'Sink or Swim' Parenting: How a Doting Mom Learned to Let Go

My husband Jason recently managed to teach our child how to swim. His method? He encouraged our 3-year-old daughter, Indiana, to jump into the pool where he was waiting to catch her in his arms… only instead of catching her, he stepped back as she leaped, so she plunged into water instead.

From there, my daughter faced a dire decision: Sink or swim?

Had I been present during Jason’s little experiment, sipping a drink poolside, I would have screamed, then jumped into the pool to save our drowning daughter, then chewed him out for trying to “teach” her to swim in such a brutal way. Only I wasn’t there that day, so my daughter was forced to thrash instinctively in the direction of her dad, who kept stepping back as she floundered forward.

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But here’s what really floored me: Indiana wasn’t scared. Or, at least she didn’t seem scared by the time she recounted her activities to me that evening. Instead, she said with a proud smile, “I know how to swim!” My husband explained that his own dad had taught him the same way -- by just throwing him in.

This incident bugged me, and not just because it seemed dangerous. It also encapsulated the stark differences between our parenting styles. My husband’s is “sink or swim” all the way: He doesn’t help our daughter get dressed, bathe, brush her teeth, or wipe her butt. He doesn’t carry her if she’s tired, or coax her to eat more vegetables. I, on the other hand, do all these things. He calls this “coddling.” I call it taking care of her.

And here's why I continue: damage control. If I don't do these things for my daughter, they aren't done right. On the days my husband lets her "dress herself," she heads to school with her clothes on backward and inside out. When she "brushes her teeth," she swipes her front teeth twice then considers herself done. And if she "wipes herself"... well, let's just say her hygiene skills aren't quite up to snuff quite yet.

The fact that my husband is unfazed sending a disheveled, smelly, poo-caked daughter to day camp drives me nuts. I put up with it on the days I'm not home in the mornings, but on the ones where we're both there, Jason and I bicker constantly about whether Indy can get herself ready or needs some assistance. Indy always sides with me, since that means she can kick back and watch YouTube videos while I fetch her socks and pop pieces of cantaloupe in her mouth. She has us all figured out: On "dad mornings" she's a trooper, but around me she barely lifts a finger.

During one particularly bad morning where Jason and I tussled over who should brush Indy's teeth, my husband threw up his hands and said, "Let's just get a divorce -- that way I know she'd act her age at least half the time." And by then, to be honest, my patience was wearing thin for continuing my morning ministrations. Maybe Indy was old enough to at least start doing some of these things herself -- and if it wasn't perfect, so be it.

Perhaps at the heart of why I clung to mothering my daughter for so long was I didn't want to push her to grow up until she was ready. I figured she'd wake up one day and declare her own independence from her parents. Yet my hope that I could ease my child toward adulthood with no abrupt bumps was well meant but misguided: Growing up always hurts. And it was time for me to push my daughter out of the nest.

So one day I took her swimming. I encouraged her to jump into my arms in the pool, then I stepped back as she leaped. As she clawed her way toward me in the water, her head going under, it took every once of self control I had to not surge forward and save her. Because she didn’t need saving. Her head popped back up above water, and she was smiling. Maybe my husband is right. Maybe it’s time, at least a little bit, to let go.


Do you think the "sink or swim" approach to parenting works, or is too harsh?

being a mom


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amazz... amazzonia

your husband sound just like me :) kids should be let be themselves, and parents should be there if they get hurt, if they can;t do it by them selves, if they are sad etc...in any other occasion they should be left trying, making mistakes etc...how they can grow up and learn if mommy is always there to do everything they want?!

kjbug... kjbugsmom1517

I'm the sink or swim parent and it drives me insane when my husband does something they can do for themselves. They aren't babies. They aren't helpless.

Rhond... RhondaVeggie

I'm in the middle. Kids need to learn but part of that is teaching them. Let them do their own teeth but watch so you know what they missed and give them guidance. Teach them to make their own breakfast but sometimes make it for them just to show you care. And always be there for back up when they really can't do something.

Melissa Larbig

I don't know. I couldn't do it. It's not about letting go...it's not about me or her father. I just wouldn't want her to be scared like that.

nonmember avatar nat

So where does your husband stand on cruelty to animals, since you clearly are alright with it

xBull... xBulletproofx

Um... so many controversial, wrong posts on The Stir lately. A child is there for you to take care of. What the hell is wrong with everyone in American constantly trying to FORCE our children into independence so soon? Okay, I get letting her get dressed, you HELPING, not doing it but correcting wrongs. And The teeth? So???! You don't stand there and do it for her! You stand there and watch her do it, then correct what she's doing wrong. If she refuses to listen, don't take over. Consequences! Punish her until she agrees to do it (time out, corner, etc). Growing up should NOT always hurt. How wrong is that... this is just so disgusting I shake my head and my heart hurts for todays children... Growing up SHOULDNT hurt. And what he did with the swimming, it was not only stupid and DANGEROUS ,but cruel. He could have said "Okay, I'm going to put you in and you swim. Go!" he didn't have to LIE and say he would be there then continue to tease her and back away. That's the QUICK way to do it. There are NICE ways to teach a child to swim, it just takes longer. Just like what youre both doing. That's the easy lazy way to raise a child to just get it done, letting them or you doing it. It should be a group effort. How sad people here are always just absorbed with the quickest easiest ways to do things, and worry only about what will be EASIER. Stop with shortcuts.

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