Ask any parent what the most stressful extracurricular activity their child engages in is and swimming (or swimming lessons) is likely to feature near the top. It’s rarely the activity that causes the stress as much as the changing room gymnastics, which go hand in hand with getting small children changed and hot, sweaty changing rooms.
As those children become a little less small, the stresses can take on a whole new dimension. Unless your pool has communal changing facilities, it’s likely that children will be expected to use gendered changing rooms that their parents may not be able to use. With some parents reporting their pools require children to use gendered changing rooms at just seven years old, that expectation may come well before you feel your child is ready.
[ Another year, another child due to make his communion or confirmation ]
[ How to talk about donor conception: ‘We wanted our children to know where they came from’ ]
Mother of four Emma Jane Wood, from Dublin, says she left one location as she was not at all comfortable with her eight-year-old son using the men’s changing rooms alone at the swimming pool. Emma Jane says she spoke to the gym about it, who replied “they had taken on board child welfare advice and that eight year olds would be fine on their own”.
“I begged to differ, and instead snuck my son into the ladies’ changing room until the term ended and then moved elsewhere,” she says. “Apparently, older ladies had complained about boys being in the changing room and making them feel uncomfortable.”
Hayley Philips, who is also from Dublin and has two small children, shares these reservations. She says: “My son is five but when he turns seven he has to use the males [changing rooms]. I feel that’s too young. I think I’ll have to find somewhere else closer to the time.”
Mother of three Nicola Kelly, who lives in Co Meath, says her 10-year-old son is expected to use the men’s changing rooms, but she doesn’t allow it. “He is too young, in my opinion, and also nervous of using the male changing rooms on his own. He is 10 and comes in with me and two sisters. He goes into [the] bathroom to change and straight to the pool. He is respectful of privacy to others.”
Child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor has experienced first-hand the challenges of navigating gendered changing rooms with his own three children. There is no one-size-fits-all, he says. “I think it very much depends on the independence level of the child. My daughter is 10 and she’s too old to get changed in the men’s with me and so I’ve to send her into the female changing rooms on her own. I’m always stressing about how she’s doing and if she’s okay. So I tend to opt for places with two family cubicles, side by side, where she’s within earshot of me.”
There is much to consider in asking children to navigate swimming pool changing rooms alone, Dr Noctor says. The practicalities, for example. “I think self-management of seven and eight year olds is a lot to ask. As for the predatory issue, striking the balance between making a child wary and making a child terrified is very hard.
“I think that they need to be made aware of what is okay in terms of communications with adults, but it’s a broader conversation than just the risks of sexual inappropriate behaviour. That needs to be part of the conversation, unfortunately.”