Teaching kids to 'swim' is parents' greatest job
It's a parent's job to teach their children to swim — both figuratively and literally.
Special to The Seattle Times
Faith & Values
The rabbis of antiquity were discussing parenthood one day, and in the gender-specific idiom of their time, one of them asked "What are the obligations of fathers toward their sons?"
"Teach him Torah," suggested one of his colleagues. "Find him a spouse," said another. "Redeem him when he gets into trouble," said a third.
Their answers were hardly earthshaking. Parents are supposed to teach; parents should show their children how to form close, loving relationships; and occasionally, when the kids really mess up, parents have to bail them out. So far, so good.
But then, another rabbi chimed in from the back of the room. "And a father should also teach his kid to swim."
To swim? Where did that little zinger come from? I've wondered about that line for years, and it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I think I finally came to understand it.
When my kids were toddlers, we often donned our swimsuits, inflated our floaties and jumped into the water together. At the time, my son Jacob was a pudgy little guy with short hair and a huge, contagious smile. He and I had a favorite game — I would grab him under the arms, throw him high into the air, and he'd squeal with delight.
Immediately after splashdown, Jacob's head would pop through the surface, flashing that fantastic smile from behind the rivulets of water coursing over his face.
But as Jacob's upward bob faded into a downward descent, his smile would morph into a look of panic and the frantic dogpaddle-to-Daddy would begin. I'd grab Jacob, wrap him in my arms, and he'd hug me back. Looking at him a moment later, I'd see that smile again, shining wet, and as brilliant as ever.
As memories go, those of holding little Jacob in the pool are among the very best. Simply hugging my son made him feel safe, happy and delighted. And it made me feel the very same way.
That was a long time ago. Jacob turned 18 last April. He still has that smile, but now he is slender, deep-voiced and taller than me (about 5-foot-8 — 6-foot-6 with his hair). He's a terrific kid, but for some reason, these days he's not holding onto me as tightly as he used to.
As a result, late last month I had to do the unthinkable. On Aug. 30, Jacob and I packed the car with clothes, blankets and other necessities, and I drove him to college. Arriving at the dorm, we unloaded Jacob's stuff, met his roommate and got him settled. Soon, we ran out of things to do, and, to my astonishment, it was time for me to leave — and for Jacob to begin the next chapter in his life.
We stepped into the hall, and I looked him in the eyes (tilting my head back to see that high). I told him to do a good job at school, and that I was proud of him. "I love you, kiddo," I said through my welling tears, and I tried to hug him just like I used to in the pool.
Jacob said that he loved me, too, but his face politely told me to go home.
When Jacob was little, he needed me to keep his head above water. Since then, I've tried to teach him to keep himself afloat. I hope to God that I have succeeded.
Children are born, they hold on tight, and suddenly — almost in a flash — they don't need us like they used to. This is parenthood's greatest curse and its greatest blessing, too.
Swim, Jacob. Swim strong and go to great places. I've given you all I can, and, though I will always be here with open arms, it is now time for you to go it on your own. May my embrace always give you strength, and may my open arms allow you to reach the magnificent horizons you seek.
And, in the future, may you teach your own children to swim, too. As a father, it will be your greatest calling.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org