Why can’t my child swim? They’ve been in lessons all summer!

18 Jul

A common concern and frustration I hear from parents is that their child has been taking swimming lessons all summer and still can’t swim well.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recently changed their stance and encouraged swimming lessons for children  between the ages of 1 and 4, but there is a wide range of opinions on whether that is too young, whether children should start as infants, and what to expect from introducing swimming lessons at very young ages.  It makes it very confusing for parents to know what to do and what to reasonably expect.

There are a couple of basic facts that all the experts seem to agree upon.  Children under the age of 4 can be taught basic self-survival skills, such as turning on their back and floating, but that should never be confused with ‘water safe’ or ‘drown proof’ or even ‘swimming’.  One of the biggest advantages to introducing a child gradually and positively to the water from a very young age is that it reduces their fear.  If they associate the water with a positive and safe interaction with a parent or trusted caregiver, they are also less likely to be afraid of the water.  The simple act of reducing a child’s fear of the water makes them incrementally more ‘water safe’ because they are less likely to panic and to remember some of the basic safety skills they have been taught.

Swimming is no different from any other life skill.  It accumulates over time, it depends on the temperament and physical skill of the child, it is shaped by the cultural and parental messages that the child has internalized from birth.  If you are afraid of the water or avoid water, so will your children.  Think of how your child learns to read successfully.  There is plenty of evidence that reading to your child from infancy results in a much greater fluency with words, and watching parents read regularly produces stronger readers, but for most children it still takes until they are 5-7 before their physical skills correspond with the regular exposure to reading.  In my experience, most children ‘get’ swimming after age 4, but just as with reading, starting them earlier pays big dividends in terms of confidence and skill.  Even then, it will be several years before your child is really a competent swimmer.  Swimming lessons and spending positive time in the water with your child takes a real commitment from a parent over several years – but just as you took the time to read to them and teach them to feed themselves, it’s an important part of their development, and it will keep them safer their whole life.


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