At some of the YMCAs around the country, a rule for free swimming is now this: If a child is under a certain age — sometimes as high as 11 — and has not yet passed a swim test, a parent must be in the water with him at all times, not more than an arm’s length away, in the shallow end.
And the child must be wearing a life vest.
This is all in the name of safety, of course — except that it constitutes the exact opposite. It is practically guaranteeing that kids do not end up learning how to swim. How could they? Whenever they’ve got time to practice, they can barely get their head underwater! In fact, a head’s going underwater is precisely what a life vest is designed to prevent.
Swim instructors are dismayed by the rule. “It’s infuriating!” one, named Cate, wrote to my blog, “Free-Range Kids.” “You can’t learn to swim with a life jacket on. I taught lessons for years and that’s about as basic as it gets. But alas, our Y also ‘teaches’ kids to swim while wearing a bubble” — an ovular flotation device attached to a belt — “which also doesn’t work which is why they have kids in lessons, still wearing bubbles, when they’re 6 years old with 5-1/2 years of lessons under their (bubble) belt.”
Another Y member — and mom of eight — said she has spoken to the aquatics director about this very issue. “Our whole reason for joining the Y was so that I could teach them to swim. … (There) is NO WAY we could afford to put the children in lessons. … The director assures me that their insurance company has required the change and that there is nothing she can do. Meanwhile, all the kids whose parents can afford swim lessons laugh at my 5, 7, & 8 year olds who have to wear life jackets.” At the moment, at least one of this mom’s kids is now terrified to ever take the safety vest off.
The whole situation is a perfect example of the lawsuit-y slope from real concern down to an extra layer of caution that goes beyond safety into stupidity. Really, can you imagine this rule when you were a kid — children all bobbing around, so protected in the pool that they never got their faces wet?
Clearly, the Y has gone beyond prudence into CYA mode. (Look it up.) If, somehow, anything bad happens, the Y can always say, “We did absolutely everything possible and then some to prevent it!” But it is that very argument that can now be turned on its head (or can do an underwater handstand, which is how I spent my pool youth).
“Sue them for preventing you from teaching your children not to drown, thus putting (children’s) lives at risk,” suggested commenter J.T. Wenting on my blog. “Make it a class action lawsuit.” Remind the Y that “if it saves even one child’s life it’s worth it.”
When an institution goes overboard with safety, we can’t stand idly by. It’s time to jump in and save it from itself.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”