As a one time 19-year-old lifeguard and now a, er, not so 19-year-old parent, I’d like to give you, my fellow parents, the straight scoop.
Even as a teenager, it amazed me just how lackadaisical some parents can be about watching their kids around the water. And that’s putting it nicely. So here’s what I wished parents knew from my days of being on the frontlines of water safety:
1) Water can be deadly. It’s no joke. Kids can drown in a very shallow pool of water. Never take your eyes off them, even if they know how to swim (please don’t ever think they are safe because they have cheap, plastic floaties on their arms).
I know you really want to gab with your friends or chill by the waterside and read your book. But sorry, you have a kid with you. There’s a reason we require that small children be accompanied by a guardian. So put the book away. Listen to an audio book on your phone or listen to music instead so you can keep your eyes on your kids. As for gabbing, you can still do it, just do that weird eyes on the water while talking to your friend thing that parents do. If your friend thinks you are rude for not looking at her while you are talking to her, get new friends.
2) I am probably a teenager, maybe early twenties, Capish? I know you are thinking, well the lifeguard is getting paid to make sure no harm comes to my child while I’m at the beach. She SHOULD be watching my child. But let me ask you this. Do you know me? Do you really know how responsible I am?
Chances are I’m very responsible but you don’t know that for sure. Even on a good day I might be a little distracted thinking about some guy or girl I’m crushing on, where I’m going to college, that party I’m going to tonight, etc. So you know that innocent creature you gave birth to, nurtured for years, invested in and will invest an immense amount more of your love and time, do you really want to just assume I am watching them like you would? Word to the wise, in your mind, pretend I’m not here and be your own lifeguard.
Keep your eyes on your kids the way you want me to. I’m probably doing everything right, but if I’m not, there’s no second chances. No do-overs. I screw up and miss your child drowning, not only do I have to live with the repercussions but you do too. Be smart and don’t put me to the test.
3) Don’t ask me to watch your child so you can go to the bathroom. Are you kidding me? Do you not see the 50 bobbing heads in the water I can’t take my eyes off of while you have to go pee. You are certainly taking your chances leaving them in the water while I’m watching the other 49 bobbing heads, but now you want me to watch your beachside kids too? And what am I supposed to do if they start misbehaving, or run off? Should I jump down from my chair to chase after them?
Use some commonsense. Don’t ask me to watch your kids. Take them with you to the bathroom, call them out of the water if you have to. Pack em up and take them to the bathhouse, sorry. I know it’s a pain, but if you don’t have another person with you to watch them, it’s what you have to do.
4) Don’t put things in front of me, including yourself, that can block either my view or my way to the water. I need to be able to jump down as quickly as possible to get to the water and if I trip over your beach chair, it might mean the difference between life and death for a swimmer. One time I had two mothers who were annoyed because there was seaweed floating in the water. They took the time to gather it all up on a water float and then dumped it right in front of my lifeguard chair. One loudly told the other one, “now she’ll have to do something about the seaweed on the water.” I then called my manager and told him what they’d done. I looked at the women and said, “do you think I put the seaweed in the water? Now, what will you do if I have to jump down to save your child and I slip in the seaweed and break my neck instead? My manager came down, removed the seaweed while I watched the water and informed the two Einsteins that if they did that again and put anyone else at risk because of their behavior, they would lose their membership.
5) Keep track of your kids even when they are out of the water. If you lose track of your two year old who may have wandered up to the playground or into the woods, if you come and tell me that you can’t find your child I have to act. I must assume that she is under the water because if she is, she doesn’t have long before she drowns.
I can’t assume she’s just somewhere out of sight where she can breath. So that means I need to call everyone out of the water, call the other guards and systematically search the water. If we can’t see the bottom it will take some time to search. That means everyone has to stay out of the water until we’re finished. So if I’ve pulled everyone out on a 90 degree day to hunt for your child, and it turns out she was in the bathroom, you’re going to be super popular. And by the way, you don’t want her to be under that water where we can’t see the bottom. If she’s there, chances are really not good that she’ll come out of it OK. So don’t take your eyes off your kids.
6) Don’t give me a hard time if I make your kids sit out for a time as punishment for bad behavior. I don’t want to spoil people’s fun. But if your kid is misbehaving it can be distracting and put other kids’ lives in danger. If I pulled them out and make them sit on the beach or pool-side, it’s for a good reason. Take that as your cue to discipline and manage your children so that I don’t have to.
7) Back me up. If I tell your child to stop doing something, make sure they don’t do it again. And don’t you do it either. Don’t argue with me in front of your child. I am an authority figure on the beach and I have to maintain order. There are a lot of people watching. I’m not going to just let it slide because that will mean losing respect from the other beach goers and kids in the water. Even if you think I’m wrong, respect my role.
Talk to me or my manager afterward, but don’t start a confrontation with me while I’m in the chair. I can assure you I’m not going to allow it. I’ll ask you to leave or call security or the police if I have to, and I don’t have time to debate with you. I have people’s kids to keep safe.
8) I’m not just paid to sit in a chair all day. Don’t be jealous. I know I have an awesome tan and I look good in my lifeguard uniform. I look good probably because I got up this morning and swam or ran or did whatever I’m required to stay in shape in case I have to rescue you. Please understand that I spent all winter training so that I was ready for this job. I’ve got a pocket full of safety certifications. This winter I likely renewed or received a certification in lifeguarding, first aid, water safety, basic life support, and anything else required by your state. And lifeguard training is rigorous. I’ve learned how to drag a guy twice my size out of the water, handle all kinds of emergencies and I’ve swam a lot. Give me some credit. I’m more than just a pretty face twirling a whistle.
9) People don’t yell, “help I’m drowning!’ when they are drowning. They go quiet and keep their mouths shut trying to save that last bit of air. So keep your eyes open especially in the ocean or lake, or anything with an uneven bottom. A kid standing in the water can walk off a ledge and start to struggle in the water. There are countless tales of kids drowning right next to their parents while they chatted away right in the water.
10) If you see someone struggling in the water, let me know. Don’t just head in and be a hero. I am trained to handle the situation and I can handle it likely better than you. For example I know that many drownings turn into double drownings because someone went in to try to save someone.
When someone is drowning they are not in their normal state of mind. They are in survival mode. They will grab you and climb on top of you to get to safety, but instead both of you just go under. They also become very strong. The last thing you want to do is let a drowning person get their hands on you in the water. There are ways to get them out of the water safely, for both of you. So I appreciate you want to help, but if you see something, say something. Please. And by all means, think about taking a water safety class so you too can potentially avert a crisis someday if there’s no lifeguard present.