June 26, 2014

Facing our kids' weaknesses

I'm a realist when it comes to parenting. I don't expect my son to be good at everything or like to do what every other kid likes to do.

I expect him to be unique, have an opinion (and, oh boy, does he!), and be open to new experiences. I also expect him not to quit something he's committed to unless he has a damned good reason.

He's got a lot of strengths: he's an amazing reader and has the vocabulary to prove it, he's great at math, he's pretty darn good at soccer, and he can put a mid-sized Lego set together in no time (and will do it all in one sitting, by himself). He's got the mind of an engineer. He's linear, a bit obsessive about the order of his favorite things (everything else, of course, can just end up in a haphazard pile under his bed), and sees things as black and white when it comes to justice.

Yes, he's got an impressive little list of talents. But...he's got plenty of weaknesses to balance it out. He's a sore loser, listens like he's completely deaf, and can struggle in social situations. And, as it turns out, he's pretty uncoordinated.

As parents, we accept these things. We know our kids won't be good at everything, and even if we, are highly competitive ourselves, we know we can't push them to excel in all areas. Do their best, yes...but not excel. In fact, it's to everyone's benefit to find our kids' talents and interests and let them flourish in those areas, focusing so they get good (after all, isn't that what we do as adults with our careers?). Of course, we have to try a lot of things and watch our kids fail miserably at some to find out what they really are gifted at. And that can be hard for some of us.

Recently, my son asked to go to a swimming birthday party. I reminded him that he still couldn't really swim, so he'd have to wait to do things like that until he finished out his swimming lessons. He tried to convince me that he could swim just fine (I, of course, know better...he can stand on his tippy toes and flap his arms around like a duck...he cannot really swim).

We did the parent/child lessons a couple of years back, and last summer he took level 1 and 2 on his own. He did relatively well, though he did plenty of screwing around and could have learned more than he did if he'd just paid more attention (my son always seems to be the kid who's busy doing jumping jacks underwater while all the other kids are patiently sitting on the edge of the pool waiting for instructions). Focusing isn't one of his inborn skills.

Regardless of his inattentive behavior, he passed level 2. So this year, I signed right up for level 3. On the day of the first lesson, he followed three other children and his instructor along the side of the pool. I found a spot on the bleachers and prepared to read or waste time on my phone for the 30 minutes his lesson would take.

Instead, I ended up not being able to take my eyes off my son.

I was amazed at his glaring inadequacy. Oh, I know...I could be more positive about it. I could say, "Well, maybe he's just forgotten what he learned...he'll come around." Or, "The instructor is just going to have spend more time with him; I'm paying for lessons and it's their job to teach him." Or even, "They're the ones who passed him out of level 2...what were they thinking?!!!"

But, as a teacher myself, I'm fully aware that the deficiency was with my son's ability, and both of us were going to have to own it and deal with it. He was simply not prepared for level 3. The other kids in the class were leaps and bounds ahead of him, already swimming fully on their own. The instructor spent a majority of her time holding my son up and pulling him along. Bless her, she tried. And it was painful to watch. I wanted to run right up and interrupt the lesson and take him out of the pool. Not necessarily for his sake, but for mine. I looked around. I knew those other kids' parents were in the stands, too...watching their own children be neglected for the sake of my son, who literally looked like he'd never been in a pool before. Yes, I'll admit it...I was embarrassed. For myself and for him, though thankfully he doesn't have the sense to worry about what others think of him yet. I wish I were more like him in that regard.

As hard as it can be to watch our kids fail, we have to see those failures in the light of reality. I could have left him in level 3. I could've used the "wait and see" approach. But, that wouldn't have been fair to those other kids, or the instructor, or...most of all...my son.

Before the lesson was even over, I was making my way to the front desk to find out if it was too late to move him back to level 2 for a second go. I had to admit to myself that it had been too long, and he'd likely forgotten all they'd taught him. When the manager approached me, I told her, "My son is in that level 3 class out there, but I'm watching him seriously flailing. He's just plain not ready for it." She responded so sweetly, "Maybe he's just a bit behind. Sometimes if we have a whole class that is a bit behind, they catch up quickly together." I countered, "He's not just a little behind. He's so far behind those other kids he's just going to hold them back, and that's not good for them or him." She gave me a look that said "you're worried about nothing, smiled, and said she'd run out and talk to the instructor, to see what she thought. When she returned, she smiled again, more painfully this time, as if she were giving me some terrible news, "Yeah...she totally agrees."

They were happy to accommodate the change, and even allowed him to stay for the next lesson. It meant a full hour in the pool, but I figured we'd talk about it and he'd be okay with it. When he came splashing, bare-footed, over to the stands, I threw the towel around his shoulders. I pulled him over by me and told him that I'd moved him to a different class. He looked disappointed. But, I assured him that he'd be happier and more confident in level two and that we'd sign him up for level three again just as soon as he passed it. But his face was still sad. "I don't want to stay for the next lesson...I want to go home." "What's the matter?" "I can't swim." "I know...that's why we're here, silly. And if you take level two, you'll be swimming in no time." He looked at me skeptically and nodded reluctantly. "Okay."

I knew he'd be happier, and that his confidence would build quickly if he were more appropriately placed. Leaving him in level 3, where his frustration and disappointment were likely to make him simply give up, or hate swimming, would have been wrong. I know parents who would have chosen that course of action. The "suck it up...and don't let those other kids beat you...I won't accept defeat" kinds of parents. Don't get me wrong, I push my kid when he's just giving up without trying. I don't let him walk out on commitments to his team (or himself) or stop doing things just because they're "hard". But this wasn't one of those times. He really had no idea what he was doing, and no amount of pushing or encouragement was going to suddenly make him succeed.

After his level 2 lesson, he walked back to the bleachers. I wrapped him in the towel and asked him what he thought. "Was that better?" He smiled slowly, "Yes." "Was it more fun?" Again, he said, "Yes."

Now three days later, he actually swam, all by himself...about 10 feet. He still messed around and struggled to pay attention. He spent more time playing with the goggles than he did swimming, but he did it! And when he came to retrieve his towel and clothes to head off to the locker room and change, he was smiling. "You swam today! All by yourself!" He blushed a little and grinned wide enough for me to see the gap left by his two missing teeth. "I know, mom." "You'll totally be ready for level 3 after next week!"

Sometimes, our kids just don't learn things as quickly as others...or at all. Sometimes, they need to practice something 43 times before the light bulb turns on. That's sort of how my son learns. He tries, and fails, tries, and fails, tries, and finally gets it...really gets it. What's important is that he doesn't give up. And that he still has his dignity. I'm coming to terms with the fact that he's not "athletically" gifted in most areas. He's not the fastest runner, he's not likely to be a basketball star, it took him weeks to start riding a bike without training wheels, and quite obviously he's going to be slow to pick up swimming. But, he can't be good at everything. Oh, sure...his grandparents think he's the best at everything. But, me...I'm a realist. And I know what he's good at.

We all fail at things. None of us are good at everything. But we sometimes have a tendency to treat our kids as if they should be. All through school, we expect good grades. We hope they "get involved". We hope they'll play sports. But the reality is that they might just be "adequate" in school (or maybe even struggle), terrible at sports, and brilliant with interpersonal relationships. Or some other combination of gifted and not-so-gifted. The fact is, there are many things I can't do and don't want to try. So why would I expect any different from my kid? Swimming, unfortunately, isn't a choice for him. It's a safety issue and he has to learn. But, do I expect him to be a competitive swimmer? Nope. I simply expect him not to drown. And by that measure, he's well on his way to success.

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