I’m feeling right now—a nagging sense of unrest and inner turmoil. I might as well be walking around with a giant red flag sticking out of my head.

Later that evening, I crawl into bed around 10 p.m., rubbing lotion on my hands. I hear the swim instructor’s voice again: You’re too old to be this scared. I hate that she said those words to him. I hate that she didn’t acknowledge his fear, but instead insisted that he was too old to be afraid. Are we ever too old to be afraid? I think of how many times I’ve been scared, both as a child and as an adult. I think of spiders and death and criticism and hospital waiting rooms full of unknowns. I think of times when I was forced to face my fears, and other times when I was able to escape, to pause, to face the scary thing on my own terms another time, another way.

The next lesson starts in less than twelve hours, and my husband asks what I think we should do. I take a deep breath. 

“I don’t think these are the right swim lessons for us. I think he needs to learn how to swim from someone who will let him be afraid,” I finally say.

My voice is confident, but humble—not imprisoned anymore, but a tree itself rooted in the ground, firm and brave, with beautiful branches that bend and sway with the wind.

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