Should Scared Children Continue Swim Lessons?

Safety and readiness should be two key considerations

A man and a baby boy in a swimming pool
Jutta Klee/Getty Images

Many parents are quick to take the easy route when their child doesn't like something right away, like swim lessons. There is no one correct answer as to whether to remove a scared child from swim lessons, but you should consider some critical issues before deciding. Learn what the experts say before pulling your child from swim lessons or making him continue them.

Reasons to Quit Swim Lessons

The reasons to quit any swim-lesson program fall into three broad categories:

Your child's safety is in question. The YMCA, which teaches thousands of youngsters to swim at more than 2,000 pools nationwide each year, says that instructors should be trained to teach swim lessons for the level and age of your child. The child should be in a class with swimmers who are similar to his age and skills.

Swim instructors should also be in the pool with the children they are teaching, not on the deck, says the organization. They should be certified in CPR and first aid, in addition to having formal swim instructor training. If any of these conditions are not met, your child's safety may be in question, and you should pull your child from the program, says the group.

You're not allowed to observe swim lessons. You should be able to observe the swim lessons, though you should reserve any questions you may have for before or after the sessions to avoid posing a distractioin—and thus a safety issue—for the instructor and students, says the YMCA of the Triangle in Raleigh, N.C.

The teacher is forcing your child to learn skills. The YMCA says this is a big no-no:

"As your child develops the basics, progressing to the next swim level should be based on the child’s swimming ability, not his or her age."

The instructor should always allow your child to learn through natural progression when she is ready both mentally and physically. Forcing a child to learn skills is counterproductive and may be unsafe.

Why Stick It Out

There is a very important reason why you should continue to have your child engage in swimming instruction even if she resists: Swimming lessons save lives. Drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death of children ages 1 to 14, says the American Red Cross. About 10 people die from unintentional drowning every day, and of these, two are children under the age of 14, according to the CDC. The Red Cross says the solution is simple:

"There’s an easy way to help reduce tragic drowning incidences: Teach kids to swim."

So even if your child doesn't want to take swimming lessons, learning how to swim may one day save his life: The key is using the best techniques—recommended by the experts—to teach him how even if he is frightened at first.

Teaching a Scared Child How to Swim

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that children can safely take swim lessons as early as age 1. Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, the lead author of a policy statement on water safety and swim lessons released by the group in 2010, noted:

“Children need to learn to swim, but even advanced swimming skills cannot ‘drown-proof’ a child of any age. Parents must also closely supervise their children around water and know how to perform CPR.

The AAP and other experts say that getting a scared child to take swim lessons means going slow and not forcing him to learn too early—and ensuring that any swim program takes the same view. They offer these tips:

  1. Do have your child take swim lessons, but don't start if she is too young. "Because children develop at different rates, not all children will be ready to swim at the same age," says the AAP
  2. Lessons should begin by teaching children not to be afraid of the water, Jane E. Brody advised in "Swimming and Fear Factor," an article published in 2010 in The New York Times. They should learn to get their faces wet, blow bubbles, lift their faces up and take a breath. "They then learn to float and breathe properly while doing simple strokes like the dog paddle and backstroke," said the widely published health and nutrition author.
  3. Ensure that classes are not too large. Group lessons should include no more than four to six students per instructor, says the YMCA. A small teacher-to-student ratio gives the instructor sufficient time to help your child overcome his fear in the water and learn to swim in a relaxed, stress-free manner.
  4. Let your child acclimate to the water gradually—possibly before you even place her in a swimming class, said Amy Przeworski, associate professor of at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, in "Facing Fears Without Pushing Your Child Over the Edge" published in 2014 in Psychology Today. If your child can't jump into the deep end of the swimming pool today, let her start in the shallow end, she adds. As noted, if the swim instructor is forcing your child to do too much, too fast, she's in the wrong class: Find another program.
  5. Respect the fact that "your child is genuinely fearful and don’t force him to go any faster than he is able," says psychotherapist Alyson Schafer, author of "Honey, I Wrecked the Kids." In her practice, Schafer uses desensitization to help children and adults overcome their fears, she told Parent magazine for an article titled "Helping Your Child Overcome a Fear of Water." She also noted:
"From a sensory point of view, a public pool can be overwhelming for some children—the smell of chlorine, the noise, the crowds. It can be frustrating when little Emma refuses to take the plunge while the fun carries on without her. But with a calm, consistent approach ... you should soon see progress."

By slowly increasing your child's exposure to the water, with each small step building on the last, he can learn to enjoy the water—and swim lessons, Schafer added.

The key to getting a scared child to take swim lessons is to go slow, allow her to acclimate first to the water, then to the class, and ensure that the swim program has this same "go slow" policy. “Don’t force kids who really have a fear,” Tracey Warren, national director and safety expert for Child Safe Canada, told Parent. “Take it back a step.”