The challenge of the 2-4y old swimmer!

Swimming with 2-4 year olds is a rewarding experience.  It can also sometimes be a frustrating experience!   2-4 year olds are notoriously verbal, but have not developed skills that enable them to reason.

Even if in the “no” stage of life, it  is always better to start swimming lessons as young as possible rather than wait until later.
Swimming is one “activity” that should be required of every young child to learn and children should be enrolled year round until they are proficient and skilled swimmers.  Pediatricians are now recommending that all children be enrolled in formal swimming lessons year round beginning  at 12 months old.  The era and thought school of “summer swimming lessons” is over.  Swimming for little people is not an optional activity like dance, or gymnastics, or T ball.  It is a skill that could potentially save their life. 

Parents will often try to fit swimming lessons in and around other activities and these days we see many young children who are over programmed.  Often times if we start hearing the word “no” pop up with kids who normally love to swim or love the water, we have to ask if the child is over programmed?  Have they added more activities to their weeks and are not allowed as much free time?  Most children who are not over programmed LOVE to come to swimming lessons.  The first question to ask yourself when your child starts refusing to swim is: Is he or she over programmed?  

If your child is not over programmed, often times they are just acting age appropriate.  Toddlers and young preschoolers have very little power over their life, yet they are often determined to wield all they have to demonstrate that they are autonomous and capable of making things happen.
And “no”  is one way for them to do this.  Sometimes 2-4-year-olds may even use the dreaded word when they mean to say “yes.” “Would you like a cookie?” can be answered with a resounding, “No!” as the toddler simultaneously helps herself to a handful of cookies.  At swimming lessons we see this happen too.  The child says ” I don’t want to swim!  then seems perfectly happy swimming around at the stairs.   The parent interprets the “no!” as “I am scared” or “I am bored”. Next the parent tells us the child “no longer wants to swim”, when in reality the child really is saying ” I don’t want to follow a set of directions or do a requirement, I just want to play” or ” This is hard today and I don’t want to try”.  At that point, you must ask yourself as the parent: is this child skilled enough in the water to stop lessons altogether? Very few 2-4 year olds have that much water skill.

Toddlers and young preschoolers have few independent choices about when to get up, eat, go outside, watch a movie, stop playing, take a bath or go to bed. When children can’t make even basic choices, they exert their independence in other ways.  So giving a lot of choices between 2 things gives your toddler or preschooler a sense of their own power.  (“Would you like to wear the green shirt or the red shirt?”).  Try to limit the choices to 2 choices for younger children.  

We also see a lot of “no” behavior at lessons after a fun family vacation, a long illness or a visiting relative or a change in the family.  These situations produce a lot of unstructured type of time and indulgences for kids that they don’t normally see on a daily basis.  So, when they have to go back to reality of structure and normalcy, some let us know they are not going to come back to reality easily!  Even most adults can relate to this type of feeling.  We are just better at hiding them and adapting faster.

Not only is “no” powerful, but it can also get results. For example, screaming “no” and throwing oneself on the floor when shopping or visiting family causes things to happen.   Screaming and carrying on at lessons gets LOTS of attention and results.  Parents not only get embarrassed, but are concerned as the child is now “wasting” their money.  One of the goals of parenting is to remove the effectiveness of this type of behavior.  In this case, a teacher may ask you to step into the lobby for a short while to see if the child will begin to pay attention.  Or the teacher may take away an end of lesson reward like slide or play time if the child refuses to cooperate.  It is in the best interest of your child if you and the teacher work together to not give poor behavior a lot of reaction and a foothold into swimming lesson time.

Parents can reduce some of this stress by giving their children access to an acceptable level of control.   At swimming lessons it might be, ” do you want to wear the red swim suit or the green one?  Would you like to play for 2 minutes or 3 minutes after class?  If a child is refusing to comply in a lesson situation, the best course of action is to tell them that if they refuse to participate, they may participate and get play time or sit and watch and not get play time.   If they choose to sit and watch, pay little attention to them.  Instead pay attention to the children who are participating in class and make comments about how much fun they are having and even cheering them on.  Children learn a lot by watching and listening.  Its not much fun to sit and watch while your parent is excited about another kid!

Lastly, chat with your teacher about ideas to help your child navigate their “power”.   


Posted in