Advice From A Former Lifeguard & Swim Instructor

Every summer — usually by early June — I read an article with a sad, heavy heart about a kid dying in a drowning accident. And it’s never just one kid. We’ve all read the statistics.

This post is not about statistics, or pointing fingers, or blame, or shame, or grief. I am not a parent. I am not qualified to tell people how to parent their children. And no one is qualified to blame a parent for their own kid drowning. We have no idea what that is like. We weren’t there. We cannot even begin to imagine what that experience — and the aftermath — is like.

I am, however, qualified to talk about swimming. I was a competitive swimmer for ten years. I started teaching swim lessons when I was 14 years old. I started working as a lifeguard at 15.

Drowning is a heart-wrenching topic to discuss, but I don’t think water safety has to be. I hope that this post will do more than just reinforce everything you’ve heard time and time again. I hope it will shed new light on things you’ve never considered, and I hope it will encourage you to enroll your kids in swim lessons this summer — and not out of fear or worry, because it’s something you want them to be able to enjoy for their entire lives.

Teach them to swim

The obvious first step in ensuring your kids learn about water safety and knowing they will be safe in or near water is teaching them to swim. Swim lessons are a great tool. Despite being a popular summer activity, swim lessons are actually offered year-round. In the summer, they are usually set up in two-week increments. Kids will attend lessons 4 or 5 days a week for two weeks, and then can enroll in the next session. During the rest of the year, swim lessons are usually offered one or two evenings a week. This might actually be a better alternative, particularly for working parents, as these lessons are usually in the evenings.

Check out the pools and community centers near you to find out what the options are. You don’t necessarily have to wait until summer vacation — which may be the busiest and most inopportune time — to check swim lessons off your list!

I used to think that everyone learned how to swim as a kid, and then found out that I was lucky that my parents could afford to send me to kids camp every summer where I not only learned to swim, but got to participate in so many other fun activities. It didn’t occur to me that there were people who didn’t have access to pools or couldn’t afford swim lessons until the pool I worked at decided to do a free swim lesson event.

It. Was. Packed.

The pool I worked at was in a low-income community and we had heard from many families that they would love to put their kids in lessons but the price of our lessons was too high, so we put on this event. We had to do the lessons in shifts because there were too many kids to even fit in the pool at one time! It was a hit. We started offering discounted swim lessons to low-income families after that.

Please check at your local pools or community centers to see if they offer something like this. If you are actively involved in your community, please reach out and see if you can coordinate something like this — it really makes a huge difference.

If swim lessons just aren’t in the cards right now, you can still get your kids more acquainted with water and water safety in your home. You can use the bathtub, or buy a small kiddie pool, and teach them these two things:

  1. How to put their face underwater and blow bubbles (i.e. not get water up their nose).
  2. How to float.

If you have a big enough bathtub or pool, teach them how to roll from their front to their back and float like a starfish with their arms out. If they are able to put their face underwater and blow bubbles (and not plug their nose) and they can float on their front and their back, that is a great foundation for being safe in the water and learning how to swim.

Do my kids need private swim lessons?

Absolutely not.

Private swim lessons are great if your kid is an advanced swimmer, or if they have special needs and require one-on-one attention. If your kid is just learning the basics, private swim lessons are not a necessity. Kids need breaks when learning to swim, so having a group lesson where kids swim one at a time to the instructor gives your kid a chance to take a break. In a one-on-one lesson, your kid is probably getting a little bit more swimming time than they would in a group lesson but the instructor will still need to let them take frequent breaks.

Group lessons are great for many reasons. They are usually pretty affordable and they can be really fun. Kids usually make friends really quickly in these lessons, or take lessons with their siblings or friends, so when it’s not their turn it’s pretty much free play time — which is when they are learning the most. They are also able to test their boundaries — which is harder to do in a one-on-one lesson where the instructor has their eyes on them the whole time.

Kids often step or fall off the platforms during group lessons and this is no cause for alarm. Instructors are taught never to turn their back on the kids, and to never be more than an arm length or two away so they can easily grab a kid who has fallen (or more likely jumped) off the platform. Yes, your kid might step off the platform and struggle under the water for a few seconds before being “rescued” but this is actually a helpful tool for determining your boundaries.

The instructor can only say so many times “Don’t step off the platform. You won’t be able to touch the bottom”. For most kids, this might be an abstract notion until they try it themselves and realize that they cannot touch the bottom and their swimming skills aren’t yet good enough to keep them afloat. This helps them create their own boundaries and recognize their own skill level and comfort zone.

Should I force my kids to take swim lessons?

If your kid absolutely does not want to have anything to do with swimming or swimming pools or water, that’s okay. It is okay for them to take the time they need to expand their comfort zone. Obviously, you know your kids so if forcing them to take a lesson is going to end with them having the best time of their life, then do that — but if they are absolutely paralyzed at the thought of swimming, here are some alternatives:

  1. Of course, the bathtub/kiddie pool in the backyard is still an option. Work within their comfort zone.
  2. If you have other kids who are taking lessons, ask if it would be okay for you and your frightened kid to watch the lessons from the pool deck and maybe put your feet in the water. They probably won’t want you sitting right next to your own kids (because kids are easily distracted by having their own parents nearby) but they might have a place where you can sit and dip your toes in.
  3. If you don’t have other kids who are taking lessons, ask if you can bring your kid to a group swim lesson and just watch as a spectator.
  4. If you want to enroll your kid in swim lessons but you’re not sure if they’re ready, see if the swim lesson program has a refund policy –or if they would let you reschedule for a session later in the summer if it turns out they’re just not ready yet.
  5. Find other kinds of water. Go to the beach, find a creek, go to a friend’s pool instead of the crowded community center pool. Some swim centers also have smaller pools for beginner’s lessons that might seem less intimidating.

What to look for when enrolling in swim lessons

Obviously, not all swim lessons are created equal. Bottom line: no matter where you go, you can guarantee your kid is going to be safe. Most swim lessons either have a lifeguard on duty or instructors who are also trained lifeguards (or both!). No matter where you go or how much you pay, you shouldn’t have to worry about your kid’s safety.

Take a look at your options first. Figure out which pools & community centers are closest to you and see what information they have online. If they don’t have information online, call or go in. Some swimming pools are old-school and might not have the most up-to-date websites, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an awesome swim program.

I would recommend visiting any pool that you’re considering before just enrolling online. You’ll want to see what it looks like and bring your kids so they’re familiar with it (particularly if you’re going to be dropping them off and picking them up — it’s nice to know that they know where the locker rooms are and where to go if they need a band-aid or something like that). If you have the choice between an outdoor and an indoor pool, you’ll also want to scope that out.

Outdoor pools can be really fun, but they do require sunscreen and in places like Oregon — where I grew up and taught lessons — your kids might also have to endure swim lessons in the rain. Indoor pools are often warmer and, of course, not exposed to the elements. A great option here is to take your kids to “open swim” or “rec swim” at the pool you’re considering so they can actually play in it before their lessons (and some swim lessons offer free or discounted rec swim — be sure to ask about this!).

If you have time, you might consider watching a session of swim lessons before enrolling. If you’re willing to bring your kids on this excursion, they’ll get a chance to see what they’re in for and — hopefully — get excited about it! As a side note, if you are enrolling your kids in lessons during the summer, chances are there will be lessons going on when you come in to enroll (if you don’t do it online) and you can usually ask if you can see the pool and watch the lessons for a minute or two.

Here are a few key things to look for before enrolling in swim lessons:

  • Group size. The maximum class size should increase based on skill level. For example, it’s perfectly reasonable to have a class of 10 advanced swimmers. For beginner classes, I’d want to see a class size of no more than 8, but probably closer to 6. Ask what the maximum class size is and make sure it’s a number you’re comfortable with. If classes are filled to capacity, ask if there are any times that are less popular and not maxed out — usually there are a few early morning or mid-afternoon classes that aren’t as popular.
  • Instructors. Swim lessons can be scary for kids and it’s important that they feel comfortable. If your child has a preference for a male or a female instructor, this is totally okay. In my experience, the ratio is slightly skewed in favor of female instructors but — particularly in the summer — this should be a fairly easy request to accommodate. In general, swim lesson instructors are going to be young. There are plenty of adults who teach swim lessons in the summer or who have made it their full-time job, but don’t be nervous or discouraged because your kid’s swimming instructor just got their driver’s license. They have been trained and certified and most likely love being around kids (I knew very few people who were forced to be swim instructors — it’s not the kind of job you get if you don’t love it).
  • Refund/cancellation policy. Kids are unpredictable. One minute they love swim lessons, one minute they hate them, maybe they get sick, or maybe the instructor just isn’t the right fit. Find out what the refund or cancellation policy is and make sure that you can at least reschedule your lessons for another session or receive credit for lessons if you have to cancel.
  • Lesson plan. Swim lessons are usually broken up into different levels and there are key skills that kids must demonstrate proficiency in to move to the next level. Ask if you can see a breakdown of the lesson plan and various levels/tiers beforehand — usually you’ll need this to determine what level your kid should be anyway. Make sure that there is a clear lesson plan with clear objectives.

How can I make sure my kids get the most out of swim lessons?

Group swim lessons are usually about 20-30 minutes long. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s perfect for the attention span of young kids (and also keeps them from being in the water so long that they get freezing cold and their lips turn blue). More advanced lessons may be 30-45 minutes. I think that having the correct expectations goes a long way in ensuring that kids get the most out of their swim lesson experience.

First, understand that there are other kids in the class. Your kid will not be working one-on-one with the instructor for the entire class and that’s okay. In a beginner class, the instructor might be working on getting the kids comfortable with putting their faces underwater and floating on their back/front. The instructor will take each kid out to work on floating individually, and might tell the other kids to practice blowing bubbles underwater until it’s their turn.

Pro-tip: Try not to actively parent your kids during their swim lessons. It takes the power and authority away from the instructor. If your kid is misbehaving or not following instructions, they’re not going to listen to the instructor if they’re trying to listen to you from the sidelines. If you find that your kid is constantly trying to talk to you or get your attention, try sitting somewhere farther away or out of sight. If your kid is misbehaving or is distracted during class and the instructor doesn’t see it, briefly mention it to them before or after class (keeping in mind that they have 4 or 5 other kids to watch also) and remind your kid (before or after class) to listen to the instructor.

Trust the instructors to do their job. If it looks like your kid is having a great time and doing absolutely nothing productive in the water, roll with it. They’re supposed to be having fun, and learning by playing is the most effective way of learning. The instructor knows what your kid needs to accomplish in order to move on to the next level, and they’ll continue to work on that each lesson — but different kids move at different paces. If your kid is stuck on a certain skill, that’s okay — they’ll get it.

Pro-tip: If your kid is not listening to the instructor and is distracted during the lesson because they already know the skills and they are bored, see if they can do a swim test at the end of the lesson and move up to the next level for their next lesson. As long as there is availability and they can pass the swim test, this is usually not a problem.

Outside of lessons, make sure that they don’t become dependent on flotation devices or goggles. Life jackets and water wings and floaties are great, but make sure they know what happens when they lose their grip on the floatie or their water wings fall off. It’s important for kids to know and understand their own boundaries. If they can touch the bottom of the pool, let them walk toward the deep end until they can no longer touch so they have a general idea of where they can play and still be able to touch the bottom of the pool.

Pro-tip: Goggles are great, but not necessary for beginner’s swim lessons. In a beginner’s lesson, kids are going to learn how to submerge themselves underwater without getting water up their nose, how to float on their back, and how to float on their front. A little chlorine never hurt anyone so if you don’t have goggles, don’t stress about it — oftentimes pools will have spare goggles or lost & found goggles that kids can use during lessons if they really need them. And if you do buy goggles, don’t buy the giant scuba mask thing that kids love because it covers their nose and they don’t learn how to keep water from going up their nose.

Pro-tip: Kick the plugging-the-nose habit. Instructors will sometimes allow kids to plug their nose the first few times they go underwater if that’s what it takes to get them comfortable, but will encourage them to “blow bubbles” instead. Plugging their nose is a habit that will become a crutch if they can’t kick it — I remember telling kids, “how are you going to swim if you can’t use one of your arms?” Practicing blowing bubbles in the bathtub is really helpful here, especially if your kid is stuck on this after a few lessons.

Overall, make sure your kids are having fun! If they have fun, they’ll want to come back and do more lessons and that’s the most important thing. Sometimes the class might be too big or the instructor might not be exactly the right fit, but as long as your kid had an overall positive experience and wants to keep swimming, that’s what counts!

Teach them about water safety

Outside of swim lessons, make sure you’re teaching your kids about water safety. Some swim lesson programs have a water safety component to them where kids learn not only the rules of the pool, but other rules as well. If you’re going somewhere that involves water — even if your kids aren’t going to be in the water — teach them how to be safe around it.

If you’re going to the beach, teach them to always face the ocean and not turn their back. Waves are strong and can knock them down easily — let them experience that with you close by so they understand.

If you’re on a boat, teach them that everyone wears a life jacket — even the adults who can swim. And if their drunk Uncle Jim doesn’t wear a life jacket, it’s a great time to teach them that just because other people don’t follow the rules doesn’t mean you don’t have to. Also a great time to tell Druncle Jim to get his act together.

If you’re by a river, teach them about river currents. Sometimes the water looks like it’s moving slow but it might be moving faster than you think, or it might be moving faster upstream. If you can’t see the bottom, you can’t tell how deep it is. Teach them that rivers, pools, and lakes might have a drop-off area where it suddenly gets deeper.

Teach them what to do if something bad does happen, like they get to a deep spot in the pool or lake and can’t touch the bottom. Regardless of their swimming level, make sure they know they can roll onto their back and float. They’ll be able to breath and even if they can’t look up and see anyone, they can call for help. Even if they can swim well, swimming a long distance might tire them out and they might need to roll on their back to rest.

I know this blurs the line of telling people how to parent their kids, but I’m not telling you how or when to do any of these things. That’s up to you. How you parent is entirely up to you. It’s important — no matter how it is done — for kids to be aware of water safety and know how to swim. And it’s okay for them to have a healthy fear of water. Water is scary. I think all of us are at least a little bit afraid of the scenario where we’re out in the middle of the ocean with no life jacket. It’s okay for your kids to realize that bad things can happen in water and that they need to be careful — it’s okay for them to know that it’s not always all fun and games and water can be dangerous.

Because it can be. It can be really dangerous. And the best way for us all to enjoy it safely is for everyone to be aware of that danger and to be as prepared as we can — and that means, first and foremost, knowing how to swim.

A note on drowning

I know you’ve heard this before, but drowning is not a big, theatrical production. Drowning is very quiet and 90% of the struggle is happening underneath the water. Many people think of drowning as a horizontal movement (i.e. someone struggling but still making forward progress) but it is usually all vertical movement (i.e. someone goes under and is struggling to get back to the surface — not making any forward movement).

A kid theatrically yelling “help” and thrashing their arms around pretending to drown does not look like a real drowning victim — though it is very distracting to the lifeguard, who will usually tell kids that it’s not a great idea to pretend to drown. A drowning victim will usually not be able to get themselves far enough out of the water to say anything, let alone cry for help.

One of the only rescues I had to make as a lifeguard was during a busy swim session. One of the elementary school classes was renting the pool for an open swim and there were at least 50, maybe 75 kids in the pool. We had two lifeguards on duty. The kid was hanging out right by the rope that marks the line between the shallow and the deep end. He was directly under my lifeguard chair so it was hard to see him. The lifeguard on the other side of the pool saw him first and brought him to my attention. He had moved under the rope and could no longer touch the bottom of the pool while keeping his head above water. He had his arms above his head and was trying to push himself off the bottom and back up. I could not jump into the pool from the lifeguard stand because there were so many kids in the pool, so I climbed down and slid into the pool and grabbed him. He had swallowed some water and was a little shocked and afraid, but other than that was completely fine and resumed playing after about fifteen minutes.

There were about ten other kids surrounding him and not one of them had a single clue he was drowning. There were a lot of kids in the pool, it was absolute chaos, and I wouldn’t expect them to notice.

The most important tips for preventing drowning are at the beginning of this post, but I am including a few final pieces of advice here:

Know where your kids are. Yes, it is the lifeguard’s job to save them if they are drowning and you can trust the lifeguard to do that — but know where they are at all times. The lifeguard is watching all of the kids in the pool and you only have to watch out for one or two or four of them.

Know their abilities and make sure they know their abilities. If they can’t go in the deep end without a life jacket, make sure they know that — even if it means letting them jump to you in the deep end and letting them struggle for a second.

Swim as a group. If you have multiple kids, encourage them to stick together. If you have multiple kids of various swimming levels, make sure they are staying where all of them are comfortable. Particularly at water parks, make sure they stay together as a group — even if they can swim just fine. Water parks are often crowded and kids can get lost easily and accidents can happen (and we haven’t even mentioned stranger danger).

Follow the rules. As an adult, please follow the pool rules. I will never forget the time I was lifeguarding for a private birthday party and a dad ran out of the locker room and dove right into the shallow end. He scraped both his elbows and his nose, and we had to corral all of the kids and go over the rules with them so that they didn’t follow suit. Make sure you and your kids know and follow the rules. Even if your kid can do a front flip off of the pool deck without getting hurt, that might encourage another kid to try the same thing.

Swim with your kids. Or ask your babysitter or your friend or your mother — whoever is taking the kids to the pool (hopefully not Druncle Jim) — to swim with the kids. Because honestly, sitting in the bleachers isn’t fun. You usually still get wet somehow — so reading is out — and it’s usually hot and loud and there are other crazy kids everywhere who you feel compelled to parent. So why not get in and swim with them? At some point, they’ll all be old enough to swim without adult supervision and you can just drop them off at the pool for the afternoon and do your grocery shopping or nap in your car — but I will tell you that as a lifeguard, the most fun that I’ve ever seen kids have is when they’re playing some silly game with their dad, or their mom, or their grandma, or their babysitter. I highly recommend trying it out as a family activity, even if swimming is not your thing.

Keep an eye out for other kids. No, it’s not your job to watch or parent someone else’s kids — and you should always be able to trust that the lifeguard’s got it handled. But you can never have too many people helping out, making sure everyone is safe — it really takes a village. If you are in the pool with your kids and another kid is struggling, help them. If you see a kid struggling to swim and you’re worried, alert the lifeguard. Often these aren’t life-threatening struggles but it never hurts to be aware and to watch out for one another. Teach your kids to be aware of other kids around them as well — to make sure the coast is clear before they jump into the pool or to make sure they don’t bump into anyone while swimming.

I hope this advice from a former lifeguard was helpful, and not too redundant. I absolutely loved my job as a lifeguard and swim lesson instructor — it may have actually been my favorite job (minus the pay) — and I hope that by reading this you feel empowered to enroll your kids in swim lessons and make swimming a fun family activity, and I hope you feel less of that fear and uneasiness that comes with reading articles on drowning and drowning prevention. I love swimming so much, and I cannot wait until I have kids of my own and I can teach them to swim — and of course, a small part of me is already afraid that something could happen to them (but I’ve been told I’ll feel this way constantly throughout parenthood) — but anything can happen to anyone at anytime. We can’t control everything. We can only work within our span of control and make sure that we’re prepared and we’re preparing our kids for any scenario that could possibly go south.

In this case, our span of control is learning to swim and learning about water safety — and passing that knowledge on to our kids. Please share this if you found it helpful. And even if you don’t have kids, you can always be on the lookout — if you’re at a pool or at the beach or on vacation at the lake — we can all be part of the solution here. We can all play a part in making sure everyone’s kids are safe.

One thought on “Advice From A Former Lifeguard & Swim Instructor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s