Parenting Now: Drowning!

In winter, we frequent a ‘nearby’ (re:40 min drive one-way) indoor hotel ‘waterpark’ with a shallow baby pool that maxes out at 13 inches, one backyard-length slide in the shallow bit, and one ‘real’ water-slide that has a whole lot of rules. I bring the kids back consistently because it is a fun, affordable and(relatively) easy activity for everyone. I have equipped my children consistently and specifically with Coast Guard-approved life-preserving devices that facilitate their confidence, and used or discontinued those devices as appropriate as they aged.

In the past, I have received a number of comments about how confident my small children are in shallow water, and with dealing with ‘going under’ at the bottom of a slide, a slip, or otherwise. Why are they so confident? I let them fall. I watch, but I do not hover. I let accidents happen, and then I actively intervene if necessary. I give guidance and instruction, but then I let them learn by trial and error why Mama has her rules. If you jump in with your mouth open, I am there to retrieve and cuddle, and remind to close your mouth next time. I’m still going to let them jump.

[For reference, all of our swimming experiences happen in a man-made pool or pond where there is no undertow, wake, rapids, animals and plants or other ‘real-world’ situations. Occasionally, there’s a current around the bottom of the water slide, and the kids who are ready are learning about that. Were we to go wading or boating or anything involving a nature-made body of water, these rules would not apply.]

Today was our first day this year at the Waukon city park pool, for which we have very generously received a reduced-price pass. (Once again, throwing paperwork at something makes it happen…) I took all four children alone, which was a stretch of my patience and guarding abilities where bathrooms, other people’s food and other people’s belongings are concerned. But, I was comfortable in the swimming situation. The older three  know their limits and/or are supervised sufficiently.

Olin, who is more than 48″ tall but is also cautious and will not venture further than he can comfortably handle, has had a few swimming lessons in preschool: enough to ‘save himself’ in a shallow situation and is cautious enough not to jump in without knowing the depth. Actually, he doesn’t jump in anyway, he’s rather go slowly and study what the water does. He doesn’t want or need a life jacket or other flotation device in a pool situation. He does like to take the extra one and use it or a boat, sometimes. Watching it float is exciting to him, for some reason.

A.J. is gaining confidence and is able to go underwater, is very adventurous, daring and competitive, but is not able to swim well enough to ‘save himself’ when he is scared or gets water in his nose/eyes and can’t easily touch the bottom. He wears a Type V flotation device at the pool that involves arm and chest ‘floaties’, and is happy to have it and recognizes the difference. Occasionally, he’ll go without it. He is very, very ready for swimming lessons.

Evangeline floundered around a lot in the ‘zero depth’ pool as a toddler. I let her try things for herself. She crawled too deep and went under a few times, but I put her back in the shallow part and let her crawl around again. I let her go down the water slide and caught her at the bottom until she was confident enough to start the slide before I got to the bottom of the slide.

Once that happened, I let her slide without me. She got a faceful of water and floundered a bit at the bottom a few times, but I helped her sit up, then watched and cheered her on, and now I can just watch. As a consequence, I got a confident and adventurous preschooler on whose confidence and adventurousness other parents comment positively and somewhat frequently.  As another consequence, I got a toddler who would spontaneously leap in to any body of water. Evie is equipped with a size-appropriate boating life vest, for now, and paddles around in it very happily.

Seraphine is a unique creature not only for her own qualities, but because we know that anything she does could be special like Evie and AJ, or ‘special-needs’ like Olin and there is no way to tell in advance. I watch her maybe a bit closer, but only to see what she’s ready for. She’s still a kid of mine, and she’s going to get the same treatment. Which means an individualized timeline and safety interventions that are appropriate without stifling her ability to learn.

A few visits ago, Sera demonstrated her enthusiasm for going in the big pool at the indoor water park, and was seriously unhappy with the baby kayak floatie thing we had heretofore used for her. She didn’t want to sit in a boat, she wanted to participate. I have had for awhile an ‘infant flotation device’ that’s designed to keep that giant baby head afloat and tried to use it for adventurous Sera, but she and I both hated the bulkiness and found that it hindered more than it helped.

When I went to a life jacket for Evie, I did so because the ‘baby pool’ was no longer the whole scope of her play, but she didn’t realize that she couldn’t touch the bottom in all pools and didn’t have the coordination yet for swimming.

Seraphine is currently in the place where she is (mostly) confident in up to 2 feet of water, but occasionally needs some help righting herself and is overwhelmed easily by splashing or going underwater unexpectedly. She loves playing with adults in deeper water and can handle splashing, but not extended (by extended, I mean more than a second or two) submersion. She will put her face in the water voluntarily, though.

For her this season, I got another boating life vest just like Evie’s, but it doesn’t work as well for Sera as I had hoped. She has trouble maneuvering in it and looks like she’s got a barrel strapped around her chest. She does, I suppose. It also doesn’t keep her floating face-up, and I’m not sure exactly why. She fights the free-floating and ends up kicking herself in a roll, so I haven’t had a good chance to assess exactly why. So, I don’t put the vest on her unless she’s in the big pool, splashing and jumping around with everyone else, or wandering along the edge.

All that experience and backstory to say:

Today, I took the kids to the Waukon city pool for the first time this year. They played and ran under my alert but distant supervision until some old man in all-red and +GUARD noticed that Seraphine was toddling around at the edge of the shallow pool “alone”. She was nowhere near the actual water, and I was a maximum of the width of the shallow pool away and actively watching. She eventually moved beyond my sentinel comfort zone and I came to retrieve her, and the guard (Owner maybe? I’ve never seen anyone over high school age there dressed as a “Guard” before.) came over to me and told me to keep a careful and close watch over her because a baby “almost drowned” last year in the middle because the parents were distracted and the pool was crowded.

That is fine and I acknowledged him and retrieved my child, but later when I was literally 10 feet from Seraphine, on dry deck myself, watching her attempt to climb a blue dolphin in maybe 7 inches of water, he came to remind me that “A child can drown in 6 inches of water if they inhale. Please!” The point was to scare me with ‘facts’ in to remaining within a certain proximity, I suppose. I was too offended and embarrassed to speak, or I would have corrected him that it’s 2 inches (according to bucket manufacturers), but in real life I eventually managed to object in a strangled voice, “I’m watching her!”  But, I felt judged and obligated to hover for the rest of the afternoon. We left early because I felt like I couldn’t let her play without someone harassing me for not being careful or vigilant enough, and she couldn’t play because I felt like I wasn’t allowed to let her actually do anything.


Abandoned baby! Quick, let’s judge someone.


If my turning my head away at the wrong time means my child’s head goes under the water for a second, I believe that is not a lapse in my parenting, it’s a consequence of the world. I would feel the same way if I was watching when her head went under. My job as a parent is to help my child learn how to deal with those waves, not to shield her from every one. If Seraphine goes deeper than she knows how to handle and is under the water for a second, I am within seconds to pull her out, comfort her, and let her go again to see what she can do. When she’s ready, I’ll teach her to swim – just like everyone else.

It offends me when not hovering is assumed negligence. I’m watching, world. I’m just watching with enough space to learn.

As an obligatory disclaimer/observation: I recognize that the guy has to assume that I can’t watch my kid from more than 4 feet distant, but this is a patently subjective, obnoxious and insulting assumption. I was not checking Facebook on the lounge chair. I was standing, actively watching, at the edge of the water and allowing my child to roam in what I deemed a safe perimeter. As an additional reference: this is a lifeguard-staffed pool. If I was standing sixteen inches from her when she drowned, I should be capable of handling it equal to my level of training. So should you, from sixty feet away. The other three active, safe and happy children were the ones I was relegating to your vigilance. The little one, I had in sights.

[Edited for some clarification and ‘disclaimer’ additions, since some asshat on the internet somewhere will undoubtedly eventually accuse me of throwing my kids in the Mississippi River unsupervised or dropping them at the pool an expecting the lifeguard to babysit…]

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