Foreign Correspondence: Why are kids’ remarkable actions so mundane to others?

"Being Australian, I want him to be the next Ian Thorpe," was how I introduced myself and my son at our first "parent and child" swimming class recently. Being in Okinawa, it was a mixed group, nationality-wise. The Americans were there because the US paediatric authorities now recommend swimming lessons for babies from six months; the Japanese, because they live on small islands constantly pummelled by the elements.

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I was joking about Thorpedo, but not really. Australians are raised to correlate comfort in the water not merely with a robust disposition but unimpeachable character. This was a lesson I internalised while growing up in Sydney in the gilded 1990s. Memories of Kieren Perkins tearing away from the pack in the men's 1500 metres at the Atlanta Olympic Games, Michael Klim playing air guitar dripping by the side of the pool in Sydney in 2000, and Susie O'Neill winning everything, all the time, are some of my most vivid.

Of course, a one-year-old is far too young to show any such skill. Walking remains elusive, so swimming is probably a while away. What the lessons made me realise, though, was how brave children have to be as they go out into the world. I watched my son watch his swimming instructor – exactly the sort of person you'd want for the job, a cheerful young woman from Southern California on university holidays never not in a baseball cap – blow bubbles in the water. She encouraged him to do the same, and after a few seconds, he complied. The water was aggressively chlorinated and must have tasted horrible. But that only made the attempt more impressive.

He had taken the leap and done the bizarre thing he had been asked to do, and even though it was mildly unpleasant, he did it again.

The scene was both a humbling reminder of the trust children place in us, and childhood itself encapsulated.

I wanted to tell everyone about my bubble-blowing savant. But then I remembered: they would find the story about as scintillating as hearing about the dream I had last night, which is to say, not very. How is it possible that an act of such daring is of interest only to me and my family? When you think about it, there's no other life experience that inspires such different reactions as raising a child.

At least a love story offers a bit of intrigue. "How did you guys meet?" is a personal question people actually want to know the answer to, whereas no one ever actually cares how old your baby is, or the cute thing he said yesterday.

In her book of essays on motherhood, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, which is every bit as insightful and clever as the title suggests, Camille T. Dungy writes that "babies are simultaneously astounding and mundane and so are the things people do around them". That about sums it up.

Who knows if my son will take to the water? The bragging rights would be nice if he did turn out to be an Olympic athlete. But introducing another human being to one of life's great joys – and splashing around together in the tropical heat – felt like its own reward. I suspect the other parents in the class, regardless of their nationality, agreed. Astounding and mundane indeed. And with that, I promise never to mention swimming lessons ever again.

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