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Sink or Swim

In an age when we are constantly comparing ourselves (and our kids) to other people -- where prodigies of every stripe are just a YouTube video away -- it doesn't hurt to be reminded that we all do things when we're ready and not a second before.
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Little Dude learned to swim this week.

I should clarify. The woman who gives him swimming lessons told me he learned to swim. When Little Dude demonstrated his newfound prowess, I discovered that, for a 4-year-old, "swimming" does not involve recognizable strokes or breath control. It means Little Dude goes under the water, wriggles like a demented earthworm to propel himself four feet to the wall, then gasps like a goldfish dumped out of the bowl as he pulls himself up to the pool deck.

To be quite honest, I'm never sure he's going to make it.

It is terrifying and awesome and outrageously cool. He is proud and overconfident. I'm proud and a little freaked out.

I'm also relieved.

Last year, swimming lessons were a challenge. Little Dude refused to put his face in the water. He disliked being shown how to kick his legs or windmill his arms. He preferred to spend his days on the side of the pool with water toys. He was happy, but I was frustrated. I wanted him to swim. I longed for him to be aquatic and fearless. I dreamed he'd love the water the way I never did, and embrace his inner Michael Phelps. He wanted to be left alone.

His hesitancy bothered me. I wondered if his complacency concealed a lack of courage. I watched other kids his age and thought my guy was "behind" -- which is insane for reasons too numerous to be contained in a single blog post. An abbreviated list would include the fact that he was 3, my pediatrician never instructed me to teach my kid to swim in preschool, and I'm pretty sure breaststroke is not a section on the SATs. None of that mattered. I wanted him to swim, and I wanted him to do it on my schedule.

In my neurotic state, I had forgotten a key lesson of parenting: Kids do things in their own damn sweet time.

Sure, there are milestones children normally hit by certain ages, and I did my share of anxious waiting until Little Dude held his head up on his own, crawled, took his first step, and said his first word. Those are important indicators of child-development that normally occur within a particular timeframe.

Even with these, though, there is a fair bit of wiggle-room. A multi-lingual, advanced-degree-holding friend of mine didn't speak until he was 3. His extended family was worried, but his mother said he'd talk when he was ready. She was right. For less crucial skills like swimming, piano playing or learning to dance a jig, getting worked up about timing (or more importantly, ability) is a waste of energy that would be better spent, say, trying to get your kid to eat vegetables.

In an age when we are constantly comparing ourselves (and our kids) to other people -- where prodigies of every stripe are just a YouTube video away -- it doesn't hurt to be reminded that we all do things when we're ready and not a second before.

This has been a difficult lesson for me to learn. I spent a year trying to get Little Dude to give up wearing diapers at night. I was so sick of the smell, the expense, and the wasted space in his top dresser drawer; I hated using a pile of baby wipes to clean up yet another poopy bottom. Little Dude didn't care. He was in no rush to give up this last vestige of babyhood. Then a few weeks ago, out of the blue, he announced he would wear underwear to bed. We've never looked back. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was screwing with me.

Our experience this summer has taught me for good that I can't change Little Dude's timeline or force him to do things he's not yet prepared to do. It doesn't matter what I want, or what I think is best. I'd do well to remember that no one goes to college using a pacifier, drinking from a sippy cup, or wearing diapers.

If I sit back, let him get to things when he's ready, and don't push, he does just fine. In fact, he thrives. He surprises me. He'll become exactly who he is supposed to be, exactly when he's supposed to.

I know this because, a few days after he learned to swim, and without a word to me, Little Dude walked over to the diving board and got in line. At the deep end. With the big kids. Looking like an escapee from the Crayola factory in a red and orange bathing suit, blue floaties, and yellow goggles, he stood patiently waiting his turn. I expected him to get to the board and change his mind. He's never been adventurous. He prefers to observe, stand back, and check things out. No way was he ready for this. I quietly asked the lifeguard if Little Dude was even allowed to jump off the board. The impossibly-young-looking man responsible for my son's safety said with a patient smile, "It's OK with me if it's OK with you."

I reminded myself of the diapers and the swimming lessons and decided to trust that my small son might know what was best for him. Just this once, maybe he was ready before I was.

Little Dude didn't turn around. He walked to the edge of the board, looked over at me, grinned, and threw himself in. Then he got out and did it again.