Commentary: Swimming deaths – how to build children’s independence without compromising safety?

Commentary: Swimming deaths – how to build children’s independence without compromising safety?

Parents are faced with the daily tension between letting go so that the child grows in independence, and knowing when a situation poses grave enough dangers to require line-of-sight supervision, says June Yong.

Child playing with water at swimming pool
(Photo: Unsplash/Frank Mckenna)

SINGAPORE: The recent news about the girl who died from a near-drowning incident was saddening to read, and my heart goes out to the child's family.

Who would have thought that a staycation could turn into a tragedy?

The incident made me ponder the what-ifs. What if her granduncle had known she could not swim and needed constant adult supervision in the pool? What if her grandmother had been kept informed that the children had gone into the adult pool and had stayed vigilant over her when she was left alone?

deep water swimming pool
(Photo: Unsplash/Jay Wennington)

It also made me wish that there could be a tag imprinted on our children somehow such that when they are passed to an alternate carer, all the risk factors would be laid out plainly. Especially ones that are life-threatening, such as serious allergies or congenital heart diseases.

When children are passed to alternate caregivers, it comes with the trust that they would do everything in our ability to ensure no harm comes to them. But this incident highlights the danger of the lack of crucial information about the child, specifically her ability to swim.


Thinking about it sends shivers down my spine as my children occasionally play with their neighbours at the pool downstairs. 

All of them are able swimmers and I give strict instructions for them not to enter the adult pool without me present. They are, however, allowed to play in the baby or whirlpool. I often remind my eldest child that she is to ensure no one goes into the deep pool without my permission, and to keep an eye out for her younger siblings.

Just a year ago, the situation would have been different. At the time, my youngest was not yet an independent swimmer. For peace of mind, we didn’t leave the children unattended while swimming and he had to wear a float around his chest and arms.  

We started swimming lessons relatively early as the sport is something we enjoy as a family. Plus we thought it was beneficial to have water safety skills.

With the ubiquity of swimming schools and private coaches, it seemed like a reasonable price to pay for peace of mind.

child swimming float
(Photo: Unsplash/Leo Rivas)

Still, the thought that something unexpected could happen reminds me to stay vigilant. Whenever we have swim dates, a trusted adult is always close by.

As parents, we are faced with the daily tension between letting go so that the child grows in independence, and knowing when a situation poses grave enough dangers to require line-of-sight supervision.

How do we assess novel situations accurately?


Like many of us who grew up in the 1980s, I enjoyed quite a large degree of freedom.

I took public transport to and from school at Primary 3. I was allowed to cross the carpark on my own to a friend’s house at a neighbouring block. 

I was never left home alone however as there was always a kind neighbour who could keep an eye on me.

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I did a quick poll among friends and found that while there isn’t any right age to leave a child at home unattended, most would consider the maturity and readiness of the child, as well as establish some dos and don’ts.

For example, some would leave their child to head downstairs to grab a takeaway, but not without ensuring the child knows how to call them for help, or what to do in the event of a fire or a fall. If there are no window or balcony grills, they would also ensure that these are locked.

Their children were between six to 10 years when they first experienced being home alone. 

There are some guidelines available online: One website recommends that only children above 10 should be left home alone, but acknowledges that every child is different.

Children play physical education PE class
(Photo: Unsplash/MI PHAM)

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I’ve personally left my children home alone, but only when my eldest daughter (aged 10) is home, and not for prolonged periods. If I’m away for more than an hour, I check in on the home camera or call back. I also try to leave them with an activity or a game so that they are engaged.

What seems risky to one may be considered low-risk to another. It is important to realise that every parent and child has their own experiences, weaknesses and strengths.

For some parents, a swim party where there is an overwhelming ratio of children to adults raises red flags. They’d try to be present throughout or simply decline the invitation.  

For others, an overseas trip with the school can be anxiety-inducing, and they’d opt out of it in a heartbeat.

Then there is also the question of whom we entrust our kids to, and the communication of essential information about them.

It is handy to have a clear agreement between you and your spouse on how to handle certain situations, preferably before they arise.

At the same time, we should avoid being overly anxious about everything.

We all know that over-protecting our children can inhibit the growth of their independence and survival skills. But how do we let go of the reins in such a way that doesn’t expose our children to unnecessary risks?


Growing up and letting go is a gradual process. It requires careful consideration of the child, the carers who would be present, the risks involved, and preparation for unexpected circumstances.

Does your child take instructions well? Do they abide by the rules? Do the carers know how to provide proper care for your child?

Pedestrians with umbrellas in the rain, Singapore - file photo
A woman carrying a child crosses the road during heavy rain in Singapore. (File photo: Jeremy Long)

These are questions that parents have to assess before leaving children in the hands of others.

While picking my child up from school, I’ve seen young children running across the road (albeit at the traffic light) with their carer in hot pursuit.

People often say that the environment that our children are growing up in today is very different from 30 years ago. But perhaps one of the biggest dangers that we don’t address often enough is digital distraction.   

How many of us have snuck a look at our mobile devices while at the pool with our kids or driving on the road?

In recent years, there has been a growing number of near-drowning cases involving children. During the five-year period between January 2011 to December 2015, KKH saw a total of 104 cases of paediatric near-drowning incidents, out of which 10 resulted in deaths. Victims’ ages ranged from infants less than a year old to children as old as 15. 

What is more alarming is that more than half of the 104 cases occurred in condominium pools, with pool party fatalities accounting for half of the total number of deaths.

As primary caregivers, we cannot leave things to chance – especially when our children are young and unable to fend for themselves.  

By all means, fan the flames of their autonomy, but do so age-appropriately. In the meantime, let’s remain on the alert, and remind our spouses and alternate caregivers to do the same.

June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)