Over years of swim lessons and coaching, I got this question a lot. “When is my child considered water safe.” My response to that tricky question was always the same: Wondering when your child is “water safe” is the wrong way to think about it. Some might argue and say that, at a minimum, a child is water safe if she can fall into a body of water, orient herself face up, and somehow propel herself to a wall or other equivalent without assistance. But that’s a minimum. And when it comes to potentially life-saving safety concerns, the minimum is never enough.
Completely “Water Safe” Isn’t a Thing:
A few years ago, I remember opening up the newspaper (I’m old school like that) and seeing an article that stunned me. A twenty-one year old champion college swimmer had drowned in an indoor pool while working out by himself. This counterexample to the aforementioned “minimum” has since left me with the following question: Is anybody completely “water safe?” I’m confident that the answer is no. There is never a point where a child is 100% water safe. Someone once asked me, “Well, what about Michael Phelps?” That person got the following ear full: Sure, Michael Phelps is probably pretty safe in a temperature controlled twenty-five yard pool. But for all his swimming prowess, do you think he would be comfortable facing the frigid cold water, jagged rocks, and thirty-foot waves at Mavericks (arguably the most dangerous surf spot in the world) by himself? Of course not, because no one is completely water safe. This example illustrates how rather than trying to check the box that someone is “water safe,” you should instead consider water safety in terms of risk mitigation:Is your swimmer adequately prepared for this particular aquatic activity?
The bottom line is that no one should get complacent around water or aquatic activities. Any one of us likely would have considered the twenty-one year old college swimmer to be safe at that indoor pool. And in most cases like that, we’d be right. But that does not mean we can get complacent or ignore the fact that there is always an inherent risk with swimming and water activities whether in pools and hot tubs or natural bodies of water. Swimmers and parents need to know their swimming skill level and assess whether it sufficiently mitigates the risk of the specific aquatic activity at hand, whether that be in the pool or Mavericks. Someone who might be pretty “water safe” in a calm indoor pool may not be adequately skilled to go boating on a choppy lake or swim at the beach.
Swim Lessons Lower the Risk:
I once had a swim student in a Level 5 swim class who did well in the course. As I was handing the student her certificate of completion, her mother asked me, “So that certificate means she’s completely water safe now, right?” I politely informed the mother that just because her daughter had passed Levels 1 – 5, it did not mean she was completely water safe. To my surprise, the mother got pretty upset and asked, “Well then, what have I been paying all this money for if she’s not even completely water safe by the end of it!?” Again folks, that’s the wrong way to think about swimming skills and swim lessons. The goal is not to make a child completely water safe (because no one is). But swim lessons, commonly taught in Levels 1-5, significantly lower the risks associated with many aquatic activities and are even shown to reduce the risk of drowning by 88% in children ages 1-4.
Know your swimmer’s abilities:
Feeling that your child can be safe around water or like you've mitigated the risks of an activity largely depends on a multitude of factors that will vary case by case: The swimmer’s age, their skill level and water confidence, the nature of the aquatic activity, how long the activity will last, who will participate, what safety concerns exist, and more. All these factors are worth considering before deciding if you feel that your child is safe or that risks associated with the activity have been diminished or mitigated.
I’ll wrap up with one last anecdote. Growing up in Boy Scouts, we frequented a nearby lake for weekend camping trips. The water was usually nice enough to swim so mornings usually included swims by the boys and leaders. One of our leaders, my best friend’s dad, was a fantastic swimmer. One day, we were preparing breakfast at camp when this leader crawled out of the water (none of us even knew he had been swimming) and collapsed on the shore. When he regained his composure, he asked us to gather all the boys so he could talk to us. He proceeded to tell us that he had been out for an early morning swim despite the cooler weather. He had noticed a buoy out in the lake and decided he swim out to it and return to camp. Right as he reached the buoy, both his legs cramped up and he started having breathing pain in his chest. Unable to move, he struggled to stay afloat for almost an hour before the pain subsided and he was able to paddle back to shore. After that close call, he had a lesson for us: Don’t ever think you’re completely safe in the water, no matter how good of a swimmer you may be.
The Right Question:
So rather than wondering when your child will be “water safe,” help them learn to swim, teach them good water safety principles, and always consider whether the inherent risk of any water activity is something your child is prepared for. The right question is, “Is my child prepared to be safe for this particular activity?”
Written By Briant Jacobs
My entire life has been spent in and around the water. Growing up in CA, I swam competitively for 15 years and played water polo when I wasn’t at the beach! I’ve spent eight years as a Red Cross life guard and seven years as a certified Water Safety Instructor teaching classes of all ages how to swim. Additionally, I’ve taught Guard Start, survival swimming courses, and directed multiple aquatic summer camps. I’ve coached swim teams of 200+ swimmers and worked as a private coach for individuals looking to improve their stroke technique. In my mind, there’s never a bad day for a swim!