My son (he’s 6 now) is afraid a lot. More often than I’d like him to be–just because I remember being the same and how painful it was. The other day he asked me, “What if you leave me with a babysitter and that babysitter turns out to be a robber (his word for “bad guy”) and they cook me?” I don’t know where he comes up with this stuff… other than, the same place I do (and did, as a child)… the same place we all do. We make up these ideas of worst case scenario in our heads that are highly unlikely and if we believe in their possibility long enough they become imprinted onto our brains as a reason not to do something that feels risky.
He’s also afraid of water. He doesn’t like (and has been, up until today, unwilling to go into situations with water where he doesn’t feel like he has complete control). Splash him in the face–it’s over–he’s staying away from all bodies of water for at least another month. Hairwashing is a big negotiation around here.
Learning to swim is something that’s been imprinted onto my brain as both a safety issue and an opportunity to build confidence. And most kids who don’t learn by age 8, never learn at all. According to the law of mom, that’s not an option for us. So for the last several weeks we have been easing into swimming lessons slowly. I’ve been leaving my (incredibly flexible) job midday to head to the Y for the 30 minute swim class his day camp gets on Tuesdays & Thursday.
The first day he sat on the edge with his feet in the water.
The second, after showing him how high 3′ of water was going to come up on his body using the growth chart in his room (score one for momma!), he got in once and got right back out.
The third, he held onto the side and did the kicking.
Every day he was adamant that he wasn’t doing anything else and every day I asked him to pick something new to do. Today was the day when all of the “easy” things were off the table.
The only choices involved getting all the way in the water and practicing swimming or floating in the arms of the swim instructor. He believed me when I told him the kickboard won’t ever sink and chose that as his new activity. Walking onto the pool deck, he turned to me with tears in his eyes and said in a quivering voice “but I’m scared.” I told him, “it’s okay to be scared. Tell the swim instructor how you feel. He’ll help you.”
And when it was his turn, he stood up and said, voice still quivering but now with chest puffed out, chin high and eyes blinking in matter of fact assuredness “I’m scared. But I’m going to try.” And in response to his vulnerability he got the support he needed to feel safe. He got on that kickboard and kicked his way around the pool beaming all the while. After that success he did all of the other swim activities in the class (even jumping into the pool at the end)! Yes, I cried.
How lucky am I that I get to be this kid’s mom and have these abundant lessons in my life every day? Today, in the pool, after being vulnerable and asking for what he needed my son got an experience that wasn’t that scary after all. Prior to that, the pool was the scariest thing he could imagine (well, beyond being “cooked by a robber.” By the way, I reassured him that wasn’t going to happen. I do vet my babysitters to ensure they aren’t cannibalistic thieves before hiring them).
So many of us walk around this earth believing that vulnerability is scary–so we avoid it–when in fact, NOT being vulnerable is even scarier. I can’t tell you how many times the fact that I come off as confident and collected has resulted in me being even more terrified of what I’m facing because I didn’t ask for and everyone assumed I didn’t need support! When we don’t reveal how scared we are people assume we’re tough–we don’t need them–and they leave us alone with our fear. It can be dreadfully lonely. If there’s anything that magnifies fear, it’s loneliness.
Everything we fear is a product of our reptilian brain trying to protect us from being eaten by a dinosaur (historical inaccuracy intended for humor) and almost everything we fear has no actual ability to hurt or kills us. What hurts more is staying stuck, feeling lonely, and letting fear drive us. TIme and time again I see people choose vulnerability or choose bravery and be surprised at how quickly it got them what they wanted.
A little vulnerability goes a long way, so let’s all take a lesson from my not so little one and the next time we’re feeling afraid, let’s not let that stop us. Instead, let’s say to someone “I’m scared, but I’m going to try.”