The Eighty-Fourth Chart (Spurts)

May 31, 2013

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these special Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

Today’s Growth Spurts focus on the art of manipulation.  People can call it what they want—negotiation; taking a child’s personality quirks into account; empowerment of choices and responsibility—but the fact of the matter is that for the most part parents spend a lot of time either manipulating our kids or trying to figure out how we can manipulate them.

The art of manipulation comes in especially handy when kids have to try new things, like when they’re taking lessons and their instructor wants to push them to a new level.  Six and Four take semi-private swimming lessons together and they’ve improved dramatically since they started with this particular instructor.  She’s incredibly patient and kind and has a lot of experience dealing with young children.  So when I brought her two young girls who both had had negative experiences with swimming lessons, she didn’t hesitate.  She just dove right into the challenge (please pardon the pun!)

But even Ms. A. has had her work cut out for her in certain areas of instruction, and that’s where we’ve worked together on manipulating the kids.  At least we know we’re doing it for their own good…

***

When the girls first started their lessons last summer, neither of them would even think about putting their faces anywhere near the water.  After some coaxing Six consigned herself to brushing the surface of the water with her eyebrows, the tip of her nose, and the front of her chin in less than three seconds.  She considered that putting her face in the water.

Four adores her big sister, and in some ways the two of them share something of a symbiotic relationship.  If Six wasn’t going to put her face in the water, Four wouldn’t either.  And the two of them provided their teacher with a formidable wall of refusal.

But, as I said, Ms. A. knows how to read her students.  After a few lessons of the pool-surface brushing, she figured that she’d need to go with a different tack.  One day she brought goggles to class.  The girls tried them on with a healthy dose of skepticism.

After the second or third lesson, they turned into fish.

Understanding their hesitation, you say?  Or did we just manage to manipulate them into dunking underwater?

***

Last week Ms. A. took Four into the middle of the pool to try something new.  Because I was going back and forth between watching Four and keeping an eye on Six by the side of the pool, I missed the actual incident but when I looked back at Four I saw tears in her eyes.  Ms. A. held her and talked to her about something, and she had Four glide underwater back to the edge of the pool.  I mouthed “Are you okay?” to her, but by then I’d already seen that the tears flowed more from the drama of whatever had happened and less from any actual distress.

Ms. A. continued to chat with Four for a minute or two and then pulled out a few toys from her little black bag.  She asked Four what toy she wanted, and Four chose the bear that squirts water.  It didn’t surprise me that my animal lover wanted the bear toy, and Ms. A. left her by the edge of the pool as she took Six to the middle of the pool.

The whining about the incident continued, but it became somewhat distracted whining as she started dunking the bear underwater and squirting water from it.  I wish I had a video camera; clearly, as Four continued to dunk and squirt, the whining lost its appeal.  I helped her along and teased her about making sure not to squirt me.  She filled the bear, squirted some water in my general direction (that didn’t come anywhere even close to me,) and started to smile.

When Ms. A. came back to take Four back to the middle of the pool for her turn, she went without a single moment’s hesitation.

Manipulation?  Oh, how sweet it is.

***

The greatest example of manipulation in the girls’ swimming lessons has come in the form of getting Six to jump in the pool.

Both girls love gliding under water, but Six hates jumping.  She says when she jumps into the water she forgets to hold her breath, therefore inhaling pool water and choking on it.  Even though she knows how to hold her breath underwater, she has yet to make that happen when she tries to hurl herself through the air into the pool.

She’s struggled the most with this part of her swimming lessons.  For the longest time we tried all sorts of motivational tools: bribery with treats and presents, lectures, practicing jumping from the edge of the bed.  She endured (or enjoyed, in the case of the new earrings she got and the ice cream she ate) all of the things we tried, and yet she still balked at jumping.  In several cases she just sat on the edge of the pool as Ms. A. tried in vain to convince her that she would be fine.

Pretty soon Six’s problem with jumping became less of a physical inability to hold her breath and more of a psychological issue.  She’d managed to convince herself that she couldn’t jump, that if she did it would be a miserable experience.  So she wouldn’t do it.

We’d all seen her jump  a few times with moderate success, so we knew that if we could find the right way to “encourage” (insert: manipulate) her she would start jumping with regularity.  But between all of us adults, we couldn’t find that magic button.  Nothing we said or did made much of a difference, except maybe convincing Six that she really hated jumping.

Then one day about a week-and-a-half ago, as I sat and watched the girls at their lesson, my attention went to some of the high school students doing laps.  Several of them wore goggles, swim caps…and nose clips.

Suddenly I started to wonder: if we got Six nose clips, would it make a difference?

I thought through this carefully.  If we presented the idea of nose clips in just the right way, maybe we could convince Six to try jumping.  Maybe it would make a difference where it mattered most: in her head.

I floated the idea (again, sorry about the pun!) by her teacher, and she responded with the email version of a shrug.  She would try anything at this point, she said.

I talked to Six and—I must admit—made it sound like nose clips would take care of everything.  When she wore them and jumped into the water, I told her, they would help her remember not to swallow any water.  She’d be able to jump without worrying about sucking any chlorine!  Problem solved!  Wasn’t that awesome?

I even let her give me a list of preferred colors, and last Friday I went to a swimwear store and bought a pair of pink Speedo nose clips for about seven dollars.  When I picked Six up from school I continued to build up the nose clips as the answer to all her swimming problems.

She took the nose clips when Ms. A. said it was time to practice jumping, put them on, hesitated—and then jumped.  She continued jumping whenever Ms. A. asked, and when she went back for the next two lessons after that she got a little braver and jumped without as much hesitation.

We have another lesson today, but Ms. A. already sees a huge improvement in Six’s approach to the entire subject of jumping.  And, thanks to that symbiosis, I’ve seen Four get braver in her jumping too.

***

Is manipulation evil?  I don’t know.  If it means my kids are trying harder in their swimming lessons—and doing other things that benefit them—I’m leaning toward answering the question with a big fat “no.”

Now, if I can just get them through the teen years with this trick, I’m golden.

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