Caleb really struggles with fear. The prospect of something or somewhere new and different can become, in his mind, difficult and scary. It paralyzes him and he panics and shuts down, unable to reason or hear what we say to him. Riding his bike or scooter, going down a tall slide, attending Kids Club, and the latest - swim lessons. Or rather, swim lessons in the water by himself, without a parent participating alongside him.
His first lesson was on Monday. The most I could get out of him was sitting on the top step, bawling his eyes out and screaming like someone cut off a limb. (This pool has an extended shallow end where his lessons took place, so there was no risk of him getting in too deep.) It was awful. My pride made it embarrassing for me; here I am with my 4 year old (who looks like a 6 year old, really) and he is screaming and wriggling and carrying on while every single other child at the pool joyfully participates. And then there was Eliott, who frequently took off from the toy area and toddled as fast as his legs could take him toward the deep end. I was both thankful for the other moms who snatched him from danger and mortified that these strangers were forced to tend to my younger child rather than his own mother. I'm ashamed to say that I was far from kind in my words and tone toward Caleb, which certainly only added to the negative feelings he was expressing.
Day two was marginally better in that I coaxed him all the way to the bottom of the (four shallow) steps. He cried nearly the whole time and squirmed against me, but there was no screaming and he took each step of his own accord, even though he didn't want to. However, then there was Eliott who, again, thought it would be fun to run full speed toward the water and throw toys into the pool. And again, the other moms retrieved him each time while I was standing in the water unable to get to him. I hated every second of it, to be honest. When the lesson was done, a woman came by (I believe she's a manager there) and encouraged me that Caleb was deeper in the water this time, and that even though he still freaked out, it was progress from the day before. I felt somewhat uplifted. And those sweet moms were so gracious about Eliott, saying they didn't mind at all when I apologized over and over for his bursts of freedom.
Last night Jonathan and I told Caleb that we simply wanted him to stand in the water with his class. It didn't matter to us if he participated or not, as long as he was in the water with his class. I could feel his resistance today even before we started moving toward the water, and you better believe that he was pulling against me and crying as we walked toward the steps. Yesterday's progress paid off, though, and I got him down the steps in just a few minutes then we walked (him crying of course) over to the wall. I stood with him while Eliott sat eating his crackers. He leaned against me trying to get to the steps to get out and he bawled, but when I moved to leave (Eliott had finished his crackers and I saw him starting to get off the chair, as did one of the moms who looked poised to chase after him once he inevitably made a dash for the deep end), I told him to stay where he was, and he did. He didn't like it, but he did it. I came prepared for Eliott today and buckled him up on my back where he couldn't make a getaway. The mom offered to watch him for me but I just didn't feel right having these strangers babysit him for me. I expected to have to get back in the water, but when I looked over, a sobbing Caleb was staying put right where I left him, so I waited. I paced with Eliott to keep him content, and still Caleb stood by his class. The manager walked by and gave me a thumbs up. I shrugged and said that we were making progress little by little and she said, "Hey, he's in the water and you aren't, that's a big step!"
Once I was confident that I wouldn't need to get back in the water, I set Eliott down with the toys and stood in the play area with the moms. They asked if Caleb had done lessons before and I explained that he's never done them on his own. As they both told me how amazing I was doing with him I felt the stress and self-consciousness melting away, replaced by a sense of welcoming and camaraderie. For the remainder of the time we chatted about our kids (interrupted periodically when Eliott would make another break for it) and I watched as Caleb went from crying and refusing to look at his instructor to playing calmly with the water and watching his class. His instructor persevered in trying to get him to participate, and though he continually refused, I could see him warming up to her little by little. When the class was finished, I wrapped him in a towel, held him tightly and told him how proud I was. He doesn't understand the importance of what happened today but I sure do. Even as I write this, my heart is swelling with pride in my son for working through his fear and forcing himself to do what he tried desperately to resist.
All of this is to say, today I felt truly surrounded by a village made of women who are encouraging and cheering us on as we struggle through this challenge. They gladly looked after my toddler so I could attend to my fearful older child. They offered words of encouragement and affirmation (as did one of the little boys in his class, who came over to Caleb and said, "Come on in, it's not scary!" How cute is that??). The pool manager comforted us with support and recognized Caleb's accomplishments, small as they were.
It's my desire for Caleb to be bold and brave, to not be driven by fear. I don't want him to be sitting on the sidelines while his friends ride their bikes and swim and enjoy so many activities in which he refuses to participate because "it will be scary!". I'm not certain what the best approach might be to helping him work through his fears, but I can see that staying the course with his swim lessons is slowly but surely paying off. I'm eager to see his progress tomorrow. Thanks to my little village at the pool, I'm feeling less skeptical and more hopeful.
I told Caleb that for each day he participated in his lesson - amended for today to be just standing in the water by his class without me - he would earn one dollar to put in a jar. At the end of his lessons he could take whatever he had in the jar and use it to buy himself a toy. Well, buddy, you earned it today. Mom and Dad are proud of you - and so is your village.