During a recent chat about swimming lessons, eight-year-old Sam was very excited to tell me he was such a good swimmer that he could dive down to the bottom of the pool and scrape his tummy along the floor. Not being a terrific fan of exercise, it is rare you will find me running or cycling up any steep hills when I can just as easily walk. Swimming however, I love, and when I think back I realise it is because water was a massive part of my childhood.
Sam’s exclamation took me back to the Jersey parish primary school I attended, which had a small raised pool in the back yard. On hot summer afternoons topic work would be abandoned in favour of swimming cozzies and water play. Down the road from where I lived there was a hotel with an outdoor pool and very accommodating management. After school a gaggle of us would turn up at the front desk and without the slightest hint of concern for health and safety or personal liability, the receptionist would let us through, chucking a couple of floats into the water as we bombed in.
I grew up on the north coast of the island, at the top of a steep winding hill that led down to a pebbly cove with cold clear water. In the summer holidays my brother and I would walk down to the beach every day to swim. In the evenings at high tide we would pull on our wetsuits and jump off the pier. When I was old enough to catch the bus alone I would meet up with my friends at a beach on the north-west tip of the island. Here we would climb over rocks and swim though gullies until we reached an enormous rock pool big enough to dive into. The pulsing tide created a waterslide on the rocks and we would take turns to glide on our backs down into and under the water.
Now, as a parent when I consider the prospect of our son doing all of these things, the feeling is one of vicarious excitement mixed with sheer horror. The rational part of my psyche knows I survived. I was given the opportunity to learn how to assess and manage risk and have some fantastic memories to boot. The neurotic parent in me, however, shrieks at the prospect of witnessing my beautiful little boy jumping from high into deep churning seawater.
While swimming this evening I took a deep breath, dove down and scraped my belly across the bottom of the pool. A tiny inkling of that feeling of freedom and fun from my childhood came back to me. It reminded me of the importance of giving children opportunities to take risks. Without such experiences they will have no idea about their own personal limitations and will find themselves unable to assess risk, identify danger and exercise self-control. As well as limiting children’s capacity to achieve and experience great things, this also has the potential to land them in serious hot water (excuse the pun).
I think this is something I will have to continuously remind myself of as I guide my son through his formative years. In a few weeks we will be back in Jersey and hopefully I will have the guts to step back and allow him to start forming a few risky memories of his own.