The chore that most parents start too earlyFebruary 16, 2019
Swimming is our birthright as Australians. We swim in the ocean, in rivers, lakes and dams, in council pools and our own backyards.
This summer has been all about swimming in nature for my family: bushwalking to billabongs in national parks and enjoying the ocean pools around Sydney.
My husband and I spent our honeymoon a decade ago snorkelling on a coral reef, and I can hardly wait to share a similar holiday with our children.
Children should continue swimming lessons between age eight and 12 to achieve recommended skills.Credit:Peter Morris
Before then, I have to endure more swimming lessons. Not mine, the kids’.
There are few things more important than teaching your child the skills to survive in water, apart from maybe learning them yourself.
There have been 97 drowning deaths this summer – 31 in NSW alone – according to Royal Life Saving Australia.
For that reason alone, swimming lessons are a non-negotiable in my household.
Swimming is also one of the things I love best in the world and I want to pass on the joy to my kids.
But I confess, I do not love children’s swimming lessons.
I'm not alone. I actually heard a story about a friend of a friend who said she would have considered having a third child were it not for swimming lessons. I’m not sure she was joking.
We’ve tried a few different swim schools in our time.
We moved on from our local pool where the lessons were taught by indifferent uni students nursing noticeable hangovers.
We left the pool in a nearby suburb where they wouldn’t offer refunds or make up lessons if the pool was closed because someone else’s child had a toileting accident.
We stopped going to another nearby public pool where the council also owned the carpark underneath the complex but operated it separately to maximise profits. Parking costs ran between $7 and $12 each visit.
Fortunately, I’m very happy with both the quality of lessons and the convenience at our current swim school.
But even in the best-case scenario, children’s swimming lessons are rarely enjoyable for parents. They involve rushing to and from the pool on a tight timeframe, sitting on the bleachers in a humid room, feeling frustrated about the wasted effort and money when you see your children are mucking about rather than listening to the teachers, and dealing with getting children showered and changed without dropping their clothes in a puddle.
When children are tiny, parents have to get in the water. As a mother of twins, this was too hard. Every lesson required two adults in the water – one for each twin – and we soon gave up.
For children between about age three until five or six, parents have to stay poolside. Parents will also need to supervise older children if they wind up in different classes at different times.
Once you’re past this phase, you might be able to dash off a few laps yourself, as long as you’re at the public pool rather than a specialist swimming lesson centre. Like Cinderella you’ll need to rush back to the pool deck before the clock strikes 30 minutes.
Then you’ll negotiate whether to go back in the water for a play session, head to the cafe for an over-priced snack, or try to drag everyone to the changing room and home.
Lessons are also expensive – the NSW ActiveKids voucher of $100 is welcome but doesn’t go far when lessons are about $17 each – and many centres have waiting lists, especially for weekend classes. The cost and restricted availability means many children miss out, and the two-week intensive class offered by primary schools is not enough to compensate.
More affluent families account for 57 per cent of all children who attend swimming classes, according to a study by Royal Life Saving Australia last year. Labor has promised to try to fix this.
One mistake a lot of families make is they start too young. Then, fed up with the grind, they pull the children out before they really have the skills.
We’ve been doing swimming lessons on and off since the twins were three. I'm grateful we can afford them but in hindsight that was too young. We wasted many hours and thousands of dollars and it didn’t really click until the children reached primary school age.
The Royal Life Saving Australia study found children were starting lessons earlier than in the 1980s and 1990s but most stopped before their eighth birthday and before they learnt vital skills that could save their lives.
Because children were being pulled out of lessons too soon, more than four out of five 12-year-old children couldn’t tread water for two minutes, two out of five couldn't swim 50 metres of freestyle or backstroke, and one in three couldn’t swim 25 metres of survival strokes.
Swimming lessons shouldn’t stop when children are eight – that’s only the end of the beginning. To mix it up, try squads, or water polo, or Nippers.
It’s also worth learning to swim as an adult or brushing up on technique, both for the pleasure of being in the water in a hot climate and to stay safe when you are. Over the decade to 2015, 77 per cent of drowning deaths were adults. For drowning deaths of people born overseas, 93 per cent were adults.
One of the best things my mother did was pay for private stroke-correction classes, which we did together when I was about 14. The best thing I’ve done for myself as an adult swimmer was an ocean swimming workshop to give me confidence to swim beyond the break and safely negotiate a rip. It was only possible because I could already easily swim a kilometre or more in the pool – not fast but sure and steady.
A friend told me parenthood is one long exercise in delayed gratification. Swimming lessons are the perfect example. It’s a chore, but I know it will be worth it in the end.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the associate editor of The Sun-Herald. Facebook: @caitlinfitzsimmons
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