Teaching your child to ‘swim’ gives them wings to fly


If a typical Jewish mother is notorious for one thing, besides the tendency to feel guilty about everything, it’s the genetic disposition to love her child too much. I realize there are exceptions to this rule, but I’m not one of them. I spoil my kids, not so much with material things, but in a maternal way. In fact, I was the neurotic parent in playgroup who carried an apple corer and peeler in my diaper bag so that my infant son could nibble on a fresh, wholesome snack at the park.

Even now, I rarely leave the house without packing a “little something” in case Jack or Sari get a hunger pang. When I take the kids to the swimming pool for lessons, for example, my oversized turquoise tote bag is so weighed down with bottled waters, granola bars, cantaloupe balls and spare change that I have no room for sunscreen. When the Talmud says, “a father is obligated to teach his child to swim,” I don’t think toting snacks are what the Jewish thinkers had in mind.

Advertisement for The J

In Judaism, “swim” refers to the skills and confidence a child needs to ride the waves in life. It’s the greatest gift a parent can give a child, and it’s also the hardest holy obligation of all. The lessons begin about the same time a mother squeezes inflatable water wings on the slippery, chubby arms of her baby. In Judaism, these wings to “swim” are eventually the wings to fly into adulthood. The sages had the foresight to know that if we continue to baby our children as they get older, we may deny them the valuable lessons that come from when they make mistakes and get hurt.

For me, it starts with giving up some control over the little everyday things. In fact, I’m tested every morning when I painfully watch my fifth grader cram his feet into the back of his loosely laced Nikes without untying them first. I worry that if I don’t double knot his tennis shoes, he might trip in gym class. That’s when I quickly remind myself that if he stumbles on the track, I guarantee he will pick himself up, dust himself off, and hopefully take the time to tie his shoes better the next day. Another way that I let Jack learn from his mistakes is the time he forgot to take his violin to school. Sure enough, his embarrassment in music class resulted in his never leaving his instrument at home again.

The same willpower to let go doesn’t apply, however, when I obsessively clean my son’s dirty eyeglasses. Even though Jack carries extra wipes in his batting bag, I still can’t resist the temptation to sneak into the dugout around the fourth inning and make sure that he can see well enough out of his glasses to throw a change-up. I realize that if I continue my inappropriate behavior when he pitches in the big leagues, I could be arrested.

Likewise, I try to let Sari grow from her bumps in the road. The other day, after her daddy warned her to not run in her favorite powder blue Crocs, she chased a ball across the street anyway and banged up her knee. As I bandaged her bloody boo boo and wiped away the flood of tears, she promised that she never would run in her flip flops again. Also, I try not to resolve her conflicts every time my first grader complains about a teacher at school or a friend in the neighborhood. I can’t fix all of her problems. So most of the time, I just listen to my daughter. She has to learn how to deal with all kinds of people, how ever unfair it may seem.

Even after I teach my children to “swim,” I’ll never stop worrying about them. So as summer approaches, I better dig my beach bag out of the closet and stock up on trail mix and tough love.

The Mishegas of Motherhood is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, husband, and toy poodle named Luci, but not necessarily in that order. She can be reached at [email protected]