I went swimming with my two kids recently. My son last summer when he was just a little over two and a half, announced one day that he wanted me to take his lifejacket off, and as the summer progressed, he was able to swim further and further without it. My daughter (four at the time), on the other hand, was terrified of taking her lifejacket off. She was convinced, despite evidence to the contrary, that she was going to sink to the bottom, drown, and die. Her brother floating and swimming did nothing to convince her. My reassuring her that I would never EVER let that happen didn’t help. Explaining the extensive training I had to prevent drowning didn’t help. She stubbornly refuses to take her lifejacket off.
On our most recent trip to the pool, it seems my son has now inherited his sister’s fear. I was completely devastated when he took off his jacket once, panicked, and refused to take it off again. How can I, a former swimmer, coach, and lifeguard, have failed so utterly with my own kids? I don’t pressure my kids about learning anything, really, and I am ashamed to say that I started applying a lot of pressure on them to try to swim without their lifejackets. Even though they love the water and love swimming, I foolishly tried to push them into doing something they clearly weren’t ready to do. I’m not particularly proud of myself, but there it is.
I worry about my daughter becoming fearful and timid. Understandably, it makes perfect sense to be scared of the water and she is scared of few other things. But for all my big talk about being “bad”  and embracing failure , it’s been a long time coming, and I want to somehow “teach” my daughter that it is ok to fail and that she should never be afraid to try. I want both my kids to climb high, touch snakes, try new foods, and trust that their parents will be there to support them, create a safe space for their adventures.
I want my kids to be themselves and to allow space for others around them to be themselves, too. Girls in particular are pressured so often to conform to a narrow idea of female-ness or femininity that it makes it hard to ensure that she is who she is and not who she thinks society wants her to be. I don’t want either of my kids to grow up afraid all the time, fearful of what their every action means. I don’t want them to become unaware or oblivious, but I don’t want their awareness to become crippling to their growth.
But, what do we do when we don’t have a supportive space for this kind of experimentation, especially in higher education? Academic freedom at one point was supposed to provide that kind of space, but now, it seems to encourage sameness and conformity. What happens when we are so financially insecure that we can’t risk deviating from the norm for fear of losing our jobs? What if an entire education system is set up to tell us that we are failures if we don’t attain one job and one job only? How do we experiment if we don’t even know what we could, possibly, do?
We all seem to be so afraid of drowning in a metaphorical sense. Just like I can’t pressure my kids to be less afraid and to take off their lifejackets, we can’t just will away our fears because they are real. We need to create spaces where we can be less afraid, and we need to focus our pressure on those forces that seek to keep us in fear. We need to change the culture and system of higher education.
I can’t make water less wet for my kids, but I can change the definition of success and failure. I can’t change higher education, not really, but I can keep writing and creating spaces for dialogue. Maybe I can help a few people feel a little less afraid.