Parenting: The Swimming Pool Metaphor

108572_768In her insightful new book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood (2016), Dr. Lisa Damour compares parenting to a swimming pool.

Consider the metaphor in which your teenage daughter is a swimmer, you are the pool in which she swims, and the water is the broader world. Like any good swimmer, your daughter wants to be out playing, diving, or splashing around in the water. And, like any swimmer, she holds on to the edge the pool to catcher her breath after a rough lap or getting dunked too many times.

Dr. Damour notes how this plays out in real life. Your daughter inevitably reaches the point where she begins to part with her childhood. She is so busy with her friends, schoolwork, or extracurricular activities that you feel as if you need to reintroduce yourself to her. Then something happens: friend drama, boy trouble, a failed test…and her world comes crashing down. Suddenly she is seeking your advice once again. She sits cross-legged on the couch and shares her heart with you as the tears come streaming down her face. She might even (gasp!) ask you to hold her.

In other words, she’s had a hard time in the water and has come to the edge of the pool to recover.

And you’re in heaven. Your little girl is back! She’s talking to you about her feelings and her heartache. And she eagerly listens when you speak. She craves your embrace, your wisdom, your physical presence. As Dr. Damour says, “Paul Simon’s ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ plays in your head as you start to imagine the many fantastic adventures you’ll share with your new best friend.”

Then she pushes you away. Hard. What just happened? Well, like a swimmer who gets her breath back, your daughter wants to return to the water, and she gets there by pushing off the side of the pool. This often takes the form of picking the dumbest fight ever or being nasty in a way that is both petty and painful (“Please tell me you didn’t actually wear those shoes with that skirt today.”) While you could have hummed Paul Simon all day long, your daughter needs to hurry back to the depths as soon as she feels restored. Why can’t she linger? Because, to her, lingering feels babyish, which is just about the last thing that any normal teenager who is parting with childhood wants to feel. Clinging to you quickly becomes as uncomfortable for your daughter as it is pleasantly nostalgic for you. She rushes back to the work of parting with childhood with an abrupt — sometimes painful — shove.

If you’re the parent of an adolescent or pre-adolescent girl, you probably understand how it feels to be “swimming pooled.” But we should understand that this is normal, even healthy behavior as our daughters continue to chart their course toward adulthood.

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