Six teenagers drowned in Louisiana this week. The first fell off a ledge in shallow water and was rescued. Six of his cousins, who tried to save him, fell in and drowned while 20 family members looked on in horror.
The family is African-American and the grim statistics regarding that racial group has been brought forcefully to the public eye. A much higher percentage of African-American (and other minority) children drown, fewer are proficient swimmers, and perhaps the statistic that is the most worrying, there is a cultural norm that discourages water sports. It is imperative that this incident not be written off to uncaring or inattentive parents or to prejudicial views about a racial group. This problem is not unique to African-Americans – similar cultural norms around the world put children at risk. In large parts of Asia, swimming is associated with ‘lower class’ occupations and is discouraged among the ‘upper class’. In China, modesty in the changing rooms keeps parents from taking their children to swim lessons. In Africa swimming is actively discouraged, because of the dangers within the waters (hippopotamuses, crocodiles, bilharzia). In parts of the U.S., more affluent white children drown because of higher access to home swimming pools. Drowning is a global problem, it affects all of us, and yet our cultural views are allowing us to put our children at risk.
If children, ALL children, are going to be safer, there has to be a global shift in our attitude towards the water. Teaching children water safety must cut across culture, race, gender, geography. Parents must overcome their own fear and cultural-conditioning and recognize that teaching their children water safety and swimming is every bit as much a life-saving skill as fastening their seatbelt or learning to cross the street.
The family went to the river that day because being in the water can be fun, relaxing, refreshing on a blistering day – a great way to enjoy family time together. Water covers 70% of the earth’s surface. We can not survive without water. But we need to respect the water, we need to teach our kids to have fun in the water – safely.
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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.
Summer Vacation!!!!! Anyone else have kids who are bouncing off the walls, turned into whacked-out crazy people with the whole end-of-school, sad about leaving their teachers, excited/nervous about starting the next grade, thrilled to be free, to play for the whole summer? Everyone have their pool passes? New swimsuits? Water guns? Slippery slides? Sunscreen stocked up?
Just don’t forget the most important thing. Teach your children water safety and swimming. Watch your kids when they are in the pool. Protect your kids – learn CPR in case there is an accident. There have been some incredible initiatives and news reports in the last week related to swimming. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has a lot of great information about keeping kids safe this summer and they’ve kicked off a Pool Safely week to get people talking. Check them out at http://www.poolsafely.gov or follow them on Twitter @PoolSafely. The other exciting news is that the American Academy of Pediatrics announced this week that they are encouraging children between the ages of 1 and 4 to start swimming lessons. This is a change from their earlier policy, but research has been coming out that supports the idea that teaching children swimming from a young age can help reduce drowning rates. There has to be layers of protection – such as pool barriers and constant supervision, but putting kids in swimming lessons early is now recommended as an added layer of protection. Think it couldn’t happen to you? Well, it happens to a lot of kids. Two-year olds have the highest drowning rate of any age group. (source: CDC) In some states, drowning is the leading cause of death for children under-4.
There is nothing better than watching your kids shrieking with excitement and joy as they swim and play in the water – it’s the stuff that the best childhood memories are made of, so grab your suits and sunscreen and get out there!
Just remember: Teach. Watch. Protect.
‘Do what I say, not what I do’. Ever hear that one? No truer words were ever spoken and no harder rule was ever followed. I loathe hypocrites, but as a mom it seems that too many of my days are full of hypocrisy. Sometimes it’s little stuff – like the fact that I must have a small square of dark chocolate after lunch every day but only put candy in my kid’s lunch on Fridays. Sometimes it’s big stuff – like speaking disrespectfully to your child and then expecting them to speak respectfully to you. We all do it, it’s a hard habit to break or to recognize, but make no mistake, you are being watched like a hawk every minute of every day by your children for discrepancies between what you tell your kids to do and what you do.
What big things do you really need to focus on changing because they are sending potentially dangerous messages to your kids? One of my long-term friends realized when her kids started swimming lessons that she couldn’t insist they learn an important life skill if she was terrified of the water, she knew they’d pick up on that. She encouraged them in their swimming, but she also signed up for adult swim classes. I still remember the exultant e-mail from Hawaii when she was able to go snorkeling off a boat – and her boys are all like fish now. How you react in a crisis? Do you ignore it? Step in and offer to help? Turn green at the sight of blood? Say ‘I’m sure someone will call 911” instead of reaching for your phone? Do you want your children to be safe and responsible? To teach your future grandchildren the same lessons? Ask yourself the hard question, ‘What kind of adult do I want my child to become”, and then look in the mirror and make sure that same kind of person is looking back at you. What would you change?
Twice last weekend I was reminded of how confident 4-year olds are, and how their confidence does not always match their skill level. 4-year old and 2-year old siblings drowned in Florida last weekend. The details are, unfortunately, typical – they were only out of sight for a few minutes, an unfenced swimming pool, distracted adults. It can happen to the most vigilant parent (except maybe the unfenced pool). What caught my attention was the conjecture that the 2-year old had fallen in and the 4-year old had tried to save the younger child and also drowned. The next day I was on the phone with my business partner, Kerry. She had overheard her 4-year old earnestly explaining to her 2-year old that as soon as the summer arrived she would teach her to swim. She would take her younger sister down to the pool with no floaties, help her into the water and teach her, since she was such a good swimmer herself and wanted to teach her younger sister.
Cringing yet? Just about turned Kerry’s hair white and made me feel sick. My children are now 6 and 8. I’ve watched how my children learn, seen how proud they are of each milestone – whether it is walking, catching a ball, 100% on a spelling test, or swimming. I’ve seen how the younger emulates and worships the older (when she’s not beating on him, of course), and on good days I’ve seen the older teaching the younger. My 8-year old boy is half-dolphin, he was swimming at 3. Wait, let me re-phrase that….when he was 3 he could swim short distances underwater by himself with me hovering very close by. He could jump into the pool if he knew I was there to grab him. He is still a confident and strong swimmer but not old enough to swim with no supervision (my benchmark is mastery of the butterfly stroke and half-hour of laps before I will reach any comfort level). My 6-year old daughter was a bit more circumspect, her confidence finally rose to her skill level just a few months ago and she is now doing the underwater paddle very well. Could my confident 8-year old save his 6-year old sister? Emphatically NO. At 4? No way. Could any child save another? I’ve heard stories, but unfortunately for every heroic rescue there are dozens more cases where both children drown.
Teach your children to always call for help first if they see another child in trouble. Let them know they won’t get in trouble for reporting danger, even if they were someplace they shouldn’t be. It’s a constant balance not crushing their enthusiasm and pride in their accomplishments, but with pools and toddlers, it’s a matter of life and death.
Who has lost track of your child for a minute? A few minutes? Come on, I know I’m not the only one who has had that shot of pure panic at Target when one kid was begging for a toy and the other decided to play hide-and-seek under the clothing racks. Or how about at the airport when you are scanning the carousel for your luggage and suddenly realized your kids aren’t right next to you? At the playground? In a museum? The zoo? The list is endless but fortunately in most of those places, you and your child will be safely reunited within seconds, or at least in a few minutes with the help of police/store intercom/helpful strangers.
Unfortunately, there are the worst cases – where your child’s life is in danger because you lost track of them for a few precious minutes. We hear terrifying stories of abductions that make us more vigilant, but do you know the most dangerous place to lose track of your child? Near water. A new study by Ruth Brenner in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, emphasizes once again that increased supervision of children while around water is needed to prevent drowning – a leading cause of injury-related death in children. I love the water. My kids love the water. Our best time spent together often involves being in or around water – pools, ocean, lakes, Chicago’s Millenium Fountain – but I know that is also one place where I can’t afford to lose track of them for even 2 minutes. I’ll teach my kids water safety, I’ll make sure they are strong swimmers, I’m certified in CPR – but part of water safety is knowing that I need to watch them, constantly.
There are some amazing programs out there on water safety and drowning prevention. I was inspired by a couple of stories this week and wanted to share one of them. First,
check out this link: http://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta/atlanta-s-king-middle-296488.html, and read about a forward-thinking principal of a middle school who resurrected an unused Olympic pool in the basement. Danielle S. Battle saw an opportunity to increase the number of African-American children who can swim (a demographic group that drowns at 2.4 times the rate of white children of the same age and a tragic statistic that carries across many minority groups). A laudable goal in and of itself, but even better is the creativity and strategy of her thinking. Ms. Battle ‘sees swimming as a disciplined sport, which has the potential to teach students skills that can carry over into the classroom’. That’s outstanding thinking outside the box! It reminded me of a movie I re-rented this week, ‘Take the Lead’ with Antonio Banderas, based on a true story about a ballroom dance instructor who believes that teaching at-risk students to dance will teach them self-respect and how to treat the opposite sex respectfully. There are so many amazing ways to get the right message across to kids, and so many of them come from people like Ms. Battle who care enough look at an old problem in a new way.