At one, we bundle our children in swathes of cotton and wool.
At two, we tell them that water is dangerous.
At three, we warn them against speaking to strangers.
Then, at four (or older), we spot an attractive advertisement for an eight week summer swim camp, and excitedly, we bunch up our kids in weird-textured, itsy-bitsy swimsuits, take them to the nearest swimming pool, hand them over to a teacher who is a stranger to them, and watch with disappointment and frustration as they start to cry, rebel and refuse to go back to the pool again.
“Damn, what is wrong with my child?” we think.
But let’s pause, take a deep breath, and ask ourselves this: “Where did we go wrong?”
Is it your Narrative?
Reflect on your narrative for making your child go to school. You coo nursery rhymes when the child is still babbling. You buy brightly coloured books and charts. You point out your neighbourhood kids heading off to school. You read bedtime stories of happy children enjoying themselves in class. By the time he or she is three or four, most likely your child cannot wait to start school!
Now, do you have a narrative for swimming? Many parents don’t! This is because swimming in India is still beset with ignorance, fear and prejudice. We are afraid to let our children near water for fear of drowning, or catching an infection, or concerns over cleanliness.
In countries like Australia and the US, swimming is recognized as a vital life skill and life saving skill and often is part of a child’s school curriculum. In India we view it as a nice-to-have hobby on one end, and a competitive sport on the other. Since many of us do not know how to swim ourselves, we lack the language to articulate swimming, or the tools to understand how one’s journey in swimming evolves, or the appreciation and respect of swimming as a vital life skill that provides safety, fitness and health.
But we need to build a narrative, and a positive, inclusive one at that, because in a country where drowning is the second largest cause of preventable deaths, it is essential for each one of us to learn swimming and water safety, starting with our children.
Building the ‘Say Yes to Swimming’ Narrative
The first step is to start engaging with water yourself. Join a class and learn to swim. Learn with your child. Swimming with your child is a great way to bond with your child and do fun things together. It will also give you a first hand experience of how it feels to be in the water, how hard or easy it is to learn swimming, and a deeper appreciation for water safety. So, say yes to swimming yourself!
What you think and feel towards swimming will have an effect on your child. Before you dismiss swimming and water safety as something not for you or your child, know that swimming positively impact children’s lives. It is great for health and fitness, for physical growth and emotional development, and helps them to be safe in, on or near water. In fact, research led by Griffith University indicates that children who swim demonstrate more advanced cognitive and physical abilities than other children. “The children were anywhere from 6 to 15 months ahead of the normal population when it came to cognitive skills, problem solving in mathematics, counting, language and following directions,” lead researcher Prof Robyn Jorgensen stated.
Swimming sets a strong foundation of fitness, endurance and strength for your child to explore other sports. It opens up opportunities to enjoy other fun and adventurous activities as well, whether it is diving or surfing or snorkeling. So focus on the positives when you speak to your child about swimming, and encourage them to develop a love for water.
Are you fearful of water? Most likely, your child will be too. But remember, there is a difference between being fearful and being aware and alert about the dangers of water. There is an element of risk in every activity we do, but does that stop us from walking or climbing stairs or navigating through traffic? Read up on water safety and rescue to build your confidence. When you sign up your child for swim lessons, make sure that they have a strong and consistent water safety skills embedded in their lessons. Have frequent conversations on water safety with your child so that their concerns are addressed. Learn CPR if you get an opportunity – it can save a life.
Research suggests that it takes children seven years to perfect walking, so why do we believe that a two month swim camp in summer is enough for them to pick up a complicated skill like swimming? Learning to swim cannot be hurried; in fact too much too soon may lead to disinterest and fears. Swimming can start early, even inside the bathtub when your child is a few months old, blowing bubbles and splashing water on each other.
Water familiarization is the most important step towards learning to swim, and it takes years! In Australia, children are introduced to swimming when they are infants, swimming lessons are conducted one lesson a week for years before they become ready, confident swimmers. So be patient and encourage your children to take up swimming for life
Give your child opportunities to engage with the water as much as possible, and make it fun. Swimming is not about strokes and techniques; it is about enjoying water safely and correctly. Spend your Sunday afternoon splashing around a pool as family, even if not all of you know how to swim. Attend swim meets and cheer for the swimmers. How about organizing a birthday party at the shallow end of a pool? Try it, your little guests will love it!
Last word (also the most important): When in, on or near water, whether it is a pool or beach or dam or tank, be vigilant and always supervise your child. They require adult supervision, so do not hand over the task to another child, and do not be distracted with calls or chores when your child is swimming.
Swimming is a life skill, a life saving skill and a life long skill, and your narrative can bring in a lot of value to your child’s life.