by Shira Cohen-Goldberg
It started when my son was two. In a very busy preschool room, he’d run into a corner, cover his ears, and scream. When we replaced his crib with a toddler bed, he stopped sleeping. When we finally got him to start sleeping again, he needed to be wrapped in blankets, situated in a “nest” on the floor. That summer, being outside in the sun caused him to have tantrums, unless he had sunglasses shielding his eyes. That fall, he became very particular about what he wore and would complain of being uncomfortable unless he was wearing pajamas. He had been picky for a long time, but he was now down to eating about five foods. The preschool advised us to have him evaluated by an external consultant.
We didn’t know what to do. Were we too rigid? Too lenient? Were we fostering an environment where this child was simply uncomfortable in his skin? We struggled. We cried. We worried. And then we began to talk to very smart people. A psychologist. A child development specialist. A veteran preschool teacher. A family therapist. We did some reading.
We learned that there were children like our son, who struggle with sensory integration. According to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, this is a condition that “exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses.” Red flags for preschoolers with this condition include “over-sensitivity to touch, noises, smells, other people; difficulty dressing, eating, sleeping, and/or toilet training,” and “frequent or long temper tantrums.” I share this because we have spent the last three years learning about how to help our son thrive in a world where eating, sleeping, and interfacing with others in busy or noisy situations (think: the preschool classroom, kiddush at synagogue, even the grocery store) present frequent challenges.
In Carrie Bornstein’s most recent blog post, What’s with the Water, she asks us to reflect upon a time when water has been transformative in our lives. Admittedly, I have never loved the water. The ocean is too salty; I hate the feel of sand between my toes. Chlorine smells bad, and does not help the texture of my hard-to-tame curly hair. The stones at the bottom of a lake are slimy, and the thought of being tangled in water plants is repulsive enough to keep me on the dock. I am also an unskilled swimmer despite years of swimming lessons at summer camp and in between.
That said, in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), there is discussion of the basic obligations a father/parent has to his son/child. Here the scholars teach that we must: teach him Torah, help him find a wife (partner), and teach him a trade. These are very general categories, and seem to make sense given the importance of parental guidance in supporting a child’s spiritual, social, and educational/professional growth. However, the add-on at the end of this list is a bonus: you should also teach the child to swim.
When we signed my son up for swimming lessons, it started on a lark. Meaning: we just kind of thought it was a good idea. While transitioning him in and out of the pool was dreadful (it was always, “too cold!” and then, “too wet!” and sometimes, “too loud!”) when he was in the water, his body relaxed, and there was no more “too–! too!” as we used to call it. Just a deep breath. And sometimes almost-bliss.
Our son is four and a half, and he will be going to kindergarten next year. We have found him a wonderful preschool that works with him and a team of therapists to help him learn about his body, his senses, and about how to cope when his world is a little too stimulating, confusing or out of his control. He is fun to be with a lot of the time, and he smiles way more than he screams. He requires a lot of support now, but we are hoping that one day he won’t need as much.
Every week, though, there is swimming. He, in the water, me on the sidelines, watching. We are both relaxed and calm. When I watch my son in the water, he knows where his body is in space. He is coordinated, he is comfortable, he is joyous. I look at him and I am awed that my body gave life to a child who not only loves the water, but who feels more grounded in the water than he does on solid ground.
Shira M. Cohen-Goldberg is a long-time member of the Cambridge-Somerville Jewish community. She works as a literacy specialist at an educational non-profit focused on organizational change. She spends most of her time working and rearing her 4-year-old, Hallel, and toddler, Ya’ara, in partnership with her husband, Ari.