Six teenagers drowned in Louisiana this week. The first fell off a ledge in shallow water and was rescued. Six of his cousins, who tried to save him, fell in and drowned while 20 family members looked on in horror.
The family is African-American and the grim statistics regarding that racial group has been brought forcefully to the public eye. A much higher percentage of African-American (and other minority) children drown, fewer are proficient swimmers, and perhaps the statistic that is the most worrying, there is a cultural norm that discourages water sports. It is imperative that this incident not be written off to uncaring or inattentive parents or to prejudicial views about a racial group. This problem is not unique to African-Americans – similar cultural norms around the world put children at risk. In large parts of Asia, swimming is associated with ‘lower class’ occupations and is discouraged among the ‘upper class’. In China, modesty in the changing rooms keeps parents from taking their children to swim lessons. In Africa swimming is actively discouraged, because of the dangers within the waters (hippopotamuses, crocodiles, bilharzia). In parts of the U.S., more affluent white children drown because of higher access to home swimming pools. Drowning is a global problem, it affects all of us, and yet our cultural views are allowing us to put our children at risk.
If children, ALL children, are going to be safer, there has to be a global shift in our attitude towards the water. Teaching children water safety must cut across culture, race, gender, geography. Parents must overcome their own fear and cultural-conditioning and recognize that teaching their children water safety and swimming is every bit as much a life-saving skill as fastening their seatbelt or learning to cross the street.
The family went to the river that day because being in the water can be fun, relaxing, refreshing on a blistering day – a great way to enjoy family time together. Water covers 70% of the earth’s surface. We can not survive without water. But we need to respect the water, we need to teach our kids to have fun in the water – safely.
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