Swimming Lessons for The Terrible Two's - Teaching Swim Lessons to Two Year Olds

Strategies for Teaching Swimming Lessons to "Terrible Two-year-old's"

Toddler at the pool
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I just got off the phone with my dentist, who called for some advice on her two-year-old swimmer's swimming lessons. She said, "Coach Jim, we just had our first lesson and it was awful! Am I wasting my time?" Pay close attention to my response which was this analogy: "Do you mean the swim lesson was like pulling teeth, or the swimming lesson was like getting teeth pulled?" That analogy will help us determine the new approach to the swim lesson for the two year old swimmer.

For example, if it was like "getting teeth pulled" then he was upset, scared, or had high anxiety. If it was like "pulling teeth" then he was resistant to the instruction, wanted his own way, or do his own thing, which is not uncommon with two-year-olds.

At any rate, my dentist's response was the latter. It was like "pulling teeth!" He fought me on everything. He didn't want me to hold him. He didn't want to do anything the poor teacher wanted us to do. I felt bad. What do you think I should do?

So we talked. My input was along these lines. "The problem isn't that he is scared. The problem isn't the curriculum. The problem isn't "swimming lessons." The problem is that he is two and he is doing what two-year-olds do so well . . . they manipulate their parents to get their way! It's not always an easy fix."

My own 22 month old does the same thing at home with certain things and our pediatrician gave my wife similar advice that I gave my dentist. Here's a good example of the exact same behavior in the home setting:

When my wife would put our son Nolan down to sleep, Nolan would cry and carry on and call "Mama, Mama, Mama, literally a hundred times. After ten minutes or so, Heather would give in and lay with him until he fell asleep. Then he'd wake up, and repeat every hour or so and my wife Heather kept giving him the same response. Nolan would get his way so he would repeat.

The pediatrician said, "I know it's hard but when you go in, stroke him for a minute to settle him down and then let him fall asleep on his own." You can go back after 10 minutes or so to console him BUT you can't let him know he is in control. We had similar situations with Nolan throwing tantrums. If he doesn't get what he wants, i.e., a toy, a drink of my coffee (LOL), etc., or this past Saturday he wanted to stay outside and it was time to come inside. So he threw himself down, arched his back, hit his head on the floor, and cried. I simply relocated to next room. After he got no response from me, Nolan moved closer to where I was and continued to make sure I could hear him. Eventually, he realized he wasn't going to get his way and I managed to redirect him to something else when he came in the room.

The same type of thing can happen in swimming lessons and it did with my dentist's two year old. When I shared the story, she said "I never thought of it that way. I think you're exactly right."

Five Tips on Teaching Swimming Lessons to Two-year-old Swimmers

  1. Because her child is 33 months, I told her he was old enough to understand some basic rules. Talk to him the day before the lesson and the day of the lesson about one or two rules.
  2. Don't ask him for permission or for anything! You tell him what he's going to do. If you ask, the answer will always be "no!"
  3. If he doesn't respond or behave accordingly, you have to have consequences ready and in place. I recommended that she pull him out of the lesson and take him out of the immediate pool area and put him in a "time out" for a few minutes. Before taking him back to the lesson, explain your expectations or he will have to go back to time out.
  4. Bring a favorite toy that may help redirect him when he gets upset or wants to take control.
  5. Don't let him manipulate you. Make sure he knows you are in charge and he will obey you. As soon as you let a two year old run the show, you lose!

These solutions work. They are not always easy and they are not always immediate. Behavior changes are a process, not an event. So be prepared for a learning curve. Whatever you do, be determined and persistent. Just like your two year old doesn't determine whether or not he sits in the front seat without a seatbelt, he should have no more say in whether or not he starts learning to be safer in and around the water. Be strong! You and your little one will both be better for it in the long run.

Updated by Dr. John Mullen on March 25, 2016