Your Fear Could Kill Your Own Child

Michael H. Cottman | 6/19/2010, 11:32 a.m.

Let's make sure black children learn to swim. It could save their lives.

With summer fast approaching, here's something to think about: Black kids, ages five to 14, drowned at 3.1 times the rate of whites in that age range from 2000 to 2006, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And in that period, African-American kids were five times as likely as white kids to drown in swimming pools.

Simply put: Sixty percent of America's black children can't swim, and it's a deadly problem. It's a shame that so many black children are drowning needlessly when they can easily learn to swim - and often times for free.

And there's more: Among all racial groups, African-Americans reported the most limited swimming ability. A new report by USA Swimming shows that 70 percent of African-American children and 58 percent of Hispanic children have little or no swimming skills, compared with 40 percent of white children.

So why is there such a disproportionate racial gap in drowning deaths among black children? According to the study, "parental fear" is a major contributor to a child's swimming ability.

Black parents are so afraid of the water that they pass their fears along to their children. It's an alarming emotional cycle, and black parents of all socio-economic backgrounds must be more responsible. Sadly, drowning deaths seem to happen more to children from disadvantaged families.

"While the study revealed children from lower-income families were more inclined to agree that 'family budget doesn't include money for me to take swim lessons,' focus group research found that many parents wouldn't let kids swim even if lessons were free, a theme that was tested four times in different focus groups," according to the study. "Overall, fear trumped financial concerns across all respondent race groups in low-income families."

Many African-American parents, who are traumatized by the water themselves, are unintentionally jeopardizing the safety of their children. The government, social service agencies and community organizations can only do so much.

At some point, black parents have to accept some of the responsibility, sign their kids up for swimming lessons, and make sure they get to a pool. With all the free resources available today, there's really no excuse. Just do it.

"According to a mother who participated in a Denver focus group, 'You're already uncomfortable and scared. You're like, 'I'm paying them so I can have heart palpitations on the sidelines. It's not worth it. It really isn't. Why should I have to pay money to be afraid?' " the study said.

USA Today reported that Wanda Butts of Toledo, Ohio never taught her 16-year-old son, Josh, to swim. He drowned last year in a lake while playing on a raft with friends. Butts told the newspaper that her father once witnessed a drowning and passed on a fear of swimming to her - and she continued the pattern of fear and never took Josh for swimming lessons.

Unfortunately, too many black mothers are sharing similar stories.

I was fortunate. My mother taught me to swim at a YWCA in Detroit when I was about 10 years old. Since then, I've become an avid scuba diver, joined the National Association of Black Scuba Divers 20 years ago, and I've explored the world's oceans with other African-American divers.

NABS and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration have also partnered to host an annual NABS Youth Education Summit in Florida, where black youngsters gather to swim, snorkel, scuba dive and learn about marine biology, marine archaeology and marine conservation.

Not all children have parents who can swim, but what's sad is that many black parents have the resources to offer swimming lessons for their children but refuse to do it. How many black children have to drown each year for black parents to get with the program?

This summer, let's hope more public pools across the country are packed with black kids - who are all learning to swim.