Free-Range Kids

Teaching Kids To Swim Is a Great Way To Protect Them From Actual Danger

"Parents have told me that once their children learn to swim they have more confidence and self-esteem," says Joseph Brier, a swim instructor.


Are you a parent who wants to keep your kids safe this summer? The best thing you can do is teach them to swim.

I say this as a nonalarmist mom dedicated to actual safety, instead of security theater and moral panic. For example, I frequently encourage parents not to fret too much about stranger danger—especially since the vast majority of crimes against children are committed by people they already know. Instead, parents should focus on mitigating drowning risks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that drowning is the most common cause of death for kids ages one to four. Even when those kids get a little older, it remains a significant risk, right after car accidents.

Most child drownings happen in swimming pools. Terrifyingly, they often happen when a child is not expected to be near water—for instance, when they somehow gain access to a pool without anyone realizing it.

David Aguilar, child injury prevention czar for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, recently appeared on CBS News to remind parents that until their kids know how to swim, they should always practice "active supervision" of children near water.

I would add that all parents should teach their kids to swim, whether they have a pool or not.

"Learning to swim is about staying alive when you end up in the water," says Brad Bargmeyer, a certified safety professional in California. "I remember when my nephew at age six confidently strode out onto a dock with no railings to get a closer look at a seal swimming in Puget Sound. I had a moment of concern that he was so far ahead of me around all that water. Then I remembered that he had learned to swim as a toddler. Even if he fell in, he would be okay until I was close enough to fish him out."

Bargmeyer says the experts endorse "safety through skill," the principle that equipping kids to survive is a better plan than expecting them to never wander out of sight.

But Joseph Brier, a psychology graduate student at Long Island University, points out another reason for teaching kids to swim (as if not drowning was insufficient). He's been giving swimming lessons for five years and now runs a small company of swimming teachers.

"Parents have told me that once their children learn to swim they have more confidence and self-esteem," he says. "It seems to leak into other areas of their life."

Children can learn to swim starting at age two and a half or three, says Brier. In fact, he loves when kids start early, because they're not afraid of the water.

Are there some kids who can't learn? There must be. But Brier says he has taught a child with cerebral palsy, and quite a few with autism, as well as "many large, many skinny, many athletic, and many non-athletic" kids.

Jewish law (my tradition) states there are three things every parent must do: teach their kids the holy books, teach them a trade, and teach them how to swim.

The sages debated this, of course. What's with the swimming? It seems to be both practical advice—Jews are exhorted to do almost anything to save a life—but also metaphorical advice I wholeheartedly endorse: Endeavor to make your kids self-sufficient enough that you don't have to rescue them every time they land in the deep end.