A recent report by CBC News that called into question the safety of a popular water toy that essentially turns children into mermaids gave me a very clear indication of my age. Watching the girls effortlessly swim through water with a sparkly tail made my 8-year-old dreams come true, but it made my 31-year-old self think of all the things that could possibly go wrong.
According to Fin Fun's website, a child should be able to swim 25 metres continuously, tread water for two minutes and swim with confidence while wearing the mermaid tail. Additionally, it is not recommended for children under 5. But is that enough?
The child is meant to be able to do those things without the tail, which may not give a clear indication of their abilities once the tail is actually on. When you tread water, your legs are kicking around, not bound together. "Children are taught to tread water by moving their legs like they are peddling a bicycle, which is impossible to do while wearing something like this. Treading water is often one of the first skills young swimmers learn because it's a way to keep them afloat should they get tired in deep water. If a child was wearing one of these fins and got tired, they couldn't tread as they were taught," said former lifeguard Ariella Anderson.
"They would also have to compensate with their arms for the lack of strength in their legs. Already-tired swimmers could become even more tired very quickly, posing a real drowning risk. This is especially concerning in a large public pool, where a lifeguard may be responsible for watching 50 to 100 swimmers of varying abilities," she went on to say.
The tail also forces a child to swim in a style similar to a butterfly stroke, which is considered one of the more difficult strokes to master. Swimming continuously using a breaststroke for 25 metres would be much different than swimming the same length using a butterfly stroke. Not to mention, there aren't too many kids out there who would admit to a lack of confidence if it meant giving up their sparkly tail. "Children are also sometimes afraid to call for help when they need it because they fear they'll get in trouble. This isn't a problem directly caused by mermaid fins, but it exacerbates an existing issue," Anderson said.
Some public pools have adopted a swim test policy based on the company's standards that kids must pass in order to wear them, as opposed to banning them completely. It seems like a fair compromise, but a toy that requires a child to meet certain strength and performance requirements seems like more of a liability than it's worth. In addition, at public pools, the liability and supervision fall into the hands of the pool staff and lifeguards, who are also meant to watch several other children.
Eric Browning, Fin Fun's CEO, said in a statement, "A parent should only purchase this for their child if their child is a confident swimmer. We feel that parents are the best judges of their own children’s abilities." If a parent deems it safe for their child, I think they should purchase it and be willing to take the proper precautions to ensure they stay safe as well as accept responsibility if anything does go wrong. A public pool shouldn't have to accept that responsibility.
"Parents also tend to overestimate their child's swimming ability. The neighbourhood pool at which I worked required a swim test before children could swim in the deep end. Oftentimes when a child failed the test, the parents said that they swim just fine in their pool at home and should be allowed to pass," Anderson said.
On the flip side, the fabric is breathable, is said to be easily removable and weighs very little. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't want one. In an effort to avoid being a complete fun sponge, I'll say the product seems great — with proper supervision. It could also play a role in improving a child's swimming skills. "These would make a great tool for swimming lessons, especially for older swimmers who are learning more advanced strokes, like butterfly, which requires a fairly difficult dolphin kick," Anderson said.
"I could definitely see myself purchasing these for my children, but only if and when I felt like they were strong enough to handle them. I also wouldn't take my own word for it. Parents should ask a lifeguard or swim instructor for an honest assessment of their child's swimming abilities, and make decisions from there," she said.
Despite all the well-intentioned safety standards the company has adhered to, the fact is the child's legs are still bound together, creating a completely unnatural way for children to swim. Even with a swim test in place, with there being several other children to supervise, a public pool doesn't seem like a place for a toy that could potentially put a child at a higher risk of drowning.
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