I’ll get back to our holiday to Japan, I will, but first I want to tell you about something that happened today. We went helicopter swimming. It’s not as fun as that sounds.
It all started this morning, when we (A included!) woke up to a blue sky and my mother-in-law’s last day in Singapore. To the beach! we cried, and everyone bundled themselves off to Sentosa for a romp in the ocean. We chose a likely-looking spot:
…and started to splash around. At a certain point, A and P swum out to about half way between the shore and the line of buoys in the distance – not as far as the dot of a swimmer who can be seen to the right – and the lifeguards started whistling frantically at them. P and A were facing away, and it didn’t occur to either of them that the whistling was for them (after all, they were swimming only ten metres off the beach, between the flags and within the buoyed area of a sheltered lagoon), so it wasn’t until A turned around to wave at me and saw me beckoning him in that they began to return.
After a minute or so’s leisurely swim, they got close enough that T decided to swim out to her Dad, so he put his feet on the bottom and stood up, waiting for her to swim into his arms as he asked me what it was that I wanted. But before I got a chance to answer, the lifeguard starting shouting at him from the shore.
“Sir! Bring your kids in to the shore!”
A was surprised and baffled. “Why? What are you worried about?” he asked.
“I’m worried about your kids drowning!” the guy shouted, and there was this sarcastic incredulity to his voice, as if it was the stupidest question he’d ever heard.
A remained calm. “But why would they drown?”
“Professional swimmers have drowned here!” he said. “Are you telling me your kids are professional swimmers?”
Three of us piped up at once. A said, “No, but what’s the danger just here?” at the same time as P said, “Yes, I’m professional!” and I said, “But we’re not swimming. We’re standing with our feet on the bottom.” Our shoulders were above the line of the water.
The guy insisted. “Bring your kids in!” So we went in a metre or so until the water was around our waist, and he relaxed.
P wanted to know why we’d been called in. “As far as I can tell,” A explained, “it’s because they’re ridiculously over-protective.”
“Why don’t you tell them they’re being ridiculous?” suggested P.
“It’s not worth it,” I said. “We’ll just find another beach further along to swim at, like the one we were swimming at last time, where we all paddled clean across the lagoon without anyone batting an eyelid.” It was making me tense just wondering what we’d get whistled at for next. Wetting our hair? Building an overly tall sandcastle?
So I left the water and told my mother-in-law the situation (she laughed incredulously: “You’re kidding?” she said) and we packed our stuff and moved on. But something niggled. A couple of things, really. Here they are:
1. Say there was some hidden danger. After all, apparently professional swimmers – plural; at least two – had drowned there. Why would you stick flags and buoys up and invite families to jump in, without so much as warning them of the hidden danger through the use of signs, or (indeed) the answering of direct questions? (I assume the lifeguards would have to know specifically what dangers lurked, otherwise what business do they have being lifeguards?)
It’s not that I expect the whole world to be signposted for my safety, but a cordoned-off lagoon with a big flag saying “swim here” gives a pretty false sense of security if it’s not, in fact, safe for swimming.
2. Here’s the big one. Because of over-the-top helicoptering on the part of the lifeguards, we were discouraged from swimming at a patrolled, sheltered beach, which presented no apparent dangers. You know what’s more dangerous than letting your kids swim within arms reach in calm, shoulder-high water between the flags on a patrolled beach devoid of apparent dangers? People who discourage folks from swimming between the flags at patrolled beaches.
Now in some ways this may be a cultural misunderstanding. There’s a stereotype about Australians and water and I’m pleased to say it’s often true. Right now, on an Australian parenting board somewhere on the internet, some mother is grieving over the fact that her unplanned caesarian has messed with her planned newborn swimming class. We like to get them straight in the water.
By the time they’re a year old, many Australian kids can swim at least a few strokes, from the hands of their instructor to the waiting arms of their parent. T could swim a lap of the pool before she was two and a half, and these days she can dog-paddle almost indefinitely, through the simple trick of rolling herself over to float on her back if she ever needs a rest. At three, she can dive half a metre from the surface of the water to retrieve an object and a full metre if she gets to dive from the edge of the pool.
P, at five, can swim much further without resting, and will do it using strokes you’d recognise as freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly and backstroke. He easily dives two metres to retrieve an object, which is as deep as any pool we’ve encountered goes. He knows how to tread water, float on his back, signal distress, and perform basic rescue procedures using flotation devices.
Sure, his body-surfing is rudimentary compared to his surf-happy Australian peers and he tends to stick to the kinds of waves a pro wouldn’t drag themselves out of bed with a hangover for. Yes, he still has a bit of trouble rolling me onto my back when I’m pretending to drown in the don’t-tell-him-it’s-not-a-game of Water Rescue. You don’t have to remind me he can’t quite swim my sinking body to the edge of the pool as I feign unconsciousness in the water without submerging my mouth and nose once or twice – but he’s coming along in leaps and bounds, as is my gag reflex.
It’s important to understand that none of this is considered especially precocious where I come from. When A took the two of them to the local pool in Brisbane over Christmas, T’s skills weren’t given a second glance, and P was considered a bit lily-livered by peers as he hesitated atop the bigger waterslides, lacking confidence for the plunge at the bottom. At his friend’s house, he was a little put out to discover they knew all his swimming tricks and more.
In Singapore, you see, he out-swims his friends by a mile. We often get comments. T, in particular, frequently alarms people by diving into the big pool on her tubby toddler legs. One Hokkien Aunty spent a good five minutes arguing with her to stay in the wading pool and for heaven’s sake, put on a floaty! (floaties are seriously out of fashion in Australian swimming classes) until I persuaded her to watch a demonstration of T’s abilities. Once I was stopped by a neighbour I’d never met before, who wanted to know if I was the mother of “that little girl who swims”.
So it’s possible the lifeguard was making incorrect assumptions about our children’s abilities, based on differences in sporting focus back in the old country vs here. And it’s possible there was some hidden danger he didn’t want to describe to us calmly and patiently, for some reason, instead preferring to shout at us sarcastically – something completely un-signposted on the many beach signs, which would cause professional adult swimmers to drown, but wouldn’t stop anyone from putting up a big red and yellow flag marking the area for safe swimming.
The result I keep coming back to is this: today someone discouraged us from swimming between the flags at a patrolled beach, and that ain’t right.
I’m going a teensy bit further with this. We hear a lot these days about helicopter vs free range parenting. The public debate about how much supervision our kids require rages back and forth, bubbling up over isolated incidents and various developmental studies. In addition to this, we all wage our own, private wars – when will we let her walk to school alone? How old should he be to go unchaperoned to a male public toilet? Our kids are no better. If P wrote a blog, every second post would be a rant about how I won’t allow him his freedom, with the ones in between complaining I don’t mother-hen him enough. Although actually, it’s possible there’d be a large volume of video logs wherein he performs segments of Dumb Ways To Die.
I would guess that a lot of travelling parents err towards the free range side of the spectrum, and perhaps you’d say we’re the same. But we’re not, as some free-range opponents would have it, unaware or dismissive of danger – on the contrary, sometimes we spend whole weeks researching safety, preparedness, and emergency response. What we don’t do is just stay home.
We believe in responding to danger with discussion and, wherever possible, supervised practice, rather than sarcastic shouting and apparently-meaningless demands to cease and desist. We believe it helps our kids understand risks and assess them wisely, instead of quietly nipping off to do as they please. After all, why would they respond any differently from us?
Stay tuned for the next post, in which I describe how Grandma, Grandad and Nanny responded to my hair-brained scheme to travel by minivan on a wild goose chase along icy, mountain roads and through falling snow by using discussion and close supervision.