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The Big Parenting Lesson I Learned When I Traded Places with my Son

I looked around and sized up my competition. We were all parents of fifth grade swimmers, and I was more nervous to race than I thought I would be.

“First heat is the 50 meter freestyle. That’s two laps of the pool,” my son’s YMCA coach told us. “Parents, step up onto the blocks and take your marks!”

I carefully climbed up and took my position above the clear water stretched in front of me.

“Set!” my son’s 5th grade YMCA swim coach called out. 

Okay. Down and back. You can do this.

A few seconds later, the coach blew her whistle and we were off — off on the longest 50 meter swim I can ever remember. My arms and legs tired quickly and I went from rhythmic breathing to breathing hard at every stroke.

While I couldn’t see or hear my son specifically, I knew he and his teammates were at the edge of the pool screaming and cheering the parents on. “Come on, Mom! Go, Dad!” Their excitement amplified as it bounced off the natatorium’s old wall tiles.

Not wanting to let down my son (or embarrass myself), I tried to kick harder, move my arms faster. But it felt like I was fighting the water, slowing down with every stroke I took.

I don’t remember where I finished in the race, but I know I was happy to reach the edge of the pool and for the race to be over. 

50 meters is a long way when you’re working hard to prove yourself.

My son’s smile was broad and beaming. He gave me a high five and said, “Great job, Mom!”. 

There was no disappointment or anger anywhere on that swim deck. Not one of those young swimmers turned away in disgust at the end of their parent’s swim. That pool area was filled with a lot of wet hugs, tons of laughter, and a whole lot of pride.

What started as a simple request from a very smart swim coach to participate in a mini-competition taught me a lesson I never forgot. 

A Lesson in Empathy

Maybe, every once in a while, we parents should enroll in a high school course, take a standardized test, sing a solo, play in orchestra, write a college essay. Maybe doing something that challenges us will help us remember that with each new chapter of our children’s lives they will face new challenges, too. Some of those challenges will be very hard, daunting even. Maybe challenging ourselves will help us remember that our kids don’t want to fail, or disappoint us, or disappoint themselves. Maybe the experience will help us remember that what our kids need is for us to be standing on the edge of their pool deck cheering them on, and then greeting them with a smile and a hug for their efforts. Maybe they need to know we don’t care about winners and losers and that we’re proud of them for entering the race, for facing their fears, and for diving in.

Mindy Gallagher is the Social Media Manager for Your Teen Magazine. She is the assistant coach for the girls’ lacrosse team for Solon High School in Ohio.

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