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How Parents Can Evaluate Water Safety Skills and Choose a Swim Class

 When you’re standing near water and hear, “last one in is a rotten egg,” what goes through your mind?

  Are you and your child the first ones sprinting to the water or do one or both of you freeze out of fear?  With 71% of the Earth’s surface covered in water, embracing oceans, lakes, rivers, streams and pools, the ability to swim enables you to take full advantage of this natural resource and just might save your life. Evaluating your child’s water safety skills and choosing the right swimming program will help your child enjoy water fun and keep them safe.

  Sue Mackie, Executive Director of the United States Swim School Association, offers tips parents can use to determine if their children have the necessary water safety skills for the upcoming summer swim season. The skills progress from infants to older children and adults.

  “We recommend introducing children to water when the child is as young as 6 months old, with some programs starting as early as 4 months!” she says. “At this age, our objective is for the child to be comfortable in water and appreciate the experience. We want the child to know how to float on their back and tummy even before walking upright. Basic skills are not the breast stroke!  And I believe it’s important infant swimming (6 months to 12-15 months) is performed in a controlled swimming pool environment.”

  The common theme in early swimming lessons is learning “the safer place” as demonstrated in the following progression, also useful for evaluating where your child is with his or her swimming skills:

• 6 to 12 months: breath holding, attempts to pull self from pool/step unassisted, back floating, minor propulsion through water.

• 13 to 24 months: child experiments with play on steps, will put face in without being prompted, may swim off the step or edge without cue, can kick on back and tummy.

• 25 to 36 months: can swim using arms and legs, rolling over or popping up to take a breath, can get themselves back to the wall or step safely.

• 4- to 6-year-olds learn various strokes and work on some endurance.

For 6- and 7-year-olds, the concept of “reach or throw, don’t go” for helping others in need must be understood: Reach out to another with an arm or other device, throw a floating object, but don’t go jumping into the water.

  With those basics in hand for getting to safety, evaluate endurance — swimming for distance — and efficiency. “If your child is flailing in water at 5 or 6, the child would benefit from lessons,” Mackie says.

  She cautions your child’s success may be formed watching how you behave around water: “Children often learn behaviors from parents, and if the parent is afraid of water, children will see it.” If this is you, she recommends you get lessons first; it is never too late to learn.

  Evaluating a swim program takes a little time. “There is often a financial commitment parents make to a swim program, and parents want their children to benefit from staying in the program,” she says. “You must know the personality of your child. Would they benefit most from a fast-paced or more nurturing program?”

  Swim schools often have different learning styles, and many offer private and semi-private lessons. Preview a session before enrolling. This lets you watch how the teacher interacts with the children and their parents. You want to get feedback on what to work on after each session.

  Expect classes for the under-3 crowd to be typically 30 minutes with a parent in the water (unless it is a private session) focused on skills such as:

• Acclimation to water

• Rolling over

• Jumping in

• Going to the side

• Getting face wet, and holding breath

• Kicking and arm movements

  Mackie recommends CPR-certified instructors with constant supervision and compares learning to swim to piano lessons: “Piano lessons are not one-time events. They are an ongoing commitment where children progress until proficient. In swimming, children can continue to swim team, junior lifeguard or lifeguard.”

  Swimming also offers benefits beyond the water. It is helpful for general exercise and social skills. There’s also emerging research from Australia suggesting children who swim at an early age and swim consistently are smarter because the movement helps the brain develop.

  While Mackie offers a great deal of insight into the benefits of swimming, she turns serious when discussing potential effects of not learning to swim:

 “Our research discovered 511 media-reported drowning incidents involving a child under the age of 18 in the United States between Memorial Day and Labor Day 2014.”

  Proper education, she says, is vital to preventing these deaths. As summer approaches, now is the time for evaluating your child’s swimming skills and getting proper education. 

Article originally published in baystateparent magazine - March 2015


How to Keep Money from Wrecking a Marriage

It’s February, the month of love. Are you feeling the love or have your finances taken away your loving feeling? Many find the mid-winter doldrums particularly challenging as the holiday end and increased heating bills arrive.

“Money is funny,” mused Scott Post, vice president of Strategy and Delivery, Hanscom Federal Credit Union in Bedford. “It makes the world go ’round and is the root of evil. And while love is blind, marriage is an eye opener!”

Scott sees marriage beyond just a coming together of emotions, and he recommends conversations before the ceremony establishing an understanding around money. He even offers to have couples come into his office to review each party’s credit score.

“Understanding the elements and contributing factors of the credit score can often be the starting point in a financial conversation,” he said. “In the end, communicating to each other is very important.”

Once in a relationship, it is a matter of understanding the inflow and outflow of money to the relationship. Post recommends couples maintain separate checking accounts for personal expenses and establish a joint account for paying common expenses, with contributions to the joint account based on proportional income.

“Having your own account lets you save and spend for items of your personal interest, without building resentment for the other person,” he said.

Technology is a resource for better finances, with a myriad of financial tools available to consumers today, including those such as Quicken and online banking from your financial institution. Even simple things like balance alerts and identity theft protection are easy, effective ways to oversee your financial transactions. More sophisticated resources can be used to aggregate accounts providing a consolidated view of the entire financial picture and general health.

“Even with a wealth of tools at your disposal,” Post cautioned, “don’t move money without talking first. It really becomes a model of trust and verify.”

At the Northampton Center for Couples Therapy, Director/Founder Kerry Lusignan cautioned that money can be a manifestation of other issues in a relationship. The issues around money are often really around values, freedom, autonomy and power, and thus the reason some couples sign a pre-nuptial agreement.

Both Post and Lusignan agreed that getting ahead of issues is important.

“Talking openly about specific issues around money [like debt and income challenges] is almost a taboo of society. Couples often have tensions for six years before getting professional assistance. Frankly, they wait too long. All couples have perpetual and solvable ones,” according to Lusignan, a licensed mental health counselor

For example, a couple may have one person who is conservative and a saver, while the other spouse believes in spending it all before they die. Those opposing views may never be reconciled. However, during open discussion, couples can gain a better understanding of each other’s viewpoint.

“In a perfect world, we would all receive a partner’s manual…just like an owner’s manual….helping us understand the other person better,” Lusignan said.

Children up the ante and further stress financial resources. “Couples have less money due to paying for daycare, often causing couples to work more and making seeing each other even harder. Little things can become major items quickly!” she added.

In some counseling sessions, Lusignan even uses heart-rate monitors and works with couples to have “soft startups” to conversations. “The first three minutes of a conversation will often determine the outcome,” she said. “When issues are brought up harshly, 96% of the time an argument ensues. We encourage questions to seek clarity and encourage short breaks if the discussion is too intense. Often, one partner simply wants to be heard and validated, and we help make it happen.”

Mark Fantasia, vice president/financial advisor of Retirement Planning & Investment Center of Workers Credit Union in Fitchburg, echoed these sentiments and uses a financial plan or budget to foster communications and get a couple to align their thinking.

“Couples should develop a financial plan for both short- and long-term needs,” he said. “Before investing for the long term or making big purchases, they should have three to six months of living expenses in an easily accessible account. This safety fund may be needed for unexpected emergencies.

“Couples should also design a realistic budget for both short and long term needs both parties agree upon,” he continued. “Early warning signs can be seen in the budgeting process. If both parties strongly disagree on what items are important, a plan will never get developed.”

Most people don’t know exactly what they spend on a monthly basis for various items — important knowledge for developing realistic budgets. Couples should save all receipts for a few months to identify what they are spending on food, clothes, entertainment, transportation, etc. First they need to look at securing their basic living needs, such as what percentage of income they allocate to housing. (Fantasia recommends no more than 25% of gross income be spent on housing.)

Once a couple has identified what disposable income is left, they need to agree upon what will be saved for long-term needs such as retirement and childrens’ education savings. These figures vary greatly for each couple depending upon what is already saved and what employer pension plans may be in place.

“Once all the basic living needs and long-term savings have been secured, we can identify what disposable income is left for discretionary items such as vacations.”

“Couples should also take 30 minutes a month to review income and expenses,” Fantasia added. “Review credit card and bank statements together so both are well aware of what is being spent and where it is going. Don’t wait until it is too late to have these discussions with your spouse. If you find one spouse is not agreeing to the budget plan or is just not good at finances, agree to have the more financially capable spouse in charge of the budget.”

With planning and ongoing communications, it’s clear couples can brighten their financial outlook and keep the loving feeling year round.

Tips for successfully navigating challenging financial times:

• Communicate early and often.

• Set common goals.

• Have a common checkbook for shared expenses.

• Let technology be a resource.

• Make a budget and stick to it.

• Monitor progress along the way.

• Keep the conversations upbeat.

• Make this fun.

• Get professional help along the way as needed  (for an unbiased opinion).

• Stay engaged in the process —understand where your money goes.


Originally published in baystateparent magazine - February 2015



Holiday stress: Practical tips for worrying less and enjoying more

  Describe your holidays.

  Are your holiday memories scenes right out of a Norman Rockwell portrait? Strolls down the walk singing Christmas carols, sights of happy people bustling about in merriment, and the slightest hint of cold nipping at your nose as you enjoy the unique and welcoming tastes of the season.

  Or are your memories more of logistical nightmares? Driving between family homes in blizzard-like conditions, gulping down quick meals as you get to the next event with concern over:

• Everyone getting along.

• Food preparation of entrees/sides/desserts cooked only once a year.

• Gifts….and their size, color, features and cost.

  The holidays can be stressful; no one knows this better than parents. Dr. Charles Wolfson, a psychologist at Active Counseling Associates in Westborough, had one overarching message when it comes to avoiding holiday pressure: “Preserving the most important relationships around you is far more important than any holiday ‘fun’ you’re trying to have.”

  Spending quality time with people, whether folks you see daily or only once a year at the holiday, is the key to relationships. When completely focused on a task, and the task doesn’t go perfectly, tempers can surface, he notes. And when this happens, people need to remember why they are getting together. 

  The objective is spending time with the special people in our lives. People should not fray relationships over a contrived event or task intended to bring friends and family together,  “whether it’s putting up decorations, attending gatherings or baking a particular goodie.” 

  April Hatfield of Florence shared techniques for helping her family look forward to holidays with her young daughter. First, she tries to stay out of the stores by shopping extensively online.

  “Mall shopping is too crazy for me,” she says. “This year I am putting together an Amazon Wish List and an overall shopping list for my daughter.”

  She’s also very aware of how the holidays can drain family funds, creating an unpleasant lingering holiday memory: “I’m going to try to stick to a budget this year, as well.”

One concern Hatfield still has is working the logistics of getting everyone together at the holidays.  “I’m hoping not to spend all the holidays on the road driving my daughter around, and it might be tough to get everyone together. I haven’t thought that through yet.”

  Westborough mom Michelle Travis has a suggestion passed down from her family: “We really want to get together with people, and doing so on the exact holiday is just too much, especially when juggling multiple families. We plan a big family dinner and hold it on a non-holiday day.”

  Knowing that getting people together is the goal, Travis’ family uses planning to help spread the responsibilities and not create a burden for any one family.

  “Rather than hold a random pot luck, we make it a planned pot luck,” she says. “Everyone with ‘specialties’ gets selected to bring them, and it becomes a ‘best-of’ holiday meal!”

  Another suggestion Travis offers centers around gifts and budget: “People just go overboard with gifts.  It’s almost becomes a contest on who can give the most, and it takes away from the real holiday spirt.”

  With that in mind, she established a rule to deal with that reality.

  “We limit gifts to a single gift for every year of life,” she says. “So if the child is two, holiday gifts are two.”

  She laughs when challenged about how this strategy will hold up in later years: “I suspect by the time the child is nearing 10 we’ll have modified the rule, and for now the simplicity works.”

  Like many moms with young children, Travis lives in a ‘tight space’ and has developed strategies for holiday entertaining.

  “Using Space Bags or plastic containers, I make a point of putting off-season clothes and toys away,” she notes. “For example, all summer clothes and toys are put away for the winter holidays. When the seasons change again, I rotate the summer clothing and toys out, and put winter things away. This makes our home feel less cluttered and makes it more inviting for guests.” An added bonus: “It also helps with determining toys and clothes for passing along.”

Remembering Wolfson’s prime goal of preserving relationships is key as families strive to enjoy the holiday season thanks to a little upfront planning.

  “Even with all our planning, we still have things come up we didn’t anticipate,” Travis says with a smile.  “We can’t let those ‘opportunities’ become disabling.  We try our best to roll with changes, and make the best of them.  I always remember in those stressful times, when things are at their worse, we can always smile and have some egg nog. In the end, it’s all about the egg nog.”


Tips for enjoying more, stressing less

• Avoid stores, shop online when you can.

• Use an online wish list to streamline gift-buying.

• Limit gifts to one for each year of a child’s life.

• Make a gift budget and stick to it.

• Move your celebration with extended family or friends to a day other than the actual holiday.

• Make your holiday celebration a planned pot luck.

• Rotate your summer clothes, toys and gear out to make room for fall/winter.

• Expect and roll with the hiccups.


Article originally published in baystateparent magazine - November 2015