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How to teach a child to swim, respectfully?


Many teachers of respectful parenting or unschooling promote a fully child led approach. I’ve read many an article explaining that respectful parents don’t sign their children up to any form of class before the age of five – because they aren’t ready until then, because they haven’t asked to go, and because it’s disrespectful to.


Whilst I understand and respect this idea, and take a lot from the unschooling, child-led world, I don’t feel this dogmatic all-or-nothing approach is right for me or for every family and every situation. I think we can tease apart which skills are worth introducing early on, and which are not. We can be sensitive to which children are ready for a process, and which are not. We can be mindful of which learning environments are respectful, and which are not.


I also think that it’s MUCH more important how someone is taught, then when they are taught.


Pottying, reading, bike riding, swimming… all these skills can be taught respectfully, or disrespectfully – whether they’re introduced early or late.


I also think we can do children a disservice by only introducing them to skills they’ve shown an interest in. A child might not show interest in something because it hasn’t been presented as a necessary part of their life and culture.


If there’s no books around a child might not take interest in reading.


If you don’t go to the pool or the beach, they might not want to learn to swim.


Thus if you always put a child in diapers – they really might not show any interest until they’re three or four, despite the overwhelming evidence that all children re born ready to begin the potty learning process. You’ll think that this is the child not being “ready” when it’s in fact the act of putting a diaper on the child which blocks their readiness (even though we tend to think of diapers as a neutral choice in our culture – the truth is they’re anything but).


If you never offer your child a balance bike, and never buy them a 2 wheeler and wait for them to show interest – they may not want to learn until they’re 8 or 9 or – as many of my friends – they may never learn. Which is ok, but not what most of us want for our children.


Many skills are actually more easily acquired, in my opinion, before the age of 6 or 7 – or the period of concern – because social awareness, inhibition and nervousness around performance haven’t developed yet. So children are more likely to take educational risks and “go for it” – uninhibited by the thoughts “I can’t do it”, “What if I fall?” or “it’s too hard”.


Very young children adapt so easily to their surroundings and take a “can do” approach even to things that are hard like learning to swim – if that’s what is encouraged by their environment.

Further, if you think teaching someone to swim, to read, to ride a bike etc is disrespectful – then I think you’ve fallen into an “either-or” approach.


Take an AND approach

I like to take an AND approach to parenting. Can I teach them AND do it respectfully? Can I set limits AND be empathic? Can they have freedom AND learn to respect boundaries?


Can I teach them AND do it respectfully? Can I set limits AND be empathic? Can they have freedom AND learn to respect boundaries?via @ParentingJunkieTweet This I believe kids can easily be taught these skills AND be self led learners. How? By being full participants in their education, by being empowered with choice and voice. By being active captains of their ship – co creators of their education.


We, the parents, need to decide certain things for our kids – because they don’t have access to the information. We decide everything in the early years! What they eat, where they sleep, what they wear and how they spend their days. We need to make decisions about buckling them in the car seat – even if they don’t like it. Giving them medicine – even if they HATE it. And teaching them certain skills – even if they haven’t yet shown an interest. Because we, as the adults, are privy to the information that these skills are important and are easier to acquire before the power struggles set in.


Life Saving Life Skill

It’s an entirely personal decision, but for me – personally – I think learning the skill of swimming, being safe in the water and having confidence in it – is an important life skill that’s best learned early. It’s also a life saving life skill which might sound like an after thought but it’s actually a very important point.


Reading? That can surely wait until later. There’s so much evidence that reading is a skill that’s easier to develop later in childhood. And similarly obvious is that babies are born ready to swim. 

… swimming pools are one of the biggest dangers that young children in developed countries face. Statistically, they are by far more dangerous than having a gun in the house.

I guess it makes sense, really. Swimming and hygienic pottying are natural mammalian behaviors. Reading is not.


5 How To Steps for Learning to Swim Peacefully


  1. Go SLOW – on the macro level – Don’t leave swimming until a late age – rather see it like learning to ride a bike. You start with a little scooter, then a balance bike – and slowly advance and level up. With everything that happens when learning a new skill you want time on your side. On the micro level – don’t rush out the house, don’t rush to the class (trust me I’ve made this mistake)
  2. Build RapportSafety starts with feeling safe. Take the time to build rapport with the teacher – my kids didn’t swim at first at all – we just chatted. Allow kids to just dip their toes.
  3. Prioritize Fun – Make sure to communicate to the teacher that your core interest is to help your child enjoy the water, not to rush to skills. That’s why they should never ever push a child into swimming – learning to swim safely should be a by product of enjoying the water with the teacher. Confidence grows when we can master tiny weeny incremental steps – learning actually happens that way. We take a micro action that we never took before, and then another micro action – which eventually compounds into a new skill.
    For example we wet our toes, then our knees… we wet our head, we blow bubbles into the water… we start to jump and land, we start to kick more vigorously… and what do you know? We’re swimming.
  4. Gradual is king – Don’t throw a child in the deep end. As with all learning a consistent, gradual approach is best. Think of a baby learning to walk, to potty train or to bike ride. As they adjust to their new environment, they take incremental steps to increase their skills and confidence. Pushing them too much too soon only backfires. Never ever coerce, force, scare them into learning swimming skills – it will backfire quicker than you can canon ball dive.
  5. Trust your child (and the teacher) – take a “Get back on the bike” approach and realize that with all learning there are sometimes some tears involved. When a baby falls, when the bike is wobbly, when a child has a potty accident – setbacks are part of the process. Embrace them as learning opportunities but DON’T see them as a sign your child isn’t “ready’. When you think that – you create a self fulfilling prophecy. It’s ok to struggle with swimming, it’s ok to feel a little defeated at times – that’s our opportunity to build resiliency. To keep coming back, to believe in ourselves, and to slowly, with support, create mastery.

Free Peaceful Swimming

Download your own copy of the Peaceful Swimming Guide right now.


In this PDF GUIDE, I’ll include practical tips and the method of swim that we used and important tips to help you find a good instructor. Lucky for us, Parenting Junkie team member Claire, former lifeguard nationalist and synchronized swimmer coach has given here approval and tips!

Don’t forget to join me over on Instagram @parentingjunkie and use the #parentingjunkie hashtag when you’re posting stories about peaceful parenting and play I’d love to follow you too!

(Pssst…If you happen to be in New Jersey, we had the BEST experience with Lisa, here’s her number! ‭+1 (321) 446 7700)

↓ ↓ ↓   LEAVE A COMMENT! I love to hear from you…

What was YOUR experience learning to swim growing up? Which of these 5 tips stood out to you the most? If you want more like this, type “LEARN” in the comment section.  ↓ ↓ ↓  

Manage Tantrums like a Peaceful Parenting Ninja – without punishing, yelling, bribing or counting the 3. The Ultimate Parenting Junkie Guide to Transforming Tantrums into P-E-A-C-E

Take the FREE Peaceful Tantrums Class! 

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