Years ago, I was chatting with a client and we realized that we lived in the same town. Our area is known for its lakes and that is the primary reason that people move out here, so I asked if she lived on the water. "No, of course not. I have small children," was her reply. At the time, we didn't have any children yet but it certainly was in the plans. We never considered moving away from the water because of the children. In fact, we bought the place because we thought it would be a wonderful place to raise children.
That said, living near any water, whether it is a lake, river, pond, creek or swimming pool, means that you need to take water safety into consideration. I'm a former lifeguard, so I do have subject matter expertise as it relates to water safety. But, I don't think it is rocket science. Water safety is mostly common sense.
On one side of our home, there is a road with cars and trucks that frequently drive too fast. On the other side of our home is a lake that is 30 feet deep at the end of our dock. Most people have to deal with the road hazard when raising children. For me, dealing with the lake is much the same as dealing with the road. It takes a three-pronged approach: Supervision, safety precautions, and teaching.
When you live near water, it is important to supervise your children carefully anytime they could possibly get to the water. I would divide our outdoor space into three parts: The deck, the backyard, and the water side.
- The Deck: We have a large outdoor deck that our kids can play on. It includes toys, tricycles, a pick-nick table, and a play house. There is space for them to move, have fun, and be outdoors. There is also a gate with a latch that can be locked. Once our kids were toddlers, I felt comfortable with them playing on the deck on their own if it was locked, because I knew that they couldn't escape and get out to the road or the lake.
- The Backyard: We have a backyard with a playground for the kids and space to run around. When the kids were toddlers and preschoolers, they were always supervised when they were playing in that space. We didn't always have them at arm's length, but they were always within our view and running distance, so that if they went towards the road or headed towards the lake, that we could get there first. Now that they are five and almost eight, they are allowed to play in the backyard on their own, because they know not to go on the road or to the lake (and they also know how to swim). They've earned that trust over time by showing that they understand the rules and can act responsibly. When we have birthday parties or when the kids have friends over, the supervision levels get ramped up again and we always have someone watching carefully to ensure no one goes down to the lake.
- The Water Side: On the other side of our house is the lake. We have to go down the equivalent of three flights of stairs to get to the lake, but once we get down there it is deep -- 30 feet deep at the end of our dock. The kids are not allowed to go down there without an adult with them and it is up to the adult to supervise adequately to ensure that they don't go down. It is incredibly important whenever children are near water to ensure that there is a sober, responsible adult watching them.
The second element of our approach is safety, which includes locks and life jackets.
- Locks, Latches and Alarms: As adults, it is our responsibility to ensure that kids can't slip out of the house and head towards the water (just as it is our responsibility to ensure they don't slip out of the house and walk into the street). This means using latches and locks that your children cannot open to ensure that they cannot slip away. We had those childproof handles on the door of our house and a stiff latch that they couldn't reach or open on the screen door that led to the deck. We also had, as I mentioned earlier, a lockable latch on the deck so that the children could have a safe outdoor play space where we didn't have to hover at all times. We also have an alarm system on our house and we activate the alarm at night. That, combined with co-sleeping, is a pretty good way to ensure no child slips out of the house at night.
- Life Jackets: When we are in, on or near the water, all non-swimmers and weak swimmers (babies, toddlers, children, and even some adults) have to wear life jackets. By life jacket, I don't mean water wings or other floaties. I mean a certified, approved life jacket or personal flotation device that fits and is designed for that person (see Transport Canada's recommendations for children). Strong swimmers do not have to wear a life jacket, but they do still have to be supervised at all times. One of our kids no longer has to wear a life jacket in the water, but we are always close by in case he gets into trouble. There is also a beach nearby that has shallow water the kids can wade into. In that space, as non-swimmers, they always had to be either at arm's length or had to wear their life jacket.
The third element of our approach is teaching. Obviously, as children get older, their understanding of safety and their capacity to self regulate increases. However, it doesn't always make intuitive sense, so it is important to keep on teaching and repeating yourself over and over.
- Boundaries: We teach our children boundaries. They know that they can play in the backyard, but that they cannot go down to the lake or out on the road. They know that because we've told them over and over again that they are not allowed and we've told them why they are not allowed. They understand that they could die. They respect that.
- Water safety: We teach our children about water safety. They know that they have to wear a life jacket and know why they have to wear it. They know that they cannot go swimming alone. They know that you have to watch out and not jump on top of other people when you are jumping into the lake. They don't always remember and often need to be reminded, but that is why we supervise them (see part 1!). We repeat ourselves over and over again.
- Swimming lessons: We ensure that our kids learn to swim. They have taken some swimming lessons and I've taught them a bit at home too. Being next to a lake and having the opportunity for daily practice really helps a lot more than a 30 minute per week swimming lesson. But I do think that all children should learn how to swim. Although we still supervise our children carefully around water, our stress level has gone down quite a bit now that they know how to swim. We no longer have to worry that if they slip off the dock, that they could drown in a matter of seconds. We have a bit of breathing room and space because of their abilities in the water.
That has been our approach to water safety. I think we've gained so much by having access to the water and I love raising a family there. But it does require a level of supervision and attentiveness that a fenced in suburban pool-less backyard may not.
How do you ensure your kids are safe around water?