The Great Pool Tantrum: The Day I Let My 3-Year-Old Cry It Out

Mollie Ottenhoff Toddlers & Pre-School

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The lifeguard invited my daughter Vivvi to join him in the water so she could be tested for her swimming level. She glared at him and gave an almost imperceptible, teen-like shake of her head. He looked at me, and I took a deep breath, storing up all my available inner calm for the half hour to come. This was not going to go well.

“Just have her go over there by the pre-beginners,” he said, and disappeared back into the group of red-clad teens who certainly take this job more for the social benefits than for the pleasure of dealing with threenagers who do not want to learn to swim.

I half drag, half lead Vivvi over to a cluster of 20 kids around her tiny size. I tell her to join the sitting kids, the kids whose moms must be so proud; the kids whose moms are chatting happily in the lounge chairs, taking pictures, maybe even reading. I think of the book I brought, which is sitting in my beach bag. This was my mistake, I think. Never bring a book. The universe will conspire against the mom who brings the book.

“Sit by those kids, Vivvi,” I urge.

“I want to do the little waterslide,” she says. The exchange continues over and over for the next 5 minutes. My “join the kids”, followed by her “I want…a toy, to swim, to go by my brother.” A friend is nearby, just outside the water. Her son doesn’t want to swim either, but she is standing so nicely with him, warming him up with a towel. If she is getting as rattled as me, she is not showing it.

I begin to alternate between bribes (“Join your group, Vivvi. If you join them and do a good job, I’ll give you a sucker at the end”) and threats (“Join your group or I will take away your princess dresses when we get home”). She wades in the water about 5 feet from her group, out of earshot from her teacher’s instructions and looks at me, “I want to swim over here.”

I consider escalating the threats (“Join your group or I will cut your princess dresses to tiny pieces and burn them while you watch!”) As she hovers, refusing to participate, I think, I am doing this wrong. I am not enjoying the mom I am at this moment. I am letting her “swim” and do what she wants. I am letting her turn me into the mom who is standing in the water ankle deep while her daughter does not listen.

I am so, so angry. If I let her get away with this, will she do this for the whole two weeks of lessons? Will she refuse to listen to her teachers in preschool? Will I regret the monster I’ve created when she’s in middle school and going through puberty and thinks she should continue to get whatever she wants? So I decide to resume control. “Vivvi, if you do not participate in swimming lessons, you don’t get to swim.”

And this is how I became the happy mom of the tantrumming toddler. For the remaining 20 minutes of class, she screamed and pitched herself at my feet. She alternated between “I want to go in there,” and “I don’t want to go in there!” I alternated between explaining that if she stopped crying and would listen to her teachers, she could go, and pretending she didn’t exist. I looked around to see if I could watch a minute of Wally’s lessons and to make eye contact with and smile at the people who passed. Yes, I hated my life at the time, but I wasn’t mad at myself anymore. I didn’t hate the kind of mom I was. I was the kind of mom who didn’t give in.

I want to be the kind of mom who lets her kids cry. They say cry it out for sleep-training babies, but I say cry it out for toddlers also. And on the day of the Great Swimming Lesson Tantrum, when people who passed the flailing Vivvi gave me the “I’ve been there,” smiles, I thought, Don’t mind us. We’re just crying it out.

Thirty minutes later, and she was still screaming and crying. I beckoned my son my way, scooped up my daughter by her kicking and screaming waist, and carried her sideways to the car like a sack of angry cats. My son followed behind and picked up any beach bag items that were knocked loose by her flailing legs.

The rest of the day, my patience was shot. My nerves were rocked. My cup was very empty. But at least I could live with myself.

A text came in later that night. It was my nice, loving mom friend whose son was also refusing to participate. “What 3 year old doesn’t love swim lessons? Our kids, that’s who! Let’s hope tomorrow is a better day friend!” She invited me to raise our virtual glasses of wine, and explained that she was alone at Target, our happy place. I read it, and sighed with relief. Her son didn’t swim either. She was shaken up also.

“Why didn’t you seem rattled?” I asked her. I had to know. How do you stay calm in that storm?

“I just choose to ignore him,” she said. “The only problem is, no one else does.” I filed the thought away for future use.

“Tomorrow might be better,” she said. And she was right. It just might be.



About the Author

Mollie Ottenhoff

Mollie Ottenhoff is a mom of two, freelance writer (featured on Scary Mommy and Listen to Your Mother), Chicago suburbanite, and lover of books, food, and joy. She laughs at parenting and life at and you can find her on .

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