I wasn’t surprised to hear the sad news of several U.S. children drowning in lakes over the Fourth of July holiday weekend – but I was relieved to hear that, as of this writing, none of them were from my neck of the woods.
I’ve lived almost my whole life in Michigan, and much of that time near one of the Great Lakes, where drownings are a regular summer occurrence. Our county, in fact, reported the highest number of drowning deaths in Michigan – 14 – between 2002 and 2010. And Lake Michigan alone claims the lives of dozens of people each year.
What I’m not sure of is what that means for me as a mom of growing kids in a beach community. I’m a fairly free-range parent, and have no qualms about sending my boys to the park adjacent to our house or letting them walk to school without an adult present. But I’ve yet to allow any of my sons, including my 11-and 13-year-olds, to head down to the beach without me…and frankly, I can’t imagine an age when I will be comfortable with it. Which makes me wonder if I’m being illogical or helicopter parent-y.
I can hear what you’re thinking: “Of course you wouldn’t let your kids go to the lake alone! What kind of parent would do that?” Only…we live in a beach town, where the waterfront makes up the local youth’s summer social life to a large degree. And while we do plenty of beach trips as a family, they tend to require more planning and time than I am always able to give. At some point – whether it’s with my permission at fourteen, sneaking out at fifteen, or on their own terms at eighteen – my boys are going to head down to the water without me. Will they necessarily be safer at 18 than they would have at 12 or 13?
Apparently not. According to the CDC, while children ages 1 – 4 are more likely to die from drowning (bathtubs and pools included) than any other unintentional injury, the risk drops off dramatically between the ages of 5 and 14. It spikes up again between the ages of 15 and 24, particularly for males: in 2007, 187 boys ages 5 – 14 drowned. The number of young men 15 – 24 who met the same fate? 555. Of all drownings that year, 43% happened in a natural water setting like a lake or river (52% if you include boating accidents.)
The data leaves out some important information, of course. Are kids in the 5 – 14 year-old group more likely to drown in an inland lake, river, large lake, ocean? In how many cases was a lifeguard present? How much do swimming skills matter? And most importantly, were Mom or Dad right there and unable to save the child, or had they let their child go swimming alone and faced the worst possible outcome?
One thing is certain: in every age group, drowning deaths are outweighed by unintentional deaths from other causes, like accidental shootings, poisonings, and of course, traffic accidents. For instance, 14 drowning deaths in my county over an 8-year period is tragic, but there were also 15 car crash fatalities just last year. Going by that logic, it would be more dangerous for me to put my kids in the car and drive them to the grocery store – something I do regularly, without giving it much thought – than it would be to allow them to play alone at the beach.
But parenting isn’t always about logic and numbers. I fully admit that a lot of my parenting decisions come from my own hangups and history, and sometimes what feels like trusting my gut and using good sense is sometimes just my own baggage talking. I’ve lived around the Great Lakes long enough to see them in all their moods – the beautiful blue calm of a summer afternoon as well as the turbulent gray violence of a windy day in November. I love the lake, but I fear it, too, and statistics don’t stand much of a chance in my head against its powerful currents. On the other hand, I don’t have much active fear of, say, farm equipment. I might feel differently if I’d grown up in the country.
Like with everything else in parenting, I’m trying to handle this issue with as much common sense as I can muster, while also trying to keep my kids as safe as I can. That said, I still haven’t come to any hard-and-fast conclusions about when I might let my big boys go to the lake away from my watchful eyes.
All I know is, when my 13-year-old asked me the other day if he could go down to the beach with a friend, I said “Ask me again next month.”
I just hope he forgets by then.
How do you handle the water safety issue with your big kids, especially if you live in a beach town?
Catch up on Babble’s vacation guide for Beach and Pool Safety!