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Fighting Fear. Again.

Maddie started out enjoying her swim
lessons, but last week they went right into the crapper. Come
Wednesday, the instructor tried to push Maddie too far outside her
comfort zone, and Maddie hit a wall. Thinking a little tough love
was in order, the instructor lovingly tried to push Maddie on. She
gave Madeleine two options, neither of which was appealing, and
stood firm on it until Maddie chose the lesser of two

The instructor thought this would be a break-through for Maddie;
she thought Maddie would see she survived the “ordeal”
and not be fearful any more. Instead, Madeleine was so overcome
with fear and worry that she cried uncontrollably the rest of the
lesson, even as she went through the motions of trying to please
the teacher.

For the next two days, Maddie worried almost hourly about her final
lesson on Friday. Thursday night she couldn’t go to sleep, so
concerned was she about the lesson the next day. She cried and
begged to not have to go, and I went to bed with a heavy heart.
Should I allow her to stay home, and not end the swim lessons on a
sour note? Should I give in to her, and avoid a life-long scarring?
Or should I force her to go even though she was scared, and not
allow her fear to overcome her?

The next morning, Maddie’s first
words upon waking were, “I really don’t think I should
go to swim practice.” She cried for quite some time,
fretfully and not full-on but concerned, and in the end I got her
to swim practice by that tried and true motherhood method –


I’d made orange Danish for breakfast, and that got her out of
bed. I’d bought chocolate milk for the occasion –
knowing I’d need incentive – and said she could have
that after swim practice. I’m not proud, but I know it was

I’ll do anything to prevent my daughter from becoming captive
by her fear, and I know it’s something we’ll fight her
entire life – it’s simply part of who she is, and one
of the things I pray against most consistently in her life.
Allowing her to stay home simply wasn’t an option, so I
followed our family rule:

If you start something, you finish it. If you’re signed up
for ballet/soccer/the church pageant, you will go to all the
classes/games/rehearsals. You will wear your
leotard/uniform/costume. You may sit out the activity, but you will
be present in the studio/soccer field/rehearsal room. Maddie knows
this is the rule, and she’s obeyed it faithfully her whole
life. And something happens when she does: she shows up all dressed
and ready to go, but knows no one will force her to participate. So
the weight is off her shoulders and she doesn’t feel that
pressure, and she suddenly sees the activity for what it is –
fun. And she jumps up and joins in.

So I told Maddie she had to wear her swim suit and sit on the edge
of the pool with her feet in the water, but didn’t have to do
anything else she didn’t want to. And in one last-ditch
hail-Mary pass to bring this experience to a positive conclusion, I
told Maddie that if she would do just one thing that her swim
instructor asked, we would go out for ice cream afterwards. I know,
I know. But I have no regrets.

When we showed up the instructor said she’d been worrying the
entire two days as well, and that she realized what kind of kid
Maddie is. She showed us just how good of a teacher she was by
immediately catching on to my method and allowing Maddie to enter
at her own pace. Maddie almost immediately started swimming, and
the teacher let her choose everything – which exercise first,
how far to go, everything. Maddie was instantly confident and
became quite happy, swimming joyfully and recovering her love of
the water.

A few minutes into the lesson, the teacher gave Maddie independent
practice while she worked with Cora a bit. Five minutes later,
Maddie was doing the exact same thing she’d refused to do on
Wednesday – and doing it even further than she’d been
asked to go. I started screaming and jumping up and down. The
teacher was cheering and shouting. Cora was yelling, “Good
job, Maddie!” Tears were streaming down my face as I saw my
girl face her fear in her own time, in her own way, and go for it.

I’ve seen this again and again in Maddie’s life and
have learned my lesson. Tough love simply doesn’t work.
Negative reinforcement really doesn’t work. Throwing Maddie
into the deep end to prove to her that water isn’t scary will
absolutely not work: she won’t paddle to the side thinking,
“Hey! This isn’t so bad! Mom was right, I was silly,
and I’ll trust her from now on.” She’ll simply
focus on being forced to do something she wasn’t ready for,
and not see the result I’m trying to shove down her throat.
Maddie is a colt who balks at crossing a road when you pull her by
the bridle, but leave her alone, and she’ll approach it in
her own time and cross it when she can.

My kid’s not a coward. She’d deeply brave, and her
obedience is so ingrained she’ll obey even when terrified.
But I have to leave her to fight her demons, her terrors, on her
own turf. And she’s doing it.

One swim lesson at a time.


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