As a high school student, I was captain of our state-champ swim team. While in college, I went on Naval Reserve duty every summer for 90-day active duty periods as a swim and abandon ship instructor. Did all of that experience help me when my kids came along? You’ll have to ask them, but my way of teaching them how to swim seems to have worked. Here are a few tips.
When each was six months old, I carried the kid into the shallow end of the pool with me. A baby that old usually welcomes new experiences, so I gradually introduced him/her to the water. There was already some experience in a plastic, sit-down bathtub, so there was no panic. My rule was that nothing should be forced. Holding a baby close and trying a simple, two-second dunking helped get him/her used to being under water.
Some swim advocates say you should pull away from the baby and let him/her sink alone for a few seconds. I don’t recommend it, because in my experience, the baby … usually by the age of one … will let you know when it is ready for that kind of freedom. With my kids, from the time they could stand unaided at age one was to induce them to jump into the water for me to catch them. They never hesitated, and did it with great gusto. At first, I caught the child immediately after he/she hit the water. Then, gradually, I moved backward and required a swim stroke or two for the child to reach me. By the time each of my kids was two years old, they were jumping and swimming independently.
My parallel task from the age when my kids could talk and understand my messages was to teach them water safety. First, of course, is to never swim alone. There should always be at least one older teen or adult within eyeshot at all times to watch kids in the water, no matter how old they were or how well the kids could swim.
Once, when I was beginning the first lesson of a swimming course for Navy recruits, all teens of 17 to 19, I almost let one boy drown. I was observing swimmers in the pool, while he was standing in eye-level water just a few feet away from me. The only reason I acted in time was when another recruit pointed at him and laughed because the boy was trying to raise his nose and mouth above the water. For a second, I thought he was clowning, but then I realized he was suffocating. He was so close, I didn’t even have to jump in after him. I just reached and pulled him out of the pool. He huffed and puffed like a beached whale for a few moments, while I realized how quickly someone could drown. Safety first should always be the theme of swim training.
Also about safety, when swimming involves crowds of people together in the pool, lake or ocean, instructors, parents and lifeguards should always insist on the buddy system. Everyone, child and adult, should not go in the water totally alone. Each should be in sight at all times with a companion. If someone is accidentally separated, the other should get in touch with an instructor or lifeguard immediately.
With my Navy recruits and my own kids, my basic theory was to teach swimming without fear. Gradual introduction to each stage is essential for getting each person, baby, child or adult, confident in the water and learning the safe ways to enjoy it. Please allow me just one more boast or two. My daughter was a high school and NCAA champ diver, and my son broke a citywide high school record for the butterfly stroke. One of my Navy recruits went on to Annapolis and captained the swim team for two years.