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SALT LAKE CITY — My mom required all five of her children to learn to swim until they could pass the Junior Lifesaving class. I hated swimming from the start. I hated water and the smell of chlorine. I hated diving for those weighted rings.
I looked up at my mother sitting in the spectator balcony and glared at her whenever I could. My body language clearly stated, "I can't believe you are making me do this. You are the meanest mom in the world." She just smiled back and waved at me.
About the time I was enrolled in the Junior Lifesaving class, the movie "Jaws" came out. By today's movie-making standards, the special effects are cheesy, but to my 11-year-old, fearful-of-anything aquatic, impressionable brain, it was horrifying. I couldn't put my head under water (let alone take a bath) after seeing the film. When the swim instructors lined us up behind the diving board to arch over the horizontal bamboo stick and dive into the water, I couldn't do it. I stared into the deep, blue abyss and could only see a set of teeth on an open shark's mouth, waiting for me to dive into its hungry cavity.
It was humiliating and traumatic.
But my mom didn't seem to care no matter how much I whined and crumpled on the floor. She wanted me to learn since she had almost drowned as a girl and her lifesaving skills saved her. I eventually passed the class and never looked at another swimming pool for a long time.
I now swim multiple times a week for exercise. Yes, I choose to swim for fun. I love it. Every time I get in the pool, I look up into the empty balcony bleachers with a smile and think, "Thank you mom, for not giving up on me."
If left to their own devices, most kids would let their brains turn into oatmeal by watching cartoons all day rather than mow the lawn. Being a "pushy" mom or dad requires true grit, courage, fortitude and a backbone. When life gets hard, kids tend to give up. If we insist they stick with it, we are called "mean." Someone wrote, "My kids just told me I'm the meanest mom in the world and I'm freaking out. I don't even have a speech prepared." Parents! If your child hates you for something that is really, really good for them, take a bow, accept the nomination, and thank your audience.
Parents raise great kids by being pushy in these three ways:
Push toward good
I once knew parents who buckled under their 5-year-old who refused to take his prescribed medicine. Some things are hard, some things don't taste good, some things are boring (like brushing our teeth), and some things hurt (like getting immunized), but we insist our children do them anyway because it's good for them.
My sister has taught piano for 30 years, and out of the hundreds of students, only two loved to practice. The rest think it's hard and boring. Many kids dropped playing the piano after the first year. Those who became great pianists were not prodigies or genius musicians; they had pushy parents who made them practice five days a week, year after year.
Pushing kids toward "good" means a lot of things. It means cleaning the bathroom, doing homework, taking tennis lessons, rocking a fussy baby. It also means doing the right thing when the decision is hard. It might take more than a nudge for your child to return a lost wallet to its owner.
Push away from bad
Children have a lot of choices these days, and they're not all good. It's OK to tell your young child they don't need a cellphone with Wi-Fi or unlimited data. It's OK to push away bad media programming that infiltrates our homes and electronic devices. A wave of filth is threatening families, but we can push it away. Say "no" to children who tell you everyone else's parents are letting them do it.
Tell them you love them more than that.
Push back from pressure
Unlike many children, there are superstar kids who excel at everything and want to do it all. They overbook their lives, or their parents overbook it for them, to achieve greatness and an impressive resume. There is so much pressure to raise trophy children and compete with overachieving friends.
Raising a great kid who is successful means they lead a balanced, happy, well-adjusted life. Children need a childhood. They need play time, laugh time, creative and social time. If your teenager wants to be the drummer for a rock band, be on the high school basketball, swim and baseball teams, be student body president, get straight A's and sing in the prestigious school choir, it's time to push back. Life is full of great things to do, but it's not realistic or healthy to try to do it all. We all need to learn how to choose and prioritize.
So if you are a pushy parent, take it as a compliment. You'll know that you're doing something right and you're in good company. Don't hold your breath, but I'm guessing one day you'll hear, "Thanks mom, for making me learn how to swim."
Julie K. Nelson is a mother, wife, professor, author of "Keep It Real and Grab a Plunger: 25 tips for surviving parenthood" and "Parenting With Spiritual Power," and is a contributor on radio and TV. Her website is www.aspoonfulofparenting.com.