Far Enough or Too Far? An Update

Last month I wrote about a challenge we were facing with Sam: we had OK’d her choice to enroll in a lifeguarding class, and then she failed the test. For the next month, she refused to go back in the water.  A good day meant she left the pool sobbing quietly and went down to the nurse’s office to call me. A bad day meant she left the pool area screaming and called me from the locker room.

I had hoped that winter break might dull the intensity of her jealousy and disappointment. Based on this assumption, I did not push her to swim in the weeks following the test. However, her refusal/paralysis continued. Every day she said she thought she’d be able to get in the water the following day, and every day she called to say she’d realized she could not be in the presence of the students who had passed the test.

I was tired of the calls, irritated with the school for allowing them to continue (what is the point of having an aide who sees her roll as handing the phone to Sam?), but most importantly, I began to wonder if forcing my daughter to swim was asking too much of her. Yes, she needs to learn how to handle failure, and yes, she needs to learn how to handle jealousy. And yes, she loves to swim. Still, maybe the best solution would be to transfer her to a different gym class where she wasn’t faced with the daily reminder of what happened. Maybe someday she’d get back in the water of her own accord. At first Sam said no, she wanted to stay in aquatics, but after a few days she said she thought it might be a good idea to switch. I prepared to contact the chair of the department to see what we could work out.

But then I spoke with my husband about it. He was adamant that she remain in aquatics and learn to move on past her disappointment. He insisted that she could manage her emotions and demanded that she receive a detention if she stayed out of the pool another day. I met with the gym teacher, met with the aide, met with the assistant principal, and we all prepared for an ugly day. It was truly ugly. Sam did eventually swim, so she was not assigned a detention. However, the teacher did threaten one if she witnessed another tantrum like the one from that day.

At first Sam honestly did not seem able to understand the degree of inappropriateness she’d exhibited. When I insisted she write a note of apology, she apologized for feeling jealous of the other students. I refused to let her deliver this note, and we spent hours talking about the effect of her behavior on the teacher, whom she genuinely likes. Finally she managed a one-sentence apology for upsetting the teacher and a promise to refrain from future screaming. Moving the scenario outside of herself was a victory for her and for us, in my book.

For the last three days, Sam has been swimming. I don’t think she’s feeling any joy, but hopefully that feeling will return. She’s through screaming, she’s through crying, and she seems to be resigned to the situation. I hope she’s learned something about her own strength and ability to be resilient, but it’s hard to tell. I suppose we all need repeated experience to learn these lessons about ourselves.

My husband made the right call by forcing her to “tough it out.” I suspect it was easier for him to stand so firmly behind this position because I was the one answering the daily calls from Sam and the daily emails from the gym teacher, but he was right. We’ll never master the balance between pushing enough and pushing too much any better than most parents, but I think we get to put this one in the “good parenting” column.