I grew up at the beach and have played and worked in aquatics my entire life. During this time, I have seen, experienced and heard a lot. In the 15 years I have taught swimming, I have heard more than a few heart-wrenching stories of accidents in and around the water. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I truly understood the burden of worry for my own children’s safety in those situations.
Back when I had one small child, I used to feel uneasy about the trips to the pool. My then curious 10-month-old teetered around the water, blissfully enjoying the thrill of mommy’s emotional rollercoaster, as I hovered in fear for his safety. Now, four years and an additional three kids later, I have learned a lot and perhaps have a bit more wisdom on how to make a trip to the pool less stressful, more manageable and even enjoyable.
At the end of the day, we all are challenged to guide our children in the right direction while allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them. The big question is, how on earth can we teach our kids how to be safe at the pool, have a healthy respect for the water and, oh yeah, have fun? Can we expect these things to go together seamlessly?
Here are some practical tips and tricks for making a trip to the pool more manageable:
1. Start verbalizing expectations ahead of time
On the way to the pool, I reiterate that we never go into the water without mommy or daddy. I quiz my kids on who’s holding who’s hand on deck and ask about where we sit until mom says it is okay to go in the water. I ask, “Do we use walking feet or running feet?”
I also have to mentally prepare because the days of sun-bathing and chatting with friends have morphed into something a bit different when I step on deck with my kiddos. I talk myself into supermom mode, where I remember that I am the lifeguard, the sunscreen applier, the snack giver, and the chaos manager.
2. Establish clear parameters
If you haven’t been to that particular pool before, take a moment to become acquainted with the environment and look for clear boundaries and discuss them with your child before moving on. I always look for age-appropriate ways to create boundaries with my kids. Establishing one entry point to the water will help you manage the traffic in and out of the water better.
My 5-year-old doesn’t require much convincing to follow the rules and stay in line. My first-born, the rule follower and people pleaser, is the least of my worries. I could quiz him on how he should act and where he should be a few times and feel confident that he would stick to it with little adjustments.
My 3-year-old needs far more convincing to do pretty much anything. She is little miss independent and really doesn’t care to please. I have to get creative when giving her parameters. I would ask, “Stasia, can you show me how to walk like a princess to this line (I point to the line in front of the steps)?” We talk about where a princess has to sit until mommy says the magic words to go in the water. She would require extensive practice with lots of attention and fancy pizazz.
My 2-year-old is like most kids her age, reckless and quick to assert her independence because she doesn’t have enough experience to understand danger. I try to get her as close to reality as possible while keeping her safe.
3. Use cues for water entry
With both my 2- and 3-year-old, I work extensively on cues to enter the water because, while they can swim, neither one can independently swim very far. For their safety, they need to wait for me to say, “1-2-3” before entering the water. It is also important to work toward your child going under water each time you get to three so he/she knows what happens when we swim.
4. Allow opportunities to learn from mistakes
I ask my 2-year-old to sit on the side until I count to three, “then I want you to swim like a mermaid to mommy.” Similar to my 3-year-old, she will require lots of practice. She will enter the water out of turn (and often). My response is important. I calmly guide her back to the side but do not lift her up, just push toward her correcting the problem. I ask her if she waited until mommy said 1-2-3?
5. Keep toys at an arm’s reach
Offer toys to play with instead of allowing your child to run around the pool area to retrieve them. You can avoid many potential hazards just by keeping everything close by, especially when you have more than one child to think about. While we may be super multi-taskers, there aren’t enough arms to keep up with kids going in different directions at the same time.
6. Have equal time in and out of flotation
Make sure your child knows the difference between time in a flotation device and time in the water with mommy, daddy, grandma, etc. The last thing we want is for a child to think he or she is invincible.
We want our children to have a realistic understanding that if they jump in the water without flotation, they need to have a game-plan on what to do next. You can easily practice jumping in the water, going under, turning and going back to the wall. If the only experience they have had is that someone picks them up, they have just learned how to get you to jump in the water (fully clothed at times) to save them.
7. Enforce your rules with a very tangible modification
The easy answer to the chaos is, “well, we just won’t come to the pool anymore if you can’t act right.” While this might save your nerves, it doesn’t teach your child to be safe around the pool. Consistent adjustments like having your child sit out of the water for one minute until listening ears work again can make the learning experience manageable. Also, this simple modification works for all ages because no one wants to miss out on the fun.
8. It happens with time
Remember that practice makes perfect. It will take time to establish a safe, manageable routine. If I haven’t been at the pool for some time, my expectation is that I have some work to do before a smooth run with my kids. I know it is going to be work for me for a few visits, but well worth it to establish a safe and enjoyable trip to the pool.