Of diving boards and backflips

I was lucky enough to spend some time on vacation last week near a beautiful lake in France.  Crystalline, cool waters, looming mountains all around, and kids everywhere jumping and diving into the water with abandon.

I watched the scene from a floating platform 50 feet out in the lake.  I noticed that the two lifeguards on duty, responsible for more than 100 swimmers, mostly talked to each other.  Parents stayed on the grass, relaxing and chatting.  No one hovered.  And all the while kids from 4 to 14 (and a few who were 44 and 64) bounded off of a high diving board, doing backflip after backflip into the water (often almost landing on one another).  It felt like another era.

Contrast this with the public pools in NY, where I go with my kids, and the constant cacophony of lifeguard whistles, nearly nonstop, telling each and every kid all the rules they are breaking.  No diving, no rollicking, no horseplay, no running. No, no, no, no, no.

It may well be that kids are safer at the public pools in NY, that there are fewer accidents.  But it may also be that all the whistle-blowing and intensive supervision doesn’t do anything at all for safety, but takes a lot of the fun out of childhood.

We often act – especially in the U.S. – as if there’s no harm done in being just a little bit safer, having just a few more precautions.  But it feels a little like the proliferation of low-fat and diet-conscious food while obesity rates soar — somehow we may be barking up the wrong tree, attacking obvious symptoms that have little to do with the real problem.

Sitting on the dock, watching those kids in France bombing into the water, it reminded me of what childhood used to be.  And it made me worry that what we’re really teaching a generation of kids is fear — this at a time when what we need more than ever is audacity and fearlessness.

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