'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?

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