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Pseudo safety in the water

The baby down the stairs into the pool. The view from under the water. Horizontal orientation

Guest post by Diane Mote, MA, MC

My daughter Amy looked like a little penguin as she toddled up to the side of the pool to dive in nearly head first and swim through weighted, colorful hoops on the bottom of the pool. Her favorite phrase was “I swimmed like a dolphin” as she rolled over on her back to get a breath of air.

Our rule was “Don’t go near the water unless Mommy or Daddy is with you.” One morning I went out to skim some leaves from the pool and left the gate open because we were going to be swimming. Amy and I went into the house to change into our swimsuits and the phone rang. I hung up quickly, knowing Amy was waiting for our morning swim. When I got to the pool, she was already standing on the step with her feet in the water. Alarmed, I said, “Amy you must never get in the pool without me.” Eyes brimming with hurt and frustration, she said, “Feets in the water, and I’s wait, Mommy. I’s wait.”

I learned to be more vigilant around the pool after that day because I realized she thought she was doing the “right” thing and not disobeying me, even though she was so close to danger. I also realized how she might have been tempted to swim to one of those floating leaves or flower petals, wanting to “surprise” me with a little gift when I came.

Another pivotal time came when I asked Amy, “What would happen if you fell into the pool and I wasn’t there?” She said, “You would find me.”

“What if I didn’t know you were in the pool?”

“You would look for me.”

“But what if you were choking on some water?”

“You would get me.”

The triumph on her little face was shattering to me. It made me recall a favorite children’s story, “The Runaway Bunny,” in which the mother bunny is able to metamorphose into whatever her baby needs to make her safe. My daughter believed that in my mind’s eye, I would see her and “know” to rescue her.

Amy was barely 4 when she and her friend Jessie and some other family and friends were swimming in our backyard pool. Both were taking turns jumping off the diving board. Jessie was not as strong a swimmer as Amy, and I remember seeing her jump off the diving board and stay too long under the surface. Amy was watching from the side in the deep end of the pool and sensed, when I did, that her friend might be in trouble. She dove under the water and went to Jessie, but neither one rose to the surface. I could see they were struggling and quickly swam over to them and brought them to the side of the pool. Both girls were choking and crying simultaneously, when Amy said indignantly to Jessie, “I was trying to save you, and you pulled my hair!” It took many discussions after that for each child to begin to understand the seriousness of a near-drowning and how panic can overtake someone.

I taught swimming lessons for almost 20 years and always emphasized that very young children do not have the judgment or cognitive memory to respond reliably in a potential drowning situation. Water-safety training always takes place with an adult present, but children may panic if they sense no adult is around. If there is any lapse in the lessons or departure from the learned routine, such as falling in on the wrong side of the pool, or with heavy shoes on, there is no guarantee the child will react appropriately.

Learning to both love and fear the water is a developmental process that takes years to complete. We wouldn’t teach very young children to cross the street by themselves, and for the same reason we should’t expect them to save themselves when falling into water.

Toddlers who swim the length of the pool, rolling on their back to breathe, who jump off the side of the pool, turn and swim to the side, or who swim through underwater hoops have lost their fear of the water. They have increased self-esteem, physical strength and coordination, but they are still not water safe. A child’s mouth is barely above the surface when he takes a breath. Until a child learns to tread water and cough up swallowed water, he is clearly at risk. Children are not physically capable of treading water until about age 4, and even at that age, if children are tired they still may not be able to sustain treading water long enough to clear the airway.

I support swimming lessons for toddlers and preschoolers, but not for the illusion of “water safety” and only for developmentally appropriate goals, which many of the swim schools and programs do not follow. I would be much relieved if swim schools would refer to children under 4 as learning “pre-skills,” which are valuable in their own right, but ultimately result in a lack of fear of the water. Lack of cognitive development at ages under 4 leads to an easy disruption of the stimulus-response swimming behavior taught during lessons.

I taught my own daughter to swim by the age of 2, but ironically found her more at risk instead of less at risk as a result. She could swim the length of the pool and could jump off the diving board and swim to the side by herself. What she couldn’t do was recognize that she was too tired to swim anymore, that the water level was too low for her to reach the side safely, and that in some cases she should stay in a floating position until someone came to rescue her.

I am hopeful for a pendulum shift in the AAP policy. I know the thrill of teaching children to swim, their joy and their parents’ satisfaction, but I never interpreted that to mean the children had developed survival skills. My own daughter seemed like a miracle child to others, but I was attuned to her fascination with the water, lack of fear and budding cognitive skills.

Enjoy the water with your children and do give them swimming lessons, but be cautious of investing in pseudo “safety” lessons. For safety purposes, use multiple layers of protection around your pool, and remember physical swimming skills need to merge with good judgment before a child will have any level of safety in the water.

Diane Mote, MA, MC, is a Phoenix-based licensed psychotherapist and educational consultant.

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