Swim lessons

Life lessons learned from a day at the pool

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"Mommy, I love swimming, but it hurts my nose when I put my face in the water," my 3-year-old daughter informs me as I help her change into her suit for swim class. Since she started lessons two months ago, her father and I have watched her grow more comfortable with immersing herself in the pool--despite the unpleasant sensation of water going up her nose.

"I know it feels weird," I reply, with a kiss on her forehead, as I gather her soft golden curls into a high ponytail. "But I'm so proud of you for being brave, and putting your head in the pool." "Yep," she assures me with a confidence that I hope never fades. "I'm super brave."

Then, she runs off to play with her Paw Patrol stickers. My mind drifts back to a scene almost two years earlier when I had to coax that same little girl into a pool for the first time. I drew her tightly to my chest and promised not to let go, as we glided through the water as one unit. Soon, her anxiety melted into happy screams--after she discovered the euphoria of splashing in a pool on a hot day.

For a moment, she pulls away from me, and I flinch--this time it's my nerves, not hers, that are surging. I want to reach out and grab her, but I resist because I know that letting her float solo in the water is the right parenting move--and because she is strapped into her rainbow-colored unicorn water wings and life vest buoying her on the water's surface.

The Talmud tells us that parents are "obligated to teach" their children "to swim" ( Kiddushin 29a ). That directive can be taken literally--we're commanded to teach them to swim so they can survive actual choppy waters.

But the verse can also be interpreted in a metaphorical sense: Parents must endow their children with the life skills--and I would add " sechel ," or common sense--to navigate the world independently. We should guide--not shield--our children from life's tumultuous figurative waters.

I can't get over how fast my daughters have morphed from helpless babies into full-fledged little humans with (some) self-sufficiency and (many) opinions.

My younger daughter is already 2, and just as her fine motor skills, tenacity, and sense of silly grow each day--so too does her straight walnut colored hair, which is finally long enough to gather into two spiky pigtails. Now I get what parents mean when they report that "the days go slow, but the years go fast."

Not long ago, my 15-year-old nephew got his driver's permit. The thought of him and his brothers--and in 2036 and 2037 my daughters (yes, I did the math)--getting behind the wheel for that very first lesson terrifies me. And yet, it's crucial for most teens to learn to drive.

"Real protection means teaching children to manage risks on their own, not shielding them from every hazard," writes Dr. Wendy Mogel, clinical psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children .

There's a memorable scene in the Father of the Bride remake where the bride-to-be informs her father George (played by Steve Martin) that she's met the man of her dreams and they're getting married. We see the camera cut to George, and then back to his young adult daughter--who he suddenly envisions as a little girl of 4 or 5, clad in schoolgirl braids--telling her dad that she's getting married.

Even though my kids are still little, I get it. I'm already discovering that raising children goes by in a blink. Sometimes I wish I could freeze time, and forever glide through the water with my daughters pulled close to my chest.

But I know that if I'm doing this whole mommy thing right, I've got to teach them to swim on their own--and eventually without the pink mermaid water wings.

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