Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Explain The Outcome

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on April 10, 2014

The tip of the iceberg“Look both ways before you cross the street!”

“Don’t run by the pool!”

Chances are you’ve used those phrases countless times with your children, but have you also explained why they should look both ways or not run? Have you ever wondered why your child continues to run by the pool, not look both ways or abide by any of the other almost constant parental warnings that you issue?

A new study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology explains that we can’t just issue warnings, we need to explain the danger, explain why the action is necessary.

“Saying to your child, ‘Don’t do that’ or ‘Stop’ or ‘Be careful’ doesn’t really work,” Plumert says. “I mean, it’s okay to say that, but the next step is to say why not. You shouldn’t assume that your child knows why not, even if it seems obvious to you.”
Mothers used one tactic especially effectively: They pointed out the dangerous elements in the situation, and explained how those current dangers could cause the child to get hurt. The researchers were initially surprised that mothers focused more on the present features rather than pointing out potential outcomes, but think it’s because parents use the present – the danger – to help the child understand the potential outcome – getting injured.”

I was fascinated by the study and asked a colleague who is an expert in pediatric medicine and injury prevention for more information. She shared her lightbulb moment about communicating danger effectively. She heard a lecture on the subject by a brilliant doctor, who is also a researcher and editor of Injury Prevention who asked an 8- year old patient in a clinic, “what do you do before you cross the street?”  He got the usual, “look both ways”.  Then asked the kid, “what are you looking for?”  The kid looked at him quizzically and said, “dinosaurs?”

We aren’t explaining what happens if you don’t obey water safety messages.

The study specifically refers to teaching children about safety, but when it comes to water safety, I think it’s safe to assume that 95% of the world’s population is starting at the most basic level, the tip of the iceberg, so the lessons can, and should be applied to communicating water safety effectively to all ages.

We assume that people know the outcome, the consequences, simply by pointing out the dangers around water, but they don’t. Most people haven’t learned about danger because they haven’t been taught and they don’t understand why they should learn. We have to explain why the rules exist, explain in ways that people can understand, and explain why they should care.

In some ways it’s easier to communicate to children. They are insatiable sponges when it comes to learning and not so jaded or confident that they think they know everything (like many adults). Ask anyone who has spent time with a 2-year old during their infamous ‘why?’ phase. Contrary to what you may believe by the end of an endless ‘why?’ day, it’s not to annoy you, it’s to make sense of the world, to figure out the ‘if….then’ and how it applies to them. It’s a greater challenge to communicate key water safety messages to busy and omnipotent adults, which is why it is critical to also explain the outcome, why the messages matter to them.

I’ve written before about why we need to explain to people why water safety matters to them, and at the (conflicting) need to use simple and consistent messages to communicate effectively but let’s look at how it would work practically.

Start with the basic messages, and always circle back to those simple and repetitive messages, using them consistently, but once you have their attention, use the opportunity to explain the why – they consequences to not following the rules, then you can go into the details.

Issuing warnings is always a fine line between teaching and striking such terror that it becomes counter-productive. Our goal should be matter-of-fact communication, not sugar-coating, not terrorizing, but most of all, not minimizing that water can be quickly and irreversibly deadly.

Issue the warnings – simply and consistently – and explain the consequences.

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