To Swim, or Not to Swim?

To Swim, or Not to Swim?

In late May, just before the start of summer break, an energetic group of friends were playing in a park near their grade school in a suburb southwest of Chicago. One by one, the kids climbed along the edge of a footbridge and jumped into the pond below. There was laughter and splashing until one of the children, an 11-year-old African American girl, struggled after a jump. Before her friends could help her, she sank below the surface and drowned. Forty-five minutes later, divers pulled the girl’s body from the pond. The fifth-grade honors student didn’t know how to swim.

Sadly, tragedies like the one above become almost commonplace during the summer months, as more young people seek relief from warm temperatures at swimming pools or beaches. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) May 18 “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” the drowning death rate for African Americans is nine percent higher than that of the overall population and 116 percent higher than the overall population among those aged 5–14 years. Why is this?

Water safety experts agree that several factors can contribute to drownings in any demographic, including lack of supervision, failure to wear life jackets, absence of pool barriers, etc. However, the main reason that continues to emerge with regard to African Americans is the lack of swimming ability. And, since the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2010 Technical Report on the Prevention of Drowning revealed the majority of drowning incidents resulting in the death of an African American child were more likely to happen in a public pool, often at a motel or hotel, parents should be particularly mindful of possible risks associated with water-related activities during upcoming summer trips. While it’s important to discuss what can be done to change these disturbing statistics, let’s first examine why many African Americans haven’t learned how to swim.

Why Don’t More African Americans Know How to Swim?

Agnes Davis, owner of Swim Swim Swim I Say, a swim company located in New York’s Harlem/Upper Manhattan area, believes some African Americans haven’t learned how to swim because “there’s a generational influence.” In other words, if a person’s parents or grandparents never learned how to swim, they are less likely to learn, asserted Davis, who gives lessons to children and adults. Lee Pitts, the Senior Aquatics Director for the Boys and Girls Club of Broward County in Florida, agrees. He said, “There is no generational consistency in terms of people handing down (swimming) skills from generation to generation.” For instance, while African-American parents often pass down their love of football, basketball and track and field, this doesn’t tend to happen with swimming. Harriett Navarre of the USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make A Splash” program confirmed these assertions. “Make A Splash” is an initiative that aims at providing water safety education and swim lessons to families at an affordable price. Navarre revealed, “According to the research studies the USA Swimming Foundation conducted via the University of Memphis in 2008 and 2010, the primary deterrent to learning to swim is family history. If a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim.”

Kathy Jordan of the Nile Swim Club—an African American-owned swim club in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, that’s been in existence for more than 50 years—believes “a fear of water” is another factor. Davis concurred and said, “There may have been a past drowning” that dissuaded a person from having the desire or confidence to learn how to swim. In many cases, however, no specific incident led to a person and, consequently, their family having a fear of being near or in a large body of water. The fear simply may have been passed down from generation to generation because of an upsetting story that continues to live on.

Another reason swimming isn’t as commonplace in the African American community is that many men and women have typically perceived it as one form of recreation they could either take or leave. Davis said, “There has to be a change of mindset. We don’t think it’s important. We look at swimming as a luxury; it’s not. It’s a life-saving tool.” Jordan continued, “(The importance of learning how to swim) needs to be more in the forefront of people’s minds. They don’t tend to think of it until it gets warm. It should be thought about in the fall and winter months, too. It needs to be on everyone’s mind year-round.”

SURVIVAL THRILLS: Experts say parents should make swimming lessons for their children as important as activities like ballet, piano, and Little League.

The historical lack of access to beaches and pools has long been cited as a reason why many African American children and adults don’t know how to swim. “If you don’t have access to them,” said Pitts, “you’re gonna fall behind.” While segregation doesn’t tend to keep the average African American person from swimming today as was the case in the past, access to pools can still be difficult for some. Pitts said when officials in urban areas—which don’t have “country clubs or upscale recreational centers”—are allocating resources and the resources are scarce, “swimming pools are low on their lists” because they’re expensive to maintain. This is why municipal park facilities with pools and independent, neighborhood swim schools are so valuable to their communities.

An additional factor that should not be overlooked was mentioned by both Pitts and Davis—hair upkeep. The thought of getting water and chlorine on hair that’s been recently relaxed or otherwise straightened is reason enough for many African American females to avoid pools and beaches.

But maintaining a hairstyle should not be an excuse for avoiding something as important as water safety, said Davis. She is also saddened by the fact that people will purchase “the best new sneakers, cellphone, or jacket, but aren’t willing to spend money on swim lessons.

Pitts expressed a similar frustration. While activities like ballet, piano and Little League are fun, he said, “we need to allocate a set amount of money” for swim lessons. “We should make sure we put just as much emphasis on swimming as we do on reading, writing, arithmetic, and science. … It’s not a luxury. It’s not a sport. It is a necessity.”

Make Learning How To Swim A Priority

Swimming must become a priority within the African American community in order for it to become more commonplace. Navarre said, “We now know that by teaching kids to swim, we are, in effect, increasing the chances that their kids will learn, and their (grandchildren, too).” And, Pitts suggests, “Get ‘em early.” He says it will be harder to get them into swim lessons once they “get up to around 13-14 years old” because, at that time, they might have other sports competing for their attention or be experiencing physical changes that make them more embarrassed about wearing a swimsuit. “Capture (your kids) before all of the other stuff kicks in,” he advised.

Kim Burgess is another big advocate of teaching kids how to swim. The executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), Burgess believes preventing kids from drowning is her “ministry” and “calling from God.” She said, “It is not likely a child will die playing basketball or football or soccer, but if they don’t know how to swim they will surely die if (they have a problem in water and) no one is around to save them.”

Navarre revealed, “Many of the American Red Cross’ Learn-to-Swim providers have partnered with ‘Make a Splash’ to offer Parent and Child Aquatics lessons. This is a way for children to acclimate to the water with their parent. Children can start in these classes as early as six months.” This is around the same age Kay Smiley, Aquatics Program Specialist at the YMCA of USA, said parents can begin enrolling their children in “Y” swim classes. Visit to find a location near you. Jordan revealed, “We get them around two years old and, by three years old, they’re jumping into the 11-foot end.”

Which Type Of Instruction Is Best?

Experts differ in their opinions about whether individualized- or group lessons are better. Jordan said, “If (one) parent is proficient, that’s fine. The one-on-one works really well.” This would also work if a relative is a competent swimmer, as was the case for Davis, who was “first taught by a family member” and doesn’t “have any recollection of not swimming.” One resource for parents desiring to teach their children how to swim is Pitts’ DVD, “Waters: Beginner’s Swim Lessons for Adults and Children with Lee Pitts,” which can be obtained at

Smiley said, “For children aged six to 36 months, the parent or guardian is the first and best choice for teaching a child how to swim.” This is why the YMCA offers Parent/Child Aquatic classes; they offer the best of both worlds—parental involvement plus the guidance of a certified teacher. Smiley said, “The program helps strengthen and support families and offers an opportunity for the parent to spend uninterrupted time and bond with the child.” However, by age three, she said children “usually begin to socialize and are old enough to attend classes without a parent or caregiver.” At this age, according to Smiley, they should be able to follow simple instructions, communicate with adults and other children, cooperate with the instructor and understand what’s expected of them. In most cases, however, parents will probably seek out a certified swim instructor. Navarre advised, “Children must absolutely learn from a certified lessons provider. If you are not a certified provider, enroll your child in lessons.”

When attempting to select a swim class for one’s child, Smiley suggests parents first get recommendations from someone they trust then observe a class. She advised, “Stay through an entire class and watch how the adults interact with the children. Notice how behavior is managed and keep track of how much class time is spent sitting on the edge or waiting for a turn. See if the class is well organized and make sure there is at least one lifeguard on duty and a swim instructor actively watching the class. If you don’t have time to observe a class, ask a supervisor to describe the focus and class activities. Find out how children are placed in the proper class and what will be expected of your child,” said Smiley. Be sure to also “check the instructor’s credentials.” Inquire about staff training and certifications, as well. YMCA of the USA recommends instructors have current “Y” Swim Lesson Instructor, CPR Pro, First Aid, and Emergency Oxygen certifications. Experts also warn parents to make sure the ratio of students to teacher is appropriate. Navarre explained, “If the child is in a group lesson setting, we recommend that there be no more than six children for each instructor.”

When contemplating whether you’ll be able to afford lessons, remember that “Make a Splash” partners with more than 500 Learn-to-Swim providers across the nation who commit to providing a percentage of their lessons for free or at a discounted rate and/or providing their communities with free water safety education. Your YMCA, local swim schools, and neighborhood recreational centers also may offer scholarships.

Establish Rules Before You Need Them

In addition to learning how to swim, experts agree parents and children must also have water safety rules in place. That means, they need to know how to keep themselves safe whenever they are in or near a pool or a natural body of water, such as an ocean, lake, river, pond or stream. A common tip for parents is that they must be present when children are in water. Navarre said, “Children need to know that they cannot get into a pool or body of water without asking permission.” Once they have that permission, they must be supervised. Smiley said, “Parents’ constant active supervision is key to a safe outing around the pool and/or water.” This includes keeping children “within arms reach at all times” and never leaving them alone for any reason. Parents also shouldn’t assume another adult is watching their child. This can be accomplished by always having a designated “Water Watcher” who isn’t texting, reading or drinking alcohol. Share these tips with babysitters, nannies, grandparents, and anyone else who watches your children.

Dr. Julie Gilchrist of Centers For Disease Control (CDC) warned that “inappropriate supervision” can lead to drowning before you realize what happened. She said, “Parents don’t realize drowning can happen very quickly and very quietly.” She revealed, “A child could’ve already experienced irreversible brain damage” in the time it takes for an emergency response team, such as 911 paramedics, to arrive. The CDC’s report on unintentional drownings revealed nonfatal drowning injuries may result in long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and loss of basic functioning.

Navarre said children and adults also need to get into the habit of making sure a lifeguard is on duty. Smiley added, “When arriving at the beach, the water park or pool, find a location near a lifeguard.” Jordan agreed and said, “Obey the lifeguard. They have the ability to see what’s going on (in the water).” Since municipal beaches and community pools are officially open for the summer, spotting a lifeguard at those places should be easy. However, finding one in the hotel or motel during your family vacation may be difficult. Kathleen Reilly, the Pool & Spa Campaign Leader at the Consumer Products Safety Commission, said lot of hotels and motels have pools, but “you swim at your own risk.” She said, “They won’t often have the budgets to have lifeguards present. So, parents have to be vigilant.”

Another rule parents should have is that everyone in the family must learn basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) techniques. The CDC’s report indicates that, the more quickly CPR is started—as in the case of a bystander attempting to help a drowning victim—the better their chance of survival. The American Red Cross offers CPR classes in different locations around the country. Visit the Red Cross to find a class near you.

SPLASH CONTROL: Parents shouldn’t assume another adult is watching their child, say safety experts. Always have a designated “Water Watcher” who isn’t texting, reading or drinking alcohol.

While these tips are great for moms and dads with children of all ages, they will likely end up providing the most amount of reassurance to parents of grammar school- or middle school children who are old enough to have play dates or sleepovers with friends. Gilchrist said, “When kids are five to 14 years old, they “spend more time at their friends’ houses,” so it’s harder to monitor their activities. It’s even more difficult for parents of teens to monitor them, so additional rules may be required. For example, even though teens aren’t legally permitted to consume alcohol, drinking is often associated with drowning incidents involving them. According to the United States Lifesaving Association website, alcohol can impair swimming ability and judgment, which may cause them to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take.

So, if your child hasn’t yet learned how to swim, make sure they learn how this summer. Learning how to swim could save his—or someone else’s life—and may have additional practical applications. Smiley said, “After learning all the strokes and safety skills, people can move on to learning how to play water polo, synchronized swimming, skin diving and snorkeling and competitive swimming.” Pitts stated that equipping a young person with the ability to swim could also lay a foundation for them to have a career that’s hinged upon a person’s ability to swim well, including marine biology or underwater photography. He also commented that learning how to swim would open up additional doors to someone who goes into one of the armed forces.

If your child’s school doesn’t have an aquatics program, consider contacting the principal to see if you could help create one. Navarre said, “There are many school districts that are partnering with swim lesson providers and blocking off a few hours a week to take students to swim lessons during the school day. If every school district could implement a program similar to this, then every child would receive the opportunity to learn the life skill of swimming.”

Perhaps your church would also allow you to create a swim club. Jordan said churches “block out time” at her swim school and divide their reservation into both recreational- and instructional time. Another option, according to Davis, is to rent pool time at a local college and hire a swim school to bring in instructors to give church members lessons. Churches could even invite their pastors to get involved in promoting the importance of learning how to swim, said Gilchrist. In the event church members can’t afford swim lessons, Navarre—who recommended churches consider providing transportation for members to get to and from swim lessons—said they could hold fundraisers to raise money for scholarships to make lessons more affordable.

And, if you’ve never learned how to swim, consider taking lessons. Navarre said, “If the parent does not know how to swim they should join their child in lessons. There is no way they will be able to help a child in danger if they, themselves, do not know how to swim.” Smiley added, “Parents, children and even grandparents” can take lessons. “It’s never too late,” she said.

Wade (Safely) in the Water

Check out these websites for more information on water safety and diversity in swimming.

• Diversity in Aquatics Drowning prevention/Diversity in swimming.

• International Water Safety Day  Water safety/Drowning prevention.

• Swim For Life  Drowning prevention.

•  USA Swimming Drowning prevention/Diversity/“Make A Splash” tour with Cullen Jones.


Beyond ‘Birds and Bees’

When it comes to sexual issues, our teens are depending on us for more than just the standard “how-to / don’t-do” talk. Parents, churches, and youth leaders must go deeper — emotionally and spiritually. PART 3 IN A SPECIAL SERIES.

Beyond 'Birds and Bees' for urban faithEarlier this year, in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we looked at urban teenagers’ attitudes about sex, and their behaviors and practices that reflect those attitudes. Part 2 ended with a question about how parents and churches can fill the gap in teens’ knowledge about sexual health issues and thereby prompt a change in their behavior. We now tackle that tricky subject.

There’s good news and bad news about what inner-city teens seem to know about sex. The good news is that parents and church leaders rank very high on their list of people who can influence what they know and think about sexual issues. The bad news is that neither parents nor churches are doing a particularly good job of cashing in on their credibility currency. Here are some principles to consider as we all ponder how to help our teenagers recover lost ground and gain solid footing in areas of sexuality.

Principle 1: Changed Behavior is the Result of a Changed Mind. With so many programs, theories, and strategies jostling for ideological supremacy when it comes to reducing teen pregnancy and making a dent in teens’ sexual risk-taking, people of faith sometimes forget The Source of all wisdom — the Bible. Our source tells us that we experience transformation as a result of a renewed mind. Therefore, it stands to reason that we can expect youth to behave differently when they think differently about love, sex, marriage, intimacy, and relationships. Some would object, “We can’t just beat kids over the head with the Bible.” True in most cases, but that doesn’t mean parents, pastors, youth ministers, and others can’t or shouldn’t explain and demonstrate biblical principles in an authentic, consistent way, showing clear relevance between those principles and their everyday lives. The 2008 Faith-Based Urban Youth Workers Focus Group study (YWS) results support this reality. Youth workers surveyed indicated:

The only reason given for not doing it [having sex] is that the Word says it. The real reason is not talked about. No one explains that God has created you as a sexual being, etc. Sex is about what is in your heart.

So how would this work on the streets with the kids? It means rather than just saying “The Bible says don’t have sex unless you’re married,” maybe we should talk about the fact that they have been created as a unique person with gifts, talents, and abilities and that their sexuality is just one part — albeit an important one — of who they are. Giving teens a context for their urges and passions can help them see a bigger picture that encompasses more than their next hook up.

An important point to keep in mind here is that knowledge is not the same as a changed mind. Simply slogging through facts and figures about STDs and showing a 17-year-old boy how to use a condom does not translate into renewed thinking. When a teenage girl decides she doesn’t want to be alone with her boyfriend in his apartment any more, that’s a mind shift that results from her internalizing the principle that she should manage her relationship to avoid situations that will put undue pressure on her ability to resist a sexual advance. In the faith community, that’s known as not making provision for the flesh (see Romans 13:11-14). On the streets, that’s called handling your business.

Principle 2: Go After the Root, Not Just the Fruit.

“[P]rograms should address and enhance self-esteem. ‘If your self-esteem is non-existent, you’ll do lots of things because you don’t think you’re worth anything. Until you grasp your worth, you get pregnant to fill that gap.”

“In general,…funding for programs should be focused on helping young people with the range of challenges they face. …[C]urrent programs are ‘not getting to the core of the problem.'”

The YWS participants quoted above understand that trite messages don’t cut it with today’s technologically savvy, yet emotionally wounded urban teens. And thoughtful educators are joining parents and other faith-based leaders who know that the best sexual health education is whole-person education. It’s no longer sufficient to only stress teaching teens to focus on risk-reduction techniques. Clearly that has not worked. One of two Black teenage girls having an STD is living proof of that. Risk reduction is giving way to risk avoidance, reflecting a much-needed concern for young people’s emotional and spiritual selves in addition to their physical health. So parents and the church must switch from managing consequences to dealing with root issues. But this approach requires some housecleaning for adults as well.

Many parents themselves are more afraid of their daughter getting pregnant than they are of her devaluing herself and growing up insecure and emotionally damaged. Let’s face it — we’re much more likely to hear, “Don’t come home with no babies” than we are to hear, “Don’t come home heartbroken and with intimacy issues.” Of course, neither outcome is desirable, but why don’t we express as much concern for our teens’ emotional wellbeing as we do for pregnancy and disease?

The church suffers from the same mindset. We ask, “Why are so many girls in youth group getting pregnant?” rather than, “Why are so many of our teenagers driven by lust, and why are they lonely and depressed?” It shouldn’t necessarily be an either/or proposition, but it is a matter of emphasis. The reasons surely are complex, but we must work through them if we realistically hope to bring true transformation to our youth.

Whether we rise to this occasion or not, parents and the church are in fact in the best position to address root issues in a teen’s life. For one thing, a school environment, and to a lesser extent a non-faith-based community program, isn’t necessarily the best social space to discuss some of the conversation that would likely surface in discussions about root issues. It’s much less likely that a teenage girl in an inner-city school is going to open up about her family history that’s contributing to her sexual acting out.

Conversely, the natural rhythms of family life, and the spiritual focus of a church are natural places to discuss emotional responsibility, intimacy, the real-life realities of romantic love, and other related concepts. We just need to take advantage of this dynamic.

Principle 3: Know the Deal and Keep it Real. Uninformed adults trying to talk to teens about sex is a waste of time. The Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MI) suggests that parents educate themselves about the incidence of teen sex and what their kids are learning in their school sex education class. Other experts counsel that parents find out what their teens listen to and watch. There are certainly plenty of websites, books, brochures and other media to help answer these questions. But from personal experience, the best way to tune in to the mind and heart of a teenager is to simply listen and observe. Listen to how young people describe their friendships, the reasons they give for liking certain kinds of music and movies; and observe their emotional responses to the events in their lives. It’s not always easy to get kids to talk, but the more you sincerely listen the more they talk.

But what about those kids whose parents are bogged down working two jobs, or they don’t even know their parents, or they rarely know where their parents are? These are the tough cases, but this principle still applies. Here is where the church and faith-based community groups can help. Organizations and ministries with experience working with the hardest urban youth — groups like Fuller Youth Institute, Urban Youth Workers Institute, the Center for Parent & Youth Understanding, and others — echo the same refrain: young people want to be heard. But they want to interact with adults who know something about their day-to-day experience and who are available to them. But often churches suffer from the same adult absenteeism as do individual families. Another instance where adults need to do some soul-searching.

The old cultural dynamic of taking care of one another needs to be reinstated among us. Our current mentality of doing just enough to take care of our own is leaving too many of us uncared for. We’ve become strangers to sacrifice, and that’s what it’s going to take to reclaim our urban teens. Maybe our son doesn’t need to play four sports and see every first-run movie the moment it hits the screen. Perhaps we could cut down on two activities and use that time to help out with the youth group at our church.

In addition to knowing what’s going on in young people’s lives, parents and church members would do well to be more open to sharing their own personal stories as they relate to sexual decisions and choices. This seems especially difficult for us. Parents don’t want to lose face as they try to direct their teens, and some old-guard congregations believe that “airing dirty laundry” simply promotes unhealthy lifestyles. Even the government understands the fallacy of this thinking. Through its “Parents, Speak Up!” campaign, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services encourages parents to discuss with their children the importance of waiting to have sex:

Maybe you made different choices when you were young and don’t want to seem like a hypocrite. While [this reason is] understandable, you still owe it to your teen to put [it] aside. Healthy choices will better prepare your teen to deal with sex; and you need to help your teen make healthy choices.

We can use these discussions to show empathy for the pressure teens feel, and more importantly, to testify to the redeeming power of Christ. What better way to introduce them to the Christian faith?

Getting urban teens to hear and understand the truths regarding sexual lifestyles and behaviors is so critical, and we can’t afford to continue to lose this battle. It’s not about a culture war; it’s about young women and men who are looking for us to step up and make a difference in their lives.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? This article suggests a few principles that might help, but what has been your experience with this issue? Many UrbanFaith readers are parents, youth leaders, or former teens who have “been there” and have invaluable wisdom to offer. How can parents, churches, and youth ministries make inroads with urban youth on this critical issue?

Share some of your thoughts, experiences, and recommendations in the comments section below, and let us know if it would be okay to contact you for a follow-up interview. We’ll feature a roundup of some of the best stories, ideas, and strategies in a future UrbanFaith article.


Talking to Your Pre-Teen or Teen About Waiting.
Advice for parents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The site also features tips and information for talking to teens about general sexual development and risky behaviors.

• Urban Youth Workers Institute Focus Group Survey, October 2008.
The purpose of these focus groups was twofold: (1) to learn from youth workers about the ethnically diverse teens they serve and to explore teens’ attitudes and beliefs about sex, relationships, teen pregnancy, and parenting; and (2) to hear from youth workers themselves about unplanned pregnancy among their 20-something peers.

• Black Youth Project, June 2007.
This project examines the attitudes, resources, and culture of African American youth ages 15 to 25, exploring how these factors and others influence their decision-making, norms, and behavior in critical domains such as sex, health, and politics.

Also be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series of special articles by Chandra White-Cummings.