Everyone with young children knows the difference between a wet pool parent and a dry pool parent. For 11 years, I’ve been a wet pool parent, catching my children as they jump 800 times from the edge of the pool into my arms, and chasing after them with that special, harrowing urgency that happens when your child, who doesn’t know how to swim, lunges toward the water.
I’ve seen the dry pool parents. They’re the ones reading, chatting, sipping sneaked-in cocktails, or even— yes, it’s true— tanning. This summer, I’ll be in the zone to become a dry pool parent: my youngest is 6 years old and a careful swimmer. And while the prospect of a covert rum-and-Coke with a good book has its allure, there are a lot of other reasons why I’m pleased as punch that all three of my kids are finally swimming.
In this country, drowning is the second-leading killer of children after car accidents, and the highest drowning rates occur, not surprisingly, among children ages 1 to 4. “You take a big sigh of relief when you know that they can fall into water and swim to the edge,” says Christine Calderon, who swims with her three sons at Bolton Hill Swim and Tennis Club.
So when’s the best time to start swim lessons?
Singleton Mathews, director of the Mariner Swim School in Baltimore, suggests “Mommy and Me” classes starting at 9 months, before children develop a fear of the water. “It’s great to start children early enough that they’re still imaginative and don’t have a concept of the danger that water can present,” he says. “At that age, they’re ready to explore, and they’re so comfortable with their parents.”
That philosophy proved true with my brood, as well as with Calderon’s.
Calderon’s three sons, Matias, 11, Lucas, 9, and Marcos, 7, were taking lessons by the time they were 6 months old. Fred Gorman taught his daughters himself at Swan Lake Swim Club. Using what he calls “turtle training” when they were toddlers, he carried Kate, now 10, and Becca, 9, on his back, while they held onto his shoulders. “I just let them build up their confidence and explore on their own,” he says. “They’re like fish at that age.”
Cathy Bennett, director of the Michael Phelps Swim School at Meadowbrook, offers “Get Wet” classes starting at 6 months, and her youngest student started at 3 months. There are benefits to starting as young as possible, she says. When they’re young, kids can learn the basics of buoyancy, body position and breathing more easily. Also, it’s easier for parents and instructors to manipulate their bodies— and younger kids tend to freak out less when they get water in their ears.
But sometimes there are freakouts. My first attempts at swim lessons with my children, at Meadowbrook, went well. They were babies, and the lessons took place in a small, calm, warm pool. But then they graduated to the big pool, where the water was quite cold. Epic tussles ensued, and I gave up. Subsequent lessons at the 33rd Street YMCA were much warmer— and more warmly received. Some programs, like Kids First in Cockeysville and the Maryland Athletic Club Swim Academy, make warm water a priority.
Water temperature is important. But, as the Bard said, readiness is all. One mother I talked to, whom I’ll call Beth, made the mistake of signing up her 2 ½ year old for lessons intended for kids ages 3 through 5. She lied about his age because he was tall and potty-trained, and she thought he had progressed past the Mommy and Me stage. “Was that too much to ask?” she says. “Turns out yes. He spent each lesson yelling, ‘I want my towel’ at the top of his lungs, and I had to get in with him every time.” Fortunately, the trauma was not long-lasting, and eventually Beth’s son did learn to swim.
But sometimes the wrong kind of lesson at the wrong time can do damage that lasts longer. A local mother I’ll call Nora enrolled her two sons in swim lessons three years ago, when they were 6 and 4. The lessons were offered through the local pool where they had a summer membership, as opposed to through a program that specializes in teaching young swimmers. She remembers that the instructors told the parents to stay out of sight so the kids wouldn’t try to run to them. “We foolishly complied,” she says.
For those lessons, her kids cried nonstop and the water was very cold. “The then-6-year-old was the one with the lasting trauma,” says Nora of her son, who is still very reluctant to get into a pool. In fact, every day at camp last summer, while all the other children swam, he wouldn’t even put his feet in. For the younger child, it took a year to get back in the water.
After that experience, Nora talked to other swim instructors. “We’ve spoken to a lot of experts and camp directors who insist they can get anyone in the water and the advice for parents to leave when a child is feeling anxious is fairly consistent,” she says. “I think that such advice may work for most kids, but it is over-generalizing to say it works for all, and can really backfire.”
But there are some things that most swim programs seem to agree on. Recipes for success usually include calm, warm water, gradual immersion, such as dangling feet in the water, constant contact with a parent and being able to see the parent’s face. Some programs tack on singing, bubble blowing and toys— in other words, fun. And while instructors seem to agree that earlier is easier, it’s never too late to learn to swim.
And what about the sink-or-swim theory? While my generation and my parents’ generation may have learned to swim when they were heaved into a pool and shown no mercy, the current consensus is that sink-or-swim does more harm than good. Most programs also discourage the use of flotation devices, because kids can become too dependent on them. And, of course, even one minute of unsupervised swimming is a huge no-no.
Whatever your approach, swimming has benefits that go beyond safety. Bennett swears by swimming as a confidence-builder. “When kids learn to swim, they have to figure out something, trust themselves, take a challenge,” she says. And success in the pool is easily measured— it’s simple enough to track your time or your distance, or even to evaluate your form. “When they succeed, they are impressed by themselves,” she says.
But there’s another angle that most of us probably don’t think about very often— “Swimming feels good,” says Bennett. “You feel good in the water, because of the constant, perfect pressure.”
Over the years, Bennett has worked with many autistic and special-needs children and has found that they are especially soothed and happy in the pool. “Under the water, it’s so peaceful, so quiet,” she says. “In the water, they sparkle.”
And then there’s swim team. Both of Gorman’s daughters swim on the Swan Lake Stingrays, and Calderon’s three sons swim for the Bolton Hill Barracudas. What kids seem to love about swim team is the medley of physical challenge, skills building and time— a ton of it— with friends.
Some swim teams, such as the Barracudas, pair younger swimmers with older swimmers, so that every novice has a “big brother” or “big sister.” As Calderon points out, “There are not a lot of sports where a 6-year-old is on the same team as a senior in high school.”
Whether your children swim on a team or just swim for fun and safety, pool time can become a mainstay of summer social life for parents, too. “We consider the folks at the pool our extended family,” says Gorman. And he may have the best reason of all for raising swimmers: “To avoid arguments, we just go underwater.”
> YMCA at Stadium Place and Towson Family Center Y, http://www.ymaryland.org/aquatics
> Kids First Swim School, Bel Air, Cockeysville and other locations, http://www.kidsfirstswimschools.com
> Mariner Swim School at Gilman School, http://www.marinerswimming.org
> Michael Phelps Swim School at Meadowbrook Swim Club and Merritt Athletic Clubs, http://www.mpswimschool.com
> MAC Swim Academy, Harbor East and Timonium, http://www.macwellness.com