The long Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start of the summer season. Families travel to the beach and to lakes, rivers, and ponds for what is also the start of the swimming and boating season.
Living near water as we do, water safety is an important part of our family life. Our children learned early that they were never, ever allowed in the water without an adult present. They learned to swim early, too. Still, I shudder to remember the occasions I saw Virgil wandering down to the water alone, and the one time before he learned to swim that he ran right into the water and kept going. He was fully submerged — but still moving forward — when Jim plucked him from the water.
The most dangerous water our children were on when they were little, however, was the reservoir where their grandfather spends his summers. We’re often there in large family groups. People mill about on the dock and along the shore; beer flows freely. After Ursula was born, one of the other moms took me aside and explained that I should never lose sight of her at those lake gatherings. No one else is going to watch her for you, she warned, and reminded me that her middle child had tumbled off the crowded dock without a sound. She dove in and rescued him — but if she hadn’t been watching, she told me, he would have drowned, less than five feet from his family.
I was reminded of her chilling story recently while reading a national study of drowning incidents involving children. Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death among children ages 1 to 4 years and children 10 to 14 years, and the third cause of death for children under one. Nine out of 10 of those children drowned in the presence of a parent or caregiver — an incredible number to me, until I learned that children drown quickly and silently, without the thrashing and calls for help we’re used to seeing in the movies. Not surprisingly, drowning deaths spike between May and August.
So please, this summer, follow these guidelines for water safety:
• Actively supervise children in and around open bodies of water, giving them your undivided attention. Adults who were present when a child drowned were often distracted: on the phone, in conversation, reading. Consider appointing a designated “water watcher,” taking turns with other adults. In big gatherings, hand off a card, whistle, or other item between water watchers to avoid gaps in supervision.
• Enroll your child in swimming lessons after age 4, considered the earliest age children can retain information about water safety. Teach children how to tread water, float, and stay by the shore in open water. But don’t assume that swimming lessons “drown-proof” a child.
• Teach children that swimming in open water is not the same as swimming in a pool: They need to be aware of uneven ground below water, river currents, ocean undertow, and changing weather.
• Teach children to get out of the water as soon as they hear thunder or see lightning. Explain that lightning is electricity, and that electricity and water are a dangerous combination.
• Learn infant and child CPR and keep a phone nearby in case of an emergency. Immediately giving CPR to a drowning victim reduces the risk of brain damage and can mean the difference between life and death.
• Do not let children operate personal watercraft such as jet skis. These are intended for adults and require special training.
• Invest in proper-fitting, Coast Guard-approved flotation devices and use them whenever a child is on a boat, near water, or participating in water sports. A life jacket should fit snugly and not allow the child’s chin or ears to slip through the neck opening. For younger children, choose a life jacket with a strap between the legs and head support. The collar keeps a child’s head up and face out of the water.
I dwell on this scary side of swimming, because the other side of swimming is so joyful for us, as I expect it is for many other families. Sliding into cool, clean water is absolutely one of our favorite things to do out of doors — and not just to escape summer heat. We do it for splashing and exercise and doing flips underwater, for jumping off ledges into swimming holes, for playing king of the raft, for simply floating and looking up at the sky. Armed with these safety guidelines, I’ll be making some adjustments to our time in the water, though. I want it to remain a joyous part of our lives.
“Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.