What does a lifeguard know about keeping your kids safe at the pool? I asked my son, who has been a community pool lifeguard for over five years and who had a “jump” last summer — the term lifeguards use when they’ve needed to save a life.
It had been a 90-degree day, and in the middle of a crowded pool, my son saw a child floating face down. Within two seconds, the well-practiced plan and hours of training that the lifeguards are required to complete took over. He blew his whistle, calling in other guards to action, and he jumped, pulling the child out. The child is thankfully fine, but my son came home saying all the things that could have been done to avoid the near-drowning.
I asked him to tell me the most important things we need to know about protecting our kids when they’re in or near water. His answers went beyond the usual routine advice we have already heard about water and pool safety for kids.
Here’s what a veteran lifeguard has to say about being a lifeguard and how you can help him to keep you and your kids safe in the water:
1. Lifeguards are not there to be babysitters.
Our job is to help in an emergency, but we are watching lots of kids — not just yours — at one time.
2. Wear sunscreen — even if it’s cloudy.
You’ll get burned even through the gray, trust me. Every year, I see bad burns and people are always surprised at how it happened.
3. When we say your kid isn’t able to do something, don’t take it as an insult.
Lots of us teach swim lessons besides lifeguarding. We know what makes a swimmer strong enough to move to the next level and be safe swimming in a deeper depth. Practice, sign up for an extra set of lessons, and get better at swimming before you enter into water that’s deep.
4. We don’t make the rules, we’re just paid to enforce them.
Don’t get mad at us and argue with us about how we don’t want you to have fun when we ask you to not throw your kid in the pool. Your kids see you yelling back at us. We do want you to have a good time, but we want you to have a good time while being safe. When we tell you, as an adult, to not play chicken with your kid on your shoulders, please show your kids that you will listen to us, respect the job we do, and obey us and the pool rules.
5. Take a break.
Kids get tired easily, and you can see them become weaker in the water the longer they play. Swim for a while, then sit it out and let them rest before you come back in.
6. Do not run. Seriously.
Have you ever wondered why we use our megaphone and say “Walk!” 100 times a day? It’s because we have seen too many kids running on the slippery surface who fall on their head and need some serious stitches.
7. Talk to your kids before you get to the pool.
Tell them about pool safety; show them where to go and where not to go. Tell them to listen and obey the lifeguard. You’re at the pool to have fun; the last thing you want is an accident. When you make it clear how to behave at the pool, you lessen the chance of that.
8. Always know where your kid is.
Don’t forget to remind them that they have to tell you where they are going to be.
9. The best way to keep your kid safe in water is to watch them.
Know where they are — always — and watch them. Don’t read a book, don’t be on your phone, don’t fall asleep, and don’t walk away to go get a snack. We have seen kids climb up slides and go down them, not knowing that they empty into deep water. We have seen kids run and jump off diving boards without any idea they’re about to go into water over their head.
I was a kid at the pool once, too. I used to think that lifeguards just liked shouting “Walk!” because they liked the megaphone until I became a lifeguard. I remember being yelled at for running and doing cannonballs off the edge of the pool. Now I know there’s a reason for it. Kids get hurt; kids nearly drown. Kids do drown.
Water is fun, but you have to be aware of how it can turn from fun to danger if you’re not careful. This isn’t just for kids — adults, too, have to be responsible for their safety in the water. Don’t venture into the deep end if you can’t swim or can’t swim well.
One more thing: Every summer, parents ask us why they can’t use water wings. It’s because they make kids falsely feel they’re safe in the deeper water, and they make the parents think so too. Arm floaties make everyone complacent. However, water wings are not life preservers and should never be used for that. We’ve seen them deflate, slip off and even pop.
The only way to keep your kids safe in the water is to keep an eye on them. This means you can’t become less vigilant because you see a lifeguard on duty. My son is watching — that’s his job — but he is there watching everyone. Like you count on him to help in an emergency, a lifeguard counts on you to supervise your child. This means no books, no phones, no laptops, and no naps. Look, we all love summer, but the truth is that drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in children ages 5 to 24. How’s that for a sobering statistic? So, consider lifeguards part of your team; they count on you to watch your kids and you can count on them to help when you need it.
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