I was getting in my swim while my daughter had her lesson on Sunday and was watching the parent-tot class in the kid pool. Mostly toddlers, average age probably 18-24 months, and you saw the whole gamut of personalities in that group of 10 kids. One petite little girl was leaping into the water without inhibition or fear. One little boy was far more interested in deconstructing the safety cone blocking off the slide area. Many of the kids were cautiously trying what the teacher was encouraging, although several looked deeply suspicious. One little boy was clinging to his dad, who was having that oh-so-familiar internal battle with himself. “Why is my child the only one who is crying and is climbing me like a ladder to get out of the pool? What am I doing wrong? Is something wrong with him?” battling with “I just want my baby to be safe and I hate to see him afraid and I’d love to just leave, but I know he needs to do this, but should I do this, or maybe it’s too soon?”
The important lesson – every single one of those parents had realized that teaching their child to enjoy the water safely and to begin learning basic swimming skills when they are young is important, and even potentially life-saving. And that dad knew that being there, being calm and supportive, was going to help his little one learn and understand he was safe, if dad was there watching over him.
We aren’t the only ones who go through this anguish. Who knew that otters needed to be taught to swim? And how to be safe? I often watch the otters at the zoo and wish I could swim like them, now I know how they learned – just like we do – with a parent patiently, consistently, age-appropriately teaching, encouraging and watching!
I had the great honor of speaking at the State of Hawaii Drowning Prevention Conference today. It was inspiring to be with the Hawaii Watermen and to hear learn more of their professionalism, expertise and bravery. I am grateful for their hospitality.
A podcast of my speech can be found at http://web.me.com/rebeccawr63/Site/Podcast/Entries/2010/8/13_I_do_not_want_another_child_to_drown..html
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.
My kids took the excellent American Red Cross Home Alone class last week. Following the course I received a phone call from a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. The reporter wanted to know why I had enrolled my kids in Home Alone and at what age I’d be leaving them alone. Given the current economic climate, parents are struggling to find care for their children over the long summer holidays. Camp, activities or babysitters that parents may ordinarily rely on can be economically infeasible in a down economy and the reporter was exploring what parents were doing with their kids. I think my children are too young to be left alone (6 and 8), but every parent has to make that decision based on their situation, their children’s personalities, and a whole list of other variables. I enrolled my children because I want them to learn, and re-learn every year, how to care for themselves so that even if they are in the care of a responsible adult they will react appropriately in an emergency or dangerous situation.
When it comes to water, having a responsible adult watch children constantly is a necessity, the experts all agree that it is critical in keeping kids from drowning, but it’s only one component of keeping kids safe. But what happens when the responsible adult loses track of the child, or isn’t paying attention? I read a blog which touched me deeply. http://ourdannyboy.blogspot.com
The mother had let her beloved 4-year old spend the weekend with his rarely-present father. The 4-year old slipped out the back door while everyone was busy and drowned in their pool. The mother was focused on doing the best for her child – emotionally, physically, mentally – by encouraging a relationship with his father. If you can’t trust a child in their parent’s care, who can you trust? As a single mother myself, her story tapped into my deepest fears – if I take my eyes of my children for even a minute – will they still be safe? We assume that parents always have their child’s best interest and safety at heart, but no one can keep track of a small child 100% of the time and we need to let others watch our children sometimes. Children are hard-wired to explore their environment, it’s our job to give them the space to explore safely. Don’t feel badly about running through water safety rules, over and over, with your spouse, your ex, your babysitter, your parents or any other adult who is caring for your child. Teach your children not to go near any water without an adult and other basic water safety rules, help them become responsible children and, eventually, responsible parents to their own child. All children are at risk for drowning, whether in the care of their parent or another responsible adult, so remember….
TEACH your child water safety and swimming from infancy.
WATCH your child whenever they are near water.
PROTECT your child – learn CPR, because accidents do happen.
The Park District brochure arrived the other day and I immediately signed my 6- and 8-year olds up for the fantastic American Red Cross ‘Home Alone’ and ‘Basic First Aid for Children’ classes. They are single 1 1/2 hour classes and the kids enjoy them. I felt a wee twinge of guilt the first year when I dropped off my then 6-year old son, feeling like I should announce that I wasn’t actually going to leave him alone until he was older and spending even more time reassuring him that I had no intention of leaving him alone until he was older. BUT, I explained that the reason for taking the classes was that it would give him more confidence and the skills to deal with a crisis if it did happen. I explained that I’ve been certified in CPR and First Aid almost continuously since I was 16. Fortunately I’ve never had to do anything but address broken bones, minor head injuries and lots of hurt feelings, but even then I didn’t panic because I’d been trained over and over and over again, so reaction becomes automatic.
Why start kids at the age of 6 learning about being home alone and basic First Aid? First, as a single mom, what if something happens to me and the kids need to react? Even if they only remain calm enough to call 911, at least I know they will be found and cared for by emergency services. Same logic holds for any family situation. What if they are with a babysitter? Grandma? At a friend’s house? Do they know what to do? Second, learning basic First Aid helps them to understand that blood does not always equal death – they know to apply pressure and get help. Third, annual repetition of the class will teach the appropriate reaction to an accident and help them identify dangers from a respected authority figure (a welcome break from mom droning on).
Knowledge is power. Give your kids the right kind of power, the power to be safe and to recognize danger – contact your American Red Cross today and enroll your kids in Basic First Aid and Home Alone.
And parents – I’ve learned, if you don’t panic at the blood streaming down their face, your kids won’t panic either – think about signing yourself up as well.
I’ll bet all you parents recognize that line from Finding Nemo, but even better, I’ll bet all your kids would recognize the line ‘keep swimming’ as well. Any time you can tie a character or a repetitive statement to a skill it becomes a game for your child instead of the white noise of instructions usually issuing from your mouth, like ‘wash your hands….cover your mouth….put the seat down….don’t tease’. My daughter came home from kindergarten today and instructed me the correct way to make the number 9 – a circle and a line, that makes a nine. If your child is struggling with learning to swim and they enjoyed Nemo, maybe they would relate to Nemo’s Dad and Dora and how they never gave up trying to find Nemo. Make it a game while you hold them in the pool and have them kick and paddle and keep swimming, keep swimming, keep swimming. Even better, they know you are there for them as long as it takes for them to learn because just like Nemo’s dad, you’d never give up on your child.