30. The Life-Saving Gift of Swim Lessons

In May 2009, the unthinkable occurred in the small New England town where I live. A married couple hired a teenage babysitter to watch their four-year-old twins. On a hot afternoon, the sitter opened the gate to the family’s pool with the intention of allowing the children to get their feet wet. Soon thereafter, one of the twins jumped into the pool and drowned, because neither the child nor the sitter could swim. Events like this one aren’t uncommon, and they serve as a stark reminder that pools and other bodies of water are dangerous places for anyone who can’t stay afloat in deep water.

Drowning is the most common cause of unintentional, fatal injury for children between the ages of one and four. Consequently, one of the most important gifts parents can give their children is early swim lessons. Joint parent and infant classes frequently begin at six months of age. Children two years and older can be enrolled in formal swim lessons with an instructor. The sooner children learn to swim—and I mean learn to swim in deep water without floaties—the better. Swimming is a critical, life-long safety skill.

Here is another case in point. Once on a family vacation, I was minding my own business, swimming in a pool on a cruise ship. As the boat rocked, water in the pool moved back and forth, rising and falling at intervals. A muscular Eastern European man had been standing in the center of the pool. Suddenly I noticed that he was floundering in the water, beating his hands on the surface as the water rose over his mouth. To my surprise, I realized the man couldn’t swim and was in danger of drowning. So I made myself useful and hauled him to the side of the pool, for which he was quite grateful. Before we parted ways, I advised the man to take swim lessons once he got home. Learning to swim, by the way, is much easier when you’re younger, which is another reason to enroll kids in lessons ASAP.

When I encourage parents to pursue early swim lessons, they frequently say, “We thought about swim lessons, but my daughter is afraid of the water.” Or “I never considered swim lessons for my kids, because I don’t know how to swim myself.” These are both excellent reasons to enroll children in lessons! If you have a young child who is refusing to learn to swim, follow these simple steps:

  1. Spend the money and join a formal swim class; this may be the most important investment you ever make for your child.
  2. When you try to pass your daughter to the teacher and she starts screaming (like my daughter did), carefully pry the koala off your body, hand her over, and promptly leave the pool area.
  3. Return once the class has been completed.
  4. Repeat the process for the next eight sessions, or however long the class runs. When your child sees that you aren’t giving in (which usually happens by the third class, give or take), she’ll stop fighting and happily go with the teacher.

It goes without saying that young children should never be left unsupervised in a bathtub or near water. Families with a pool at home need a working gate and alarm system to ensure that young children can’t access the water without adult assistance. Babysitters who can’t swim should not be granted access to a pool. Children should be taught never to enter the water, no matter how deep, without competent adult supervision. Last but not least, don’t forget the sunblock for outdoor swimming!