Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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When Children Drown

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on June 17, 2015

Little Cemetery AngelFour orphan children drowned in a farm dam. The children, ranging in age from 8 to 12, drowned while trying to rescue a duck. A 6-year old girl was the only witness. She didn’t understand what was happening and was worried about telling an adult since the farm dam was out of bounds for the children. And then it was too late.

You can imagine the scene in your mind. The children are exploring and see a duck in distress. The debate. Is the duck OK or will it die? What should we do? We’re not supposed to be near the farm dam….but if we don’t help the duck might die. The strategy session about how to save the duck. A conversation that any children in any country might have. A dilemma that speaks to the compassion of children, to their natural curiosity, and to their inability to understand some risks.

When you are a child you have no concept of danger, you need to be to be taught. When you are a teenager the portion of your brain that seeks pleasure overrides the portion that assesses risk, which can lead to seeking out danger. When you are are an adult, especially when you begin to care for children, you see danger everywhere. A lollipop morphs from a a simple piece of candy into the double threat of a choking danger on a ‘you could poke your eye out’ stick. That cool spiral slide at the playground suddenly looks like free-climbing up El Capitan when your two-year old is standing unsteadily at the top, not sure how to sit down. Worse, they change their mind half-way down and decide to go back up or climb off the side, having no concept of the size of the drop or what would happen if they fall.

When you are caring for young children, a significant amount of your time is spent assessing all the risks and avoiding catastrophe. Damage control is the name of the game. When a serious accident does occur, the most common reaction is to keep that accident from every happening again. This is especially true when the accident is unexpected, and drowning is usually unexpected. Very few people understand drowning. Very few people understand when and where drowning can occur and how or why to teach children to be safer around water. Drowning is always shocking in its speed and finality. To go from ‘alive’ to ‘dead’ with virtually no warning, when you didn’t even know death by drowning was a possibility, is beyond shocking.

When a child drowns, there can be an understandable fear of exposing other children to water. The first reaction is to keep other children away from water. This is the wrong reaction and one we need to change.

The nation of Lesotho grieved for the four orphaned children. The community grieved for those children. The orphanage grieved for those children. The siblings of the dead children will always grieve for their lost brothers and sisters. And then something positive was born out of the terrible loss. The first reaction was to keep the other children away from water, but very quickly the leaders in the orphanage realized that to keep all of the children safe, they needed to teach the children how to swim. They contacted the Royal Lesotho Lifesaving Association who agreed to teach the children to swim if a pool could be found. The orphanage looked long and hard and finally contacted a local hotel with a newly refurbished pool. The hotel generously offered the use of the pool to the orphanage children and those children are now learning a skill that will keep them safer around water for the rest of their life.

Cullen Jones, Olympic gold medalist, almost drowned as a child. His mother also had the right reaction, she enrolled him in swimming lessons. This is a story I have heard from a number of other parents. One of their children drowns, and they become committed to teaching their other children, and many other children, to swim, because they now understand. They understand that teaching a child to swim lowers their risk of drowning.  Even the best swimmer can drown, but a non-swimmer will almost certainly drown if they find themselves in the water unexpectedly or enter the water not even thinking ‘I can’t swim so I could drown’. It happens far more often than you think.

It is up to all of us in the drowning prevention community to help people understand that their first reaction to drowning is the wrong reaction. We all need to push the idea that learning to swim acts as a vaccination against drowning. It won’t stop someone from drowning, but it dramatically cuts the probability that someone will drown.

Note: With very young children (under age 4), keeping them under direct and active supervision around water is still the best action. However, I will argue with my last breath that starting in infancy we also need to be talking to young children about water and water safety. Just as we start telling children ‘look both ways before you cross the street’ thousands of time before we let go of their hand and trust them to try it out of our sight, we need to do the same with water safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends beginning swimming lessons at age one. Children will always need supervision as their brains develop, but swimming lessons and water safety both need to become as common as teaching children to cross the street safely.

My condolences to all the children and adults at the Mophato oa Mants’ase Society in Lesotho and my heartfelt appreciation for taking steps to keep those children safer.

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