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(This article is the second of a series of five)
In the recent years, there has been an increasing amount of very young paddlers. Teaching them to paddle requires a very different approach than teaching teenagers or adults. Here is a gathering of my top tips to anyone wanting to teach young kids how to paddle. They are dedicated specifically to kids under the age of 12 and focus primarily on making the experience of paddling enjoyable. This week’s tip focuses on how to make paddling less perilous.

TIP #2 Safety: you’re in charge

Rule of thumb: “if a kid can swim down a rapid with a constant smile on the face; it’s probably good to go”. This means that the spot you choose should be deep enough to not get hard hits from rocks at the bottom, simple enough for kids to spot the exits and easy enough for them to maneuver their way through —IN or OUT of their boat. In other words: think easy and small… and stay at that level a good while before moving on. Kids of young age are extremely sensitive to those details. Varying easy spots is far better than moving difficulty too quickly. Make them confident in easy water, and you’ll be moving a small step forward each time; lose that confidence and you’ll go back several steps and struggle your way up again for weeks. Kids also react instinctively; if they feel danger, they’ll keep out of your ‘fun’ game, and you just lost.

You are the boss; it’s your responsibility. When it comes to whitewater, or safety in water in general, adults should make the calls, not kids. Don’t expect them to make a safe call. Don’t blame them for making mistakes or making an irresponsible move either. Take charge from the start and be the boss, and don’t ever lose that power until they are old enough to take responsible decisions, I’d say from earliest age 12. You may talk over lines, ask them where they would go and discuss possibilities, but in the end, you should always be firm about making the final call. Always. I tend to adopt a very see-through face with my kids and they know very well how to read me: if I smile and joke around with them, they relax and play along. If my face turns serious, they know to listen and react quickly. Again, I can play on that because I have established from the start who the boss is on water, and they have learned to trust my judgement.

Focus on the task. When discussing rapids with kids, always focus on the task, and forget all the “ifs”. If you respected the two first bullet points, you already insured that the spot you chose was adequate and that you are the boss on water. This means that you have already eliminated most dangers and should not blab about things that can possibly go wrong at this point. For now, the only thing they need to know is how to get from A to B successfully. Learning to deal with different currents in different scenarios is far more interesting than learning to avoid the million possible dangers along the way. In other words: teach them the skills they need to succeed. Also, refrain from telling them your horrific stories about the time you got pinned on that rock, recycled in that sticky hole or had a bad swim; save those for you and your buddies when kids sleep tight. This is not to say that we should hide that there are dangers in whitewater kayaking, but I simply mean that young kids shouldn’t have to worry about those yet. Teaching them to get to safety is important, being able to swim in current is important, mastering the wet exit is important —but keep it there, no need to have a death speech every time you hit the water.

Always smile. The first reaction they meet after they flip unintentionally (for example) is crucial to how they will tackle flipping next time. Smile and shout “good job at getting out of your boat” is a much better reaction than “ouch, did you get scared?” Kids often get scared of the unknown and wait for adults’ immediate reaction to confirm if what they thought was right or not. They need to not fear swimming at this point.