Plunging in . . . and letting go

Last weekend the community pool down the street from our house opened for the summer. Being an especially humid and sunny week in my part of the world, it attracted quite a crowd. The pool looked more like a mosh pit than a tranquil oasis. We decided we could wait a few days before trying to visit.

My son and water have a love/hate relationship. During certain months, the suggestion of a bath elicits shrieks of joy that should remain the bailiwick of contestants on the Price is Right. Other times, you’d think we just suggested he step into a tub of boiling acid. He gives us that look. You know the one. It says, “How is that even though you are so big, you are so impossibly stupid?”

So our pool adventures have been limited, but the few we’ve had have been very happy. My husband grew up in Florida, where swimming pools are so rampant that learning to swim comes directly after learning to breathe. Many of my son’s cousins can already swim laps. But I don’t have the stomach for “throw them in and see if they float,” so Pumpkin is more of a wader, although he’ll often let us walk with him into deeper waters.

This year I was looking forward to letting Pumpkin explore the kiddie pool, hopefully learning to put his face in the water and to splash with abandon. Then I saw the new rules posted next to the pool. For children under the age of 5, a parent must be in the pool, no more than an arm’s reach away, at all times. As it turns out, after I looked it up, this is the American Academy of Pediatrics official recommendation.

I get this. Drowning is the 5th most common cause of accidental death. It’s even higher for toddlers. And I’m sure the pool is mostly worried about liability issues. We live in a litigious world. But, it also gave me pause.

I have an RSS feed on the Consumer Reports Babies and Kids blog. Every day there are some new recommendations for keeping my kid safe. In sum, they describe a life where I am hardly ever more than an arm’s reach from my kid. We can emerge, covered in sunscreen, for a walk, I suppose. If I want to risk that my stroller won’t be added to the list of recalls anytime soon. In the effort to protect our kids from risk, there is no doubt that we are changing childhood.

Over at “Free-Range Kids,” many parents lament that the childhood they experienced – free, fun, independent and outdoors – is no longer available. My mom has often told me how much she loved road trips as a kid, bouncing around the generous backseat of a Cadillac, hiding under the seats. Nowadays, not having the expensive lawyers of Britney Spears, I would probably end up in the clink if I let my child have that experience. I remember walking to elementary school and pretending that after I passed each new road sign, I was in a different country. Today I watch moms push their 7-year-olds in strollers to the school at the end of our block.

It’s easy to notice things like this, but harder to figure out where exactly you draw the line for your own kids between experiences and risks. Just like those other “free range” parents, I lament the idea that kids must be strapped in and locked down at all times. I reject the idea that doing so will keep them entirely safe. I reject the idea, even, that safe is the only thing worth being. But then, I’m not sorry we invented car seats or carbon monoxide alarms or child-safe pantry locks. These things, plus modern medicine, birth control and the other 7 wonders of the world, have meant more kids surviving childhood. We live in a world where, whether true or not, most of us expect our kids to become adults. That is pretty new to the human experience.

But as I imagine trailing Pumpkin around the kiddie pool this summer like a bounty hunter and her prey, I’m still trying to work out for myself where the line is between protecting and handicapping.

One of my first memories is of my mom holding me on her hip in the pool. She must have taken a step backwards and accidently stepped off the ledge into the deep end. For a moment, my head was submerged. I panicked, and came out of the water, screaming, flapping my arms. In that moment it took her to pull me back to her, I remember distinctly the terrible fear that was knowing she couldn’t always keep me safe. But also the exhilarating realization that I’d made it up to the surface. All by myself.

4 Responses to “Plunging in . . . and letting go”
  1. Skinny Sushi says:

    This is so something I struggle with… the line between safe and ridiculous. I try really hard to be a laidback parent… Wait, does it still count as laidback if it takes effort? The truth is that I think we are a little paranoid, but then I look at my daughter and wonder how we could be anything else…

  2. A good friend posted about something similar today…thought you’d enjoy reading it!

    • H says:

      Thanks for pointing me to this post. What an insane thing to threaten to arrest someone for! And if the reporting parent was so worried, wouldn’t it have made more sense to just ask the girl if she was scared and needed help? When did it get this bad? This is why I so appreciate the conversation Lenore has started at Free Range Kids. I may draw a different line than some of the other parents there, but we need to stop acting like the only right answer is to chain our kids to us.

  3. writerdood says:

    I started my kids swimming at 3. They picked it up immediately, but they hated the lessons. Now they don’t want to take lessons at all. The instructors are always fussy about the strokes being perfect, which is only slightly ridiculous. It seems to be all about form, and taking a breath at the right time and not bending your elbow. I don’t force them to take lessons if they don’t want to. They can already swim well enough to navigate the pool happily. It would be great to get them on swim teams, but they’re expensive and the kids aren’t interested. They want to dive under the water, and splash around and swim beneath the surface as much as possible. I don’t blame them. That’s where the fun is for me too.

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