Thursday, July 22, 2010

Free range, but supervised.

Other parents often look at our free range parenting aghast at the freedoms and responsibilities we give our three sons. They have been at liberty to be home alone (for short periods of time) starting at age seven. They are allowed to walk to and from the park alone. We allow them out of our sight on hiking and biking trails. Our seven-year-old cooked us a lovely breakfast on Sunday morning. Our youngest has been kayaking solo since age three. We are pleased of the responsibility that they are learning and at their pride in their own achievement.

The one seeming exception to our free range philosophy is how we supervise children around water. We live on a pond. Ponds do not come with pool safety features such as fences or alarms. In our case, there is a big wall that drops into deep water just off of our lawn. We vacation at a lake and at the ocean. We go to the pool at least once a week. We are avid boaters, fishermen, and snorkelers. Finally, my work as a biology professor regularly takes us to boats and the ocean for marine biology and coral reef biology. We are always around water.

We supervise them more carefully at the water than in any other circumstance. It isn't that they are uncomfortable in the water. They have been taken into the pool regularly since twelve weeks of age, and have had formal lessons as long as they've been old enough to participate. All three of our children are strong swimmers for their ages. However, even when they play in shallow water, we watch them.

We formally pass responsibility, "I am going inside, you are watching them now". Too many children have drowned in front of adults that didn't realize that they were responsible for counting heads at that moment. This is what famously (and tragically) happened at a children's party hosted by the rock star Tommy Lee. At least a dozen adults were standing around the pool as the child drowned, and an adult trained in rescue breathing (which I also recommend) might have changed the outcome in that situation. We watch while we hear them playing, but when they get quiet - we immediately count heads.

We demand that they wear vests (PFDs or personal flotation devices). We model that behavior as well. They wear life vests when in a boat (even in our rowboat, on our little pond, with us in the boat). This has paid off as at least three separate times we've had to pluck a chilly, wet child from the pond. Before any child takes out a boat; they have to repeat after us that if anything happens - they are more important than stuff - if the boat capsizes, save yourself and we will worry about the boat and gear later. They wear vests when swimming in deep water when we aren't swimming with them. Our weaker swimmers still wear them in deeper water when we are present. When we snorkel, they wear inflatable snorkeling vests. We have over a dozen life vests of various sizes so any visitor can play safely.

I am not only cautious with young children. I pay just as much attention to water safety with my college students. I ascertain people's water skills early. I have adult snorkeling vests available for all students that need them. I demand that my students use the buddy system and stay with and watch their buddies. I count heads so often that literally, after the last trip, I woke up for three days after the trip trying to count my students in my sleep. I have had to rescue one student and am tremendously grateful that she only had a brief scare.

So, why is this free range mama so paranoid about water? First, as explained by a Coast Guard Search and Rescue diver, drowning doesn't look like drowning ( Second, tragedy can happen in an instant. Third, water currents are deceptively strong and unpredictable and once a swimmer is in a current - he or she can easily lose control and in worst cases be held by an underwater obstacle (kayakers call these deadly obstacles "strainers"). Finally, even strong swimmers can easily panic when the unexpected occurs (rip currents, jellyfish, surprise dunking by a wave or a friend, a tangle with seaweed or other wildlife, illness, or fatigue). Not relevant to children (I hope), but it is worth remembering that these dangers are exacerbated when alcohol is involved.

I love water. I love fishing in it, boating on it, swimming in it, watching it, and listening to it. But I also respect it. So have free range water bugs like we do. Go ahead, have your children learn to swim in pools, lakes, rivers, and oceans for fun and fitness. Let them play with wildlife and go fishing at the shore - this is gee-whiz biology at its best. Have them learn to handle boats of all kinds (ours use sailboats, rowboats, canoes, and kayaks) - it is terrific exercise in using judgement, physical skills, navigation, and physics.

But, as you do enjoy the water, be ever mindful of water safety and keep current in your CPR skills. Drowning is the number two cause of death by unintentional injury in children under 15 (after vehicular accidents). It doesn't take much water to be dangerous, many of the child drowning victims succombed to the water in a bucket or bathtub. No alarm or fence can replace good old-fashioned supervision.