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90'S FAMILY : It's Sink or Swim--for Dad Too


"Daddy, help me! Help me!" screamed Lauren, my 4-year-old daughter. "Daddy, just give me a hug and a kiss, Daddy, please."

I fought the instinct to snatch her from the arms of a man I had just met who was carrying her off into the deep end of a swimming pool. Instead, I did my best to smile.

The man was Mike O'Brien and I had no doubt that he could be trusted with my first born. In 1984, he won an Olympic gold medal in the 1,500-meter relay. Today he's teaching my two daughters and six other Barney-generation kids to swim.

"When I let you go," said O'Brien, making strong eye contact with Lauren, "I want you to kick your feet and look for my hand under water."

"No!" screamed Lauren, desperately clinging to him, "I want my daddy!"

"Ready, one . . . two . . . three . . . "

He let her go and down she went. I've seen bricks that float better. And he let her stay under water for a painfully long time, at least three or four seconds, then he pulled her out, kicking and screaming, gasping and coughing.

I was having doubts about the whole idea. It seemed to border on cruelty. In the old days didn't they used to dunk people as punishment? These swim lessons seemed almost as abusive. I questioned our motives as well. Were we forcing these kids into the pool for their good or so we could brag to the other parents?

Of course, it sounded like a good idea at first. O'Brien teaches swimmers of all ages and guarantees that after 10 days of lessons, toddlers will be able to swim. No other swim program we investigated could do that.

And there were other things we liked about O'Brien's method: The kids are in the water from the first day; no kick boards, goggles or water wings are allowed, just a swimsuit. O'Brien wants the parents to be there, but we're not allowed to interfere. The kids must learn to swim, whether they want to or not.

"That's not a choice that the child should be making," O'Brien said. "The parents know what's best, and the parents should decide."

O'Brien prepared us for the screaming and crying, but what we weren't prepared for was watching our children reach a major developmental milestone before our eyes.

"It's the first time our kids have really had to do something difficult," said Camille Guice, a mental health professional with two kids in the water. "It's a real challenge because we can't do it for them."

And neither can O'Brien, but every step of the way he is pushing them, encouraging them and challenging them.

When it was Lauren's turn to rest, he held her a few feet from the wall, counted to three and let her go.

"Kick your feet," he said to the stream of air bubbles bursting on the surface above her head. "Reach for the wall."

It took two tries, but she made it safely to the wall.

"Did you do it?" O'Brien nearly had to shout over her screaming. "I think you did, you did it yourself!"

Then it was Katherine's turn. She turned 2 in February and she can really scream. I tried not to let her crying get to me, but on the inside I felt like one of those Looney Toon characters who's getting his blood pressure checked and the mercury climbs past the "Red" zone into the "Deadly" zone, when the machine explodes.

At the third lesson, Katherine started crying the moment my wife, Jane, got out the swimsuits. She kept crying until we got to the pool. But as soon as she saw O'Brien in the water, she stopped crying, put on her swimsuit and climbed into the pool, splashing playfully.

From the very first lesson I observed in the children an emotion that I had never seen in them before. They seemed stronger and more grown-up. Confident, almost cocky. And quite pleased with themselves.

Learning to swim is unlike anything our kids have ever done. Swimming is not easy. It's scary and dangerous, with a built-in set of rewards and punishments.

And if the child doesn't learn, if she doesn't try, she'll sink and swallow water. For those moments underwater, she'll feel isolated and alone and panicked.

But, if she does listen and try, she'll learn to keep her head out of the water, to jump in from the side and swim underwater, and to swim across the pool. In the end, that made it worth all the screaming.

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