Peer pressure suffers from a bad rap.
Oh, I’m not talking about the kind in which kids push their friends to do something harmful they might not otherwise do. That kind of peer pressure deserves all the scorn it gets, and then some.
But kids pressuring their friends, either directly or indirectly, to do something they needlessly fear can make up for a parent’s shortcomings, or at least those that the dad behind these words can claim as his own.
A recent day at our neighborhood pool in Urbana reminded me of this truth. My kids love spending a hot summer day in the water, but they aren’t the best swimmers no matter how hard I try to teach them.
My 5-year-old son Gavin doesn’t like water in his eyes, so he won’t put his head underwater, let alone attempt any move resembling the doggie paddle. If water accidentally finds its way into his eyes, he screams as though it were acid.
And while my 8-year-old daughter Celeste has no problem going underwater, she doesn’t actually swim. She’ll kick her feet and flail her arms around, but she doesn’t really go anywhere. A few feet, maybe, but Michael Phelps swims farther when he scratches his nose. She’s taken lessons two or three times, but it’s been a couple years and we have found excuses to not try again.
As a result, Gavin is confined to playing in the shallow end of the pool or jumping into my arms and riding piggyback while I stand in about four feet of water. I don’t let him go beyond my reach, which bothers Celeste if it’s only the three of us and she has no one else with whom she can play.
She wants me to give her as much attention as I give Gavin, but I can’t. I’m relieved when Celeste finds a friend to swim with because then I can make sure Gavin does not become a tragic summer statistic and she won’t feel left out.
Part of me feels guilty they can’t swim better, because I remember when I was kid how much I loved swimming on long summer days in The Orchards’ neighborhood pool in Gaithersburg.
It wasn’t much by today’s standards — little more than a long trapezoid with a diving board and a nine-foot deep end — but I still managed to burn my share of skin cells while playing in that water. (No one thought twice about melanoma in those days. Instead of sunblock, people used baby oil so they would tan quicker. Not me, of course. Everyone else.)
From the moment the pool opened at 10 a.m. until it closed at 8 p.m., you could find me and my friends playing Sharks and Minnows, Marco Polo, or perfecting flips off the diving board. We were even known to play our share of cards — a game called Spit, even though it didn’t involve any saliva that I recall — during adult swim.
We simply loved that pool, and my kids love theirs, but they have yet to enjoy it to the fullest because they don’t swim that well.
One day not long ago, the three of us were at the pool for a couple of hours, and Celeste was growing tired of me paying so much attention to Gavin. We were about to leave when some friends and their children arrived — a welcome sight given that Celeste did not know anyone else at the pool that day. She immediately wanted to play with them, which was fine with me.
But after a while, she wanted to follow them and their dad into the deep end, which I would not allow. To say she was not happy with me is akin to saying this summer in Frederick County has been a touch on the warm side.
“But it’s not fair,” she complained to me. “Why can they go in the deep end, but I can’t? Now, I have no one to play with.”
“They can swim better than you,” I replied. “Maybe they come to the pool more often than we do. Maybe they’ve taken more swimming lessons. Maybe it’s both, but you do not swim well enough to go in the deep end, even if I’m with you.”
Celeste sat in silent thought for a few moments as her friends continued to swim in the deep end with their dad. “I want to take swimming lessons again,” she said softly, and I agreed. Her mood improved and we continued on.
A short while later Gavin was jumping to me in the pool, but he was still determined to keep his head above water, as though he had just spent every penny in his piggy bank on a new hairdo. But then he saw one of his friends, who is about two years his junior, swimming around like he was trying to find Nemo.
“OK, Daddy, I’m going to do it,” Gavin announced proudly as he stood on the edge of the pool watching his friend swim without a care.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Swim!” he shouted as he swung his arms and bounced at the knees. “Ready? I’m gonna do it! 1, 2, 3, cannonball!”
He jumped. I was too far away to catch him, so he sunk like a rock. I moved quickly to lift him up and braced myself for him to pop his head above water with an ear-splitting scream.
Instead, he shouted, “Did you see me, Daddy?”
“I swimmed, Daddy! I swimmed!”
“Yes, you did.”
“OK,” he said trying to free himself from my hug. “I’m going to do it again!”
I spent the next 20 minutes catching Gavin as he jumped to me in the pool, and his head went underwater every time without complaint. I can’t count the number of times I tried to persuade him to dunk his head underwater before that day, but I always failed. It just took an unintentional nudge from one of his younger friends, a peer pressure of sorts, to encourage him to do something he needlessly feared.
I smiled, and realized that a similar unspoken pressure, or perhaps “drive” is a better word, that Celeste felt to swim with her friends also persuaded her to want to learn how to swim better.
If only all peer pressure had such happy endings.
This is a repost of a column that appeared in The Gazette on Aug. 26, 2010. Gavin is now 8, and is still learning how to swim. He doesn’t mind dipping his head below water, but holds his nose every time.