Thunder Bay, Ont. writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences.
We took the kids swimming on the last day of our recent family trip to Toronto. It was as much a strategic move as it was a fun one: after days of extended screen time and sitting in cars, they needed to blow off steam, and we needed them to blow off steam. And one of the easiest ways to do that was to throw them in a pool for a couple of hours.
Rowan has been swimming on his own for a few years now, but Isaac, at six, has only recently been able to propel himself, solo, through the water. What he lacks in form — his swimming consists mainly of doggy paddling — he makes up for in grit. And now that he can swim, he is determined to swim: he paddles his way across the requisite width or length of any public pool he can in order to get the coveted wristband that marks him as a big kid, free to go in the deep end.
The swimming test at this particular pool consisted of four widths. As he began paddling his way across the pool, the teenage lifeguard turned to me and said, “He has to do front crawl. Or breaststroke. He has to put his face in the water — it can’t be doggy paddling.”
I tried to coach him from the sidelines: “Blow bubbles! Move your arms in a windmill, like this!” Rowan, freestyling through his swim test, slowed down to give him some more pointers. But to no avail: Isaac flailed his way through his four widths only to get out of the pool — so happy — and be told that, no, he had failed. He couldn’t go in without me. To add insult to injury, he was a half-inch too short to go on the waterslide, with or without a parent. “Really?” I asked another teenage lifeguard. “Really? He’s so close.”
“Sorry,” he said. “We’ve been getting inspections lately.”
Of course, Isaac was heartbroken — and, well, pissed. And so, while Rowan happily amused himself on the slide and in the water, I stood with his sobbing, seething brother at the pool’s edge, trying to comfort him in the face of rules that seemed relatively arbitrary and, frankly, stupid.
But I couldn’t say that to him, could I? I had to keep explaining that, no, I couldn’t go up to the lifeguards and tell them that he was allowed to swim, that he had passed the test. I had to say that we did have to follow the rules, that there was nothing I could do.
And, you know, I don’t want, I never want, to be that parent — the one who gets mad at the teenage lifeguards and bullies them into bending their stupid, arbitrary rules for my particular, special kid. On the other hand, I hated the fact that they were ruining his joy over something so petty — his stroke, a half inch. Whatever happened to fun?
We stood there for a while, my younger son and me, him sad and angry and me annoyed and helpless, wracking my brains for what I could possibly say or do to make this better, without being that parent. Finally, I came up with something radical: honesty.
“You know what, Isaac?” I said to him. “You’re completely right. It’s totally unfair that you can’t go in the pool or down the slide. It totally sucks. These rules don’t make any sense. And you have every right to be really mad. I’m mad, too.” I said "sucks" a few more times, just because it’s not a word he hears a lot from me and I thought it might drive home the point.
And by the time I had finished speaking, he was markedly less angry. He may have even smiled.
Next year, we said. Next year we’ll come back to this pool and Isaac will be that much taller, and that much stronger, and that much of a better swimmer. And he’ll show them.
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