How to keep kids safe around water without instilling fear

By Ann Douglas
My happiest childhood memories are of times spent at the family cottage, floating on an inner tube, lounging in a lakeside hammock, and learning how to paddle a canoe. I grew up loving water and feeling safe and confident around water. That’s because my parents did a great job of balancing out two important messages. They taught me that being around water can be incredibly fun, but that you have to be alert to the dangers at the same time.
Swimming resources available from the Canadian Red CrossWhen I became a parent, I tried to take that same balanced approach to water safety with my own four kids, teaching them how to stay safe without making them feel afraid. Here’s what I learned along the way.
Do your homework. The first step to keeping your child safe around water is to learn about the dangers yourself. Then, once you’ve armed yourself with the facts, you’ll be ready to help him to start learning how to make safe decisions around water. You’ll want to present this information in an age-appropriate way and to reinforce the key messages on a regular basis, to ensure that the information sticks. You’ll also want to take the time to explain the rationale behind important water safety rules—like the fact that children always need to be supervised by an adult when they’re around water, even if they know how to swim. After all, a child who understands a rule will be more motivated to follow that rule.
Resist the temptation to resort to scare tactics. You want to keep your child safe, not to make him petrified of water. And for a child who is naturally anxious, the line between aware and anxious can be fine indeed. Of course, if you tend to feel anxious and afraid around water, you will want to spend some time coming to terms with your own fears so that you can help your child to feel confident in his own ability to make safe decisions.  
Model the behaviors you wish to see. Children pay at least as much attention to what we do as what we say, so if, for example, you want your child to wear a life jacket each and every time he steps foot in a boat, you’ll need to be prepared to sport that life jacket yourself, too.
Remind yourself that preparation doesn’t eliminate the need for adequate adult supervision. Teaching children about water safety and signing them up for swimming lessons isn’t enough to keep them safe. You have to provide adequate supervision, too. That means being at your child’s side (no more than an arm’s length away) and being completely tuned into his activity (as opposed to being distracted by your phone, for example) whenever your child is around water. This is the most important thing you can do to keep your child safe around water. Research shows that inadequate adult supervision is a factor in 75 per cent of deaths by drowning for children under the age of 10.
So there you have it: my best advice on keeping kids safe (but not making them afraid) around water. Have a great summer, everyone!

For more information on drowning research, visit
Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about parenting including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She is @anndouglas on Twitter.

See your impact in action.

Sign up to receive impact updates from the Canadian Red Cross, inspirational stories from the field and be the first to hear about emergency relief efforts.

The Canadian Red Cross takes your privacy seriously. We do not distribute or sell your email address to anyone. View our privacy policy.

Blog Archives