In 2002, I was still years away from having kids of my own and, by my own admission, paid little attention to news headlines where kids were in involved. But the drowning death that summer of five-year-old Joshua Harder at a Winnipeg pool while on a class trip hit me hard. It's presumed the little boy went down a slide at the pool and was trapped under a four-foot-long floating mat, although the inquest into Joshua's death revealed no exact cause and no witnesses saw him go under. Kristen Harder, Joshua's mother, said her son could hold his breath under water and was used to being in the lake at the family cottage. Tragically, none of this was enough to save him.
I remember Joshua's story because, in 2002, I was in the process of earning my National Lifesaving Society lifeguard certification. Though we never talked specifically about Joshua's drowning in class, we did talk about how little kids believe they're stronger swimmers than they actually are—and that the lure of adventure often blots out their sense of self-preservation when they're playing in the water.
All of these messages have been lodged in my brain for the past 13 years, and are the biggest reason I make my kids take swimming lessons. It's also the reason why I'm shocked that Huffington Post Canada expert Alyson Schafer recently posted a video saying that kids don't actually need swimming lessons.
"I've never heard anyone say their kids don't need swimming lessons," says Barbara Byers, Public Education Director for the Lifesaving Society. "It's really important that all of us learn how to be safe. In this country, swimming is a life skill."
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports drowning as one of the leading causes of death in children, and is highest in kids between the ages of one and four. In Ontario, the Lifesaving Society reports that between 2007 and 2011, two-thirds of drowning victims were taking part in a recreational activity, like swimming (27 percent) or playing near the water (20 percent). New research from the WHO recommends teaching school-age children basic swimming and self-rescue skills as one of the best ways to prevent them from drowning.
Of course, not all kids enjoy swimming lessons—including my own children. As a toddler, Gillian screamed relentlessly during her lessons and Isaac has failed several times in a row. But still, year after year, I enrol them in lessons despite the fact that I'm a very strong swimmer and former lifeguard and could capably teach them myself. To me, the lessons taught by a qualified instructor are not about perfecting strokes or creating future Olympians. A good swim instructor will be up-to-date on new self-rescue techniques, water safety skills and be able to speak to my kids at their level about drowning and connect with them in a way that I can't.
If you've followed my blog for a while, you know I'm not the type of parent who worries a lot. Stranger danger, broken bones or even wild animals in my kids' schoolyard are all things that my husband and I, and then by association, my children Isaac and Gillian don't stress out about either. We're aware of abduction statistics, that bones mend and that, eventually, beavers who visit an elementary school will find their way back home. But I do worry about drowning and, for that reason, I will always make my kids take swimming lessons—whether they like it or not.
Read more: Secondary drowning: What you need to know>