Parenting Guru: Pushing a Child Past his Fear: How Far is Too Far?

He was clearly terrified. His eyes were huge and his body was trembling. He clung to his mother's leg with his little fingers, his grip so tight I'd have to pry him finger by finger to get him into the water. I smiled to my assistant, who was taking care of the other children who were splashing and smiling, ready for their swim lesson. Then I looked toward this little guy. "No!" he wailed, when I reached toward him to take him into the water. "Want to just play on the top step?" I asked. Then, I pleaded with him, talked to him, smiled at him and sang a song. But he did not want to go anywhere near that water. I looked at his mother, "Can I just take him?" I mouthed.

She nodded. And then, with a firm grasp and a high pitched "here we go!" I spun him away from his mother and hugged him close, carrying him into the shallow end. He screamed.

This situation played out many times over the five years I taught swim lessons. When I took the child into the pool, he'd sob out of fear and reach for his mother. "It's ok!" she'd shout from the sidelines. I'd crouch down to his level while I slipped through the water and whisper in his ear. "You're fine, I've got you. I won't let go." Sometimes, the crying stopped after a few seconds. Other times, it went on for minutes. I'd make jokes, be silly or sing songs. Sometimes, I'd even whisper in the child's ear, "I'll take you back when you stop crying." Usually, the child would stop and realize everything was fine.

In my late teen years, as a very inexperienced teacher, I was completely immune to this cold-natured tactic. As a young adult with no children, my sensitivity monitor was very low. "They're fine," I'd assure the parents. I always asked permission before I took a child into the pool, but sometimes I advised the parents that it was the right decision. Most parents, after a raise of my eyebrows and maybe a short talk, encouraged me to take their child into the water.

Now, fast-forward ten years, and I've had formal training in education, taught for years and I'm a mother myself. Now I understand how difficult it was for some parents to allow me to pull their screaming child away from them. Should I have just allowed the children to become comfortable on their own schedule? Yes, it would've taken much longer, but would it have been less traumatic? It is important to note, however, that many of these students enjoyed swim lessons after they got over the initial fear. I just wonder if this was the right strategy to help them get acquainted with the pool.

Taking a crying, scared child into the water versus allowing them to enter on their own time schedule is one example of two types of parenting philosophies. Some parents have an easier time with the 'tough love' approach; the philosophy that advocates 'cry it out' at bedtime, and pushing a child to move out of his comfort zone, even when he is not visibly comfortable. Other parents allow the child to lead, avoiding crying at bedtime and allowing him to move at his own pace. Which one is right? As I watch my own son play in the pool, I wonder if he'll develop a fear of the water when it's time for swim lessons. And I wonder, when I look in the eyes of his young teacher, if I'll let her pull him away from me to "show" him there's nothing to fear. It's funny. Even though I did it dozens of times and the result was almost always positive, I've changed my mind about this tactic. At 17 years old, I may have been that type of teacher. Ten years of teaching and one year of parenting has changed me. And so far, I'm just not that kind of parent.

What do you think about forcing a child to participate in a swim lesson even if she is afraid? Have you been in this situation? What did you do?

Sarahlynne is a Parenting Guru and a freelance writer.