Why Sink or Swim Worked for Us


Just the very mention of the phrase “cry-it-out” can divide parents and experts onto two very different sides—team cry-it-out and team heck-no. Usually, crying it out refers to sleep training, but in this case, I’m talking about swim boot camp. Because as you might imagine, this no-nonsense approach to teaching swim lessons generally involves lots of crying. At least in the beginning, anyway. Would you let your child cry it out when it comes to swimming?

Patty Blackwell's Baby Swim Bootcamp in Hamilton, NJ

Mood after surviving swim lessons at Patty Blackwell’s Baby Swim Boot Camp

I taught my kids to swim with tough love—and I don’t feel bad about it

This would be the fourth summer that my oldest son, 7, would be enrolled in swim lessons, and the third for my 5-year-old. Both are terrified of the water, especially my oldest. My youngest, who is 2, has never taken any lessons before, so this would be his first. After having tried various types of swim lessons at different facilities over the years (private, group, mommy-and-me) I finally found one approach that works: swim survival, which focuses on teaching survival methods in deep water. I remember hearing good things about a lady who runs a swim boot camp out of her house in Hamilton, so I went online and found Patty Blackwell’s Baby Swim Boot Camp. Her bold claims to teach kids to swim in five days convinced me, and I enrolled all three of my kids without batting an eye. I was determined that this summer, my kids would learn to sink or swim.

I had two goals when I signed up for Patty Blackwell’s Baby Swim Boot Camp. First, knock out misguided notions about swimming from my kids’ heads. My older two were convinced they were “swimming” when they had on arm floaties. Second, eliminate their fear of putting their faces in the water. Of course, the cherry on top would be if my kids could also actually swim a few strokes—but I wasn’t holding my breath for this one, based on previous experiences with swim lessons. All I really wanted this summer was to feel like they would be safe in a body of water (and maybe also to ditch those floaties for good).  

Did you know the sink-or-swim method teaches kids to swim in 5 days?

Ms. Patty said, “It’s going to be hard,” I recalled. “But it’s my own tried and true method that I’ve successfully taught to over 4,000 children in 25 years, including my own kids. Your kids are going to learn to swim in five days.” I remember rolling up five minutes late on the first day, and as I parked halfway down the idyllic, tree-lined street behind a long row of minivans, I could already hear the screams and cries coming from Ms. Patty’s backyard. This can’t be good. Immediately I could see my kids’ red flags raise. We walked in, signed a consent form and stepped into the pool. It was full of kids and moms and dads and everyone was hysterical. Since I had missed the introductions, I wasn’t sure who were the instructors in the water, or what exactly I was supposed to be doing. Looking around, it seemed like people were just dunking kids underwater, so when in Rome…

Swim Boot Camp is NOT for the faint of heart

Patty Blackwell’s Baby Swim Boot Camp is a one-to-one class, which means a parent is required to be in the water working with the child. But it’s unlike other mommy-and-me swim classes, in that here, you put your kid underwater from the minute you get into the pool. Here, there’s no wimpy bubble blowing, pretend ice cream scooping or foam kick board supports. It’s not for the faint of heart, or the mamas who coddle. If you’re either of these, then this type of swim class is probably not for you. Despite the technique sounding harsh, Ms. Patty’s swim instructors were gentle but firm, reassuring but no-nonsense. Basically, everything I would never have been able to do on my own without their guidance.

Bewildered after the first day. Think I can get them to come back tomorrow?

The crying, screaming and hysterics are worth learning to swim

My kids were hysterical the entire first lesson. Like Ms. Patty and her swim instructors had warned, the first day would be the hardest not just for the children, but also the parents. It’s heartbreaking to feel like you’re forcing your child to do something they don’t want to do. You might ask yourself, Am I traumatizing them for life? Will they ever love me again? I had claw marks around my neck from Atticus clinging to me, and a bruise from when Rowan kicked me in the arm. But I reminded myself that a bit of crying in the short term was well worth the long-term benefits of learning to survive in water. 

Ready, set, jump!

No more tears, no more fear

Day two was a different story. I don’t know how or why, but something about a regimented boot camp—where for one full hour your child engages in repeated drills—just works. On day two, my kids had the confidence to dive underwater for rings. In fact, it was Atticus’ favorite drill. The kids were also asked to go head-first down the slide into the water, so that they can feel the (scary) sensation of falling into water, should that ever happen in a real-life situation. The progression through the week was incredible. Day three saw my kids jumping off the side of the pool and swimming half way across the pool in the deep end. On day four, they were jumping off the diving board…voluntarily! They were also working on rolling onto their back and floating, which are all critical swim survival methods. By Friday, my kids were begging to come back next week for more lessons. Of course, the post-lesson ice pops might have helped a little, too.

Post-swim ice pop

Ice pops are a post-swim lesson must, even after Swim Boot Camp

I started telling everyone about Patty Blackwell’s Baby Swim Boot Camp. And yes, I mean everyone. I referred a few other parents who swiftly signed their kids up, and by the end of their week’s session, they were asking the same question I asked myself: Why didn’t I do this sooner? 

I’m a huge believer in the swim survival boot camp method because it worked for us, and it changed our lives. And my babies still love me.

Would you try a survival swim boot camp?

About Author

Mom to three boys under age six, Jamie is a creative spirit who prefers wildflowers to roses, and is a self-proclaimed Chinese food snob (because nothing is as good as Mom and Dad’s). When she and her husband are not throwing darts on a map to pick their next family destination (hence how they’ve landed in Russia, Iceland and Malta), she enjoys wandering around at home on Princeton’s ivy-covered campus. She’s obsessed with things that have a good story and is a sucker for good packaging (read: hoarder for pretty candles).