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Who is The REAL Lifeguard at Your Kid’s Pool This Summer??

Who is the real lifeguardI was doing the usual mom chit-chat at Scouts while my son worked towards his water safety badge and fielded the inevitable question from the Scout leader, ‘what do you do?’. My answer, “I’m a global activist working to end child drowning. One child drowns every minute.” And then came the typical response, “Wow, I didn’t know it was such an issue, but it is certainly needed, the lifeguards need to do a much better job.” She then related a story about how she and her husband were at a pool with their baby and 3-year old son. She was sitting at the side holding the baby, her husband was in another area, and the 3-year old suddenly went past his depth and was bobbing up and down under the water, drowning. She screamed for the lifeguard, her husband screamed for the lifeguard but also managed to get to their son before any serious injury occurred. She related the story in harrowing detail and emphasized several times how the lifeguard had clearly not been doing his job well since her son had almost drowned in a crowded pool, so she understood why drowning is such a problem.

What is your initial reaction? Quite possibly the same as hers, the fault was with the lifeguard, if he had been paying attention her son never would have almost drowned. It’s an incredibly common belief, but the reality is quite different. These are excellent, diligent and concerned parents, and they believe, just as most people believe, that if you go to a pool or beach with a lifeguard on duty, you and your children will be safe. Yes, that’s true, if you swim in an area with a lifeguard, your chance of drowning is reduced to 1 in 18 million. That’s very good odds, even better when you consider that 75% of open water drownings occur when a lifeguard is not present. There is no two ways about it, if you swim in an area with a lifeguard, you are much safer, but it’s not just the lifeguard’s job to keep you safe. I do place the blame for that misconception squarely on the shoulders of those of us in the drowning prevention field, we haven’t explained what the true role of a lifeguard is, so let me start now to change how we view lifeguards.

When it comes to water and children, especially young children or non-swimmers, you, the parent, are the first lifeguard on duty. You need to be touch distance from your young or non-swimmer, meaning you can reach out and grab them at any time. Why?

First, a child can drown in 2 minutes in 2 inches of water. Even the best lifeguard, diligently scanning a crowded pool can miss seeing a small child under water, especially if the sun is glinting off the water or there are many people in the pool obscuring visibility under the surface. Plus, most people don’t even recognize someone is drowning since it’s not like in the movies, there is no flailing of arms or screaming. Click here to see what it really looks like – and don’t worry, the boy is rescued.

Second, you don’t want your child to be in a situation where they need to be rescued. You know how hard it can be to spot a small child in a crowded place. Even the fastest lifeguard will take precious seconds to spot the danger and make their way to the victim, and that can be a really frightening few seconds for a child.

Lifeguards are like police and firemen, their job is to prevent accidents by watching for dangerous behavior and educating the public, and to perform rescues when things do go wrong, but it’s not their job to babysit or watch just one child, much less the 100 children in the water on a busy summer afternoon. Think about it, you don’t let your 3-year old walk 3 blocks to preschool just because your town has police whose job is to keep people safe, do you? The good news is that having a lifeguard on duty is like having a firefighter stand in your front yard just in case a fire breaks out. 95% of a lifeguard’s job is preventing an accident in the first place and only 5% is actually rescuing someone in distress. With you on guard, hopefully it won’t ever be your child in distress.

Now that you’re thinking, ‘great, so much for relaxing at the pool this summer’, I have some very good news. Taking a baby or young child to the pool is better than having a personal trainer and Weight Watchers combined if you take advantage of the time in the pool with them. Trust me, I worked off two pregnancies swirling my children around in the water. Next month I hope you’ll check back for my tried-and-true ‘fun for kids, great easy workout for mom’ plan!

How to Inspire Your Child To Swim

Most children are born loving the water. The earlier you can get them in the water doing playful ‘parent-tot’ classes the better off you are. I’m not a fan of the classes that put a baby in the water without a parent, or that force a baby or small child into the water in any way. I think they introduce the concept of trauma around water and can instill fear instead of respect for the water. Fortunately, most park districts and YMCA’s have fantastic programs to introduce young children to the water.

But what about when children get older? When they are old enough to resist getting in the water or have even developed some fears about water? What if they would rather be playing soccer, doing hip-hop, don’t want to get their hair wet, don’t like their bathing suit, or they just seem determined to sabotage your idea of a ‘good, healthy activity’?

Sometimes bringing in some inspirational peer pressure is the best thing you can do. Try showing your kids some of these amazing videos and see if they decide being a swimmer is about the coolest thing they can do. And yes, it worked for me with my youngest!

My all time favorite, from Capitola Jr. Lifeguards. It shows kids around 12-18, all junior lifeguards, singing to Call Me Maybe.

These aren’t only peers, they are an inspiration. Being a lifeguard is probably the only job available to someone so young that literally puts the life of others in their hands – that asks them to save lives every time they go to work. It is an incredibly responsible job requiring regular ongoing training, dedication, maturity, and courage. As a parent, aren’t those qualities you would like your child to develop?

And if that doesn’t work, how about the great role models of the 2012 USA Olympic Swim Team?

For boys in particular, try some rap to an original song, Lifeguard, done by some very cool lifeguards at Raging Waves water park.

And parents, if you are ever struggling with tweenies/teens and just want want a reminder of how amazing this age group can be, watch the videos yourself, it will bring a smile to your face!  🙂

Where Do Children Drown?

In the U.S., a disproportionate amount of press is given to children drowning in swimming pools, and while it’s true that children ages 1-5 are most likely to drown in swimming pools, it’s not the whole story, and I think it gives parents a false sense of security about water safety. It’s important to know the different dangers, and how to teach your children to navigate the dangers at any age.

So, let’s look at where children are most likely to drown at different ages and what you need to know:

Age: For infants, birth to one year, bathtubs pose the greatest danger. The statistics don’t break it down by months, but I’d guess it’s as soon as your baby can sit upright unsupported that you feel you can dash out of the bathroom to grab clean jammies, answer the phone, or stop a fight between your older kids. Or maybe you think they are safe in that bath seat with the suction cups on the bottom. Or you put the baby in with an older sibling who, you are sure, will raise the alarm if necessary.

Solution: Never, ever leave your child alone in the bathtub until they can swim the length of a 25m pool. Young children reach for toys and fall over. Those seats tip over – never trust them unless you are in the room, or don’t buy them in the first place. As for older siblings, well, they may feel a bit conflicted about your new bundle of joy and give a gentle push or not call if the baby falls over, but then know they did something wrong and not want to get in trouble. It takes one minute of submersion for brain damage to begin and two minutes to die.

Age: 1 to 5 – swimming pools.

Solution: Check out for great trips on keeping your pool safe. The best rule of all, tell your children to ALWAYS have an adult with them when they go near water. When I had a pool, the rule was no one could even go down the steps to where the fenced pool was without me. Period. This is one limit you need to set and stick to diligently. When your child is in the pool, you need to watch them, constantly. The lifeguard is not there to babysit and since I know you understand how hard it is to keep an eye on one child, imagine a lifeguard trying to watch 200 children. The most important strategy is to talk to your child regularly about how to act around water – no horseplay (dunking isn’t fun, it’s scary and dangerous), always have an adult nearby, and KNOW YOUR LIMITS!

Age: 6 to 12 – open water

Solution: Lifejackets in boats. Again, a non-negotiable rule. But beyond that, again, talk to your child, have them in regular swimming lessons, and help them to KNOW THEIR LIMITS. A tranquil pool is radically different from the wave pool at a water park or the surf off Santa Monica. For complete guidelines, Seattle Children’s Hospital is cutting edge. (insert link: )

Age: 13 to 18 – alcohol

Solution: It’s not just drinking and driving you need to be worried about, it’s drinking and drowning. Alcohol is the greatest contributing factor in drowning deaths for teenagers. By now, hopefully, you’ve been talking to your teenagers about the dangers of mixing alcohol and heavy machinery, you need to add in what happens when you mix with water. And again, teach them to KNOW THEIR LIMITS around water because teenage bravado, alcohol and water are an unforgiving combination.

All fairly dismal statistics, but as you know, I’m all about JOY! in the water. If you are teaching your child, from birth, to navigate water respectfully and safely, while they have fun, you have given them the greatest gift of all, you have taught them to navigate their environment independently and intelligently – and isn’t that what parenting is all about?