As a seasoned swimming instructor, I’ve spent countless hours working with children – from infants to teenagers. A common thread among them is their parents’ desire for them to be safe around water. Living in Florida, where water abounds, learning to swim is a necessity. Beyond basic swimming skills, it’s my job to teach kids and their parents how to talk about the reality of drowning and prevent a tragedy from happening.
I live in a rural community in South Florida and most of my swim students live here too. It’s a great place to raise a family: the yards are large, the neighbors are friendly, and the roads are quiet. Nearly every home has a pool; those that don’t have backyard ponds with beautiful fountains, flocks of ducks, or schools of brim and tadpoles. Like much of Florida, our area is crisscrossed with canal systems to keep the once-swampy terrain dry. Kids ride their bikes to the larger canals to spot turtles and to fish for large-mouth bass, tilapia, and alligator gar. There’s a sense that we’re safe here in our neighborhood. But for kids, it can be deadly – especially for those who can’t swim.
The ‘Golden Rule’
Honest talk helps kids understand the risks of being around pools and other bodies of water, but rules are paramount. One of the easiest ways to maintain kid safety around water is to establish this one single rule above all others: when you want to swim, ask mom or dad if you can get in the pool.
At the beginning of every lesson, I require students to ask their parent if they can get in the pool with me. From lesson one, we set a precedent of requesting permission to swim. This way, kids become accustomed to asking. Because the response is often a positive one, they aren’t deterred from asking in the future. If kids think they’re never allowed in the water, they won’t bother asking you at all. It’s also a good idea to allow your child to ask this question of any adult present. So if mom’s not around, they’ll know to ask the babysitter, granddad or Aunt Cindy instead. Once your child is solidly instilled with the Golden Rule, you’ll have greater peace of mind. And let me tell you: it works.
A few years ago, I had a four-year-old student, Jayden, start lessons at the height of summer. He was a fearless kid who loved the water. When his mom signed him up for classes, she told me that he would jump right into the pool, but he couldn’t swim. Like any parent, she was terrified by his boldness. We began our first lesson with an explanation of pool safety, and I established the new pool rule with him. “Before we can go swimming, you need to ask Mom if it’s okay to get into the pool.” He turned back to his mother and shyly asked for permission. By the fourth lesson, he knew the drill. He’d ask his mom, “Can I go swimming with Ms. Lizzy?” before even stepping toward the pool.
A few weeks later, Jayden came for his weekly lesson and his mom told me a story. The entire family went to a Memorial Day barbecue at a friend’s house in a neighboring town. After they ate, the adults settled in to talk while the kids ran back and forth throughout the house. Jayden ran up to his mom and asked her that crucial question: “Can I go swimming?” The backyard was fenced off from the side and front yard where the party was happening, but the back was still accessible through the house’s sliding glass doors. Jayden’s mom had no idea that there was a pool at the house at all until her son asked to swim in it. In this moment, the value of the Golden Rule became clear to her.
Although it’s your job to be a vigilant parent, we’re human and we all slip up sometimes. That’s exactly what this rule was made for. As soon as your child asks you to go swimming, you are instantly aware of their intention.
What Else Can You Do?
In addition to my “Golden Rule”, there are a few other techniques that you can employ to help keep kids safe around the pool. One tip: make the pool less exciting. Sheriff Scott Israel of Broward County, Florida recommends removing all toys from the pool area to prevent children from being attracted. Don’t make your pool area a play area, and be sure to keep things like balls and tricycles away from the deck. This is essential for your own kids as well as for kids who come over to play. They may not be swimmers and they may not have the same water safety training that your children have.
Assign an adult to oversee kids. If you spend time at the homes of friends and neighbors who own pools, designate an adult to watch the kids or to watch the pool itself to avoid any incidents.
Finally, it’s important that children know the danger of being in a pool unsupervised. Don’t assume that kids understand the risk of drowning if you haven’t discussed it with them. More importantly, don’t assume that your child will make a sound decision on their own.
If you have a pool at home, introduce your child to the Golden Rule and get them in the habit of asking permission to swim. It might just save your child’s life.