“A father is obligated to do the following for his son,” the Talmud states. “To circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first-born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife and to teach him a trade. And some say: teaching him how to swim as well.” A page later, the rabbis explain why they added that last item, seemingly out of place among a small handful of foundational Jewish concepts, to the list. The answer is simple: “It is necessary for his life.”
My two kids and I spent many an early evening this summer at the local pool. A five-minute walk from home and surprisingly underutilized by Torontonians shvitzing through the humidity, it was the perfect place to cool down after a long day and blow off some steam before bedtime. It got to be such a regular part of our summer schedule that the first thing I’d expect to hear when picking the kids up from camp wasn’t “I missed you!” or “Where’s mommy!?” but “Can we go to the pool now?” What I hadn’t expected, though, was that my kids would learn to swim before my eyes.
It started slowly. On the Canada Day weekend, when the pool opened for the summer, neither kid would step into the water without their neon-bright flotation device safely fastened. They’d sort of bob around contentedly, moving whichever way the pool’s jets pushed them. I could throw them high in the air and their hair would barely get wet when they landed back in the water.
My son started to do cannonball jumps from the edge of the pool, so his sister did, too. A few weeks later, she was the first to ask to try swimming without the floaties on; he followed closely, and we started adding a short no-floaties segment to the evening’s swim. By August, I’d stopped packing the floaties altogether – neither kid would be caught dead wearing them. They were still finding their footing, but both knew for sure that they’d moved on. Soon enough, they were so able and confident in the pool that I could sit on the side just watching as they had a blast. They rarely played as well together as they did in the water.
Not that I’m taking credit for any of it. At most, my contribution was making sure they didn’t drown until they were able to do it for themselves. I’m not sure whether I fulfilled the Talmud’s criteria, but the truth is, I’d rather believe they figured it out on their own anyway.
In any case, I’m not going to stop sending them for swimming lessons. Whatever skills they’ve acquired in the pool thus far, it’s only a fraction of what they need to learn. I know I don’t have the skills to get them there, and that’s why I’m thankful that there are smart, motivated teachers – in the classroom as in the pool – who do. As a new school year begins, parents ought to be thankful for the teachers in our children’s lives. If they didn’t do their jobs with such devotion and determination, we couldn’t do ours.