I'm sure you're looking at the headline, thinking to yourself, "What gives?" After all, aren't handguns more dangerous than swimming, unless you're out by Amity Island in a Stephen Spielberg movie?
Then again, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner of "Freakonomics" fame found that more kids die from drowning in swimming pools than being shot by a handgun. I was skeptical. After all, a childhood friend accidentally killed another by picking up a gun he didn't realize was loaded.
I sadly almost nearly experienced the more deadly version at a pool party attended by my four-year-old daughter. She was walking in the shallow area when her feet slipped on the smooth slope leading to deeper water. She managed to give a single flail before going under. In a crowded pool with dozens of parents and kids, no one saw it except for me from the house porch overlooking the pool. I ran down and dove in, fully-clothed, to the shock of all until they saw how I nearly averted disaster that afternoon.
Now my daughter is nine, but my son is four. Last summer, he was booted from a swim camp (with a full refund) because he refused to let go of anyone's neck, including ours when we tried to teach him ourselves. How could my wife and I help him learn to swim safely, and avoid the mistakes of our past?
1) Ask what makes your child scared of the water: You'd think a college professor would be smarter about this, but after weeks of failure, I asked my son why he was too scared to let go. After all, nothing else scared him! He told me he was afraid of water getting in his mouth and nose. Once we solved that problem by blowing bubbles under water, he was willing to let go of one's neck, and even allowed us to put him in floaties and bob about on his own.
2) The buddy system: As our experience at the pool party showed, you've absolutely got to follow the same rules you learned in scouting: the buddy system. Only this involves matching each parent with a child. I know a zone defense works sometimes in basketball, but you've got to go with the other hoops version, the man-to-man defense.
3) Pool noodles: You see kids whacking each other with these foam tubes at pools, but I didn't think of them as floating devices. Yet my son succeeded by leaning his chest over them, allowing him to paddle and kick. Just make sure you have a pretty thick one, or a pair of regular-sized ones, if your son or daughter is small.
4) Use your wake: To build confidence, I backpedal in the water, letting the wake help carry my son across the pool while he thrashes along without touching me. It builds his confidence while his arms and get stronger with exercise.
5) Local college lessons: Sometimes you still need some help with teaching your child. College pools are good places to find lessons and good student instructors, if you don't have a neighborhood pool or recreation center available.
It may sound like a lot of time and effort. But you're probably the type of parent who doesn't leave loaded guns around for kids to play with. Teaching your kids to be good swimmers at a young age could even turn out to be a safer thing to do, if the Freakonomics folks are right.
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- Stephen Spielberg