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.

Choose Your Family

People always say you can’t choose your family. I have heard many a disgruntled relative or frustrated parent say this over the course of my lifetime.

I disagree.

You can choose your family. You just can’t choose your relatives. Once you are related to someone, by blood or marriage or adoption or whatever, you can’t get rid of that association. They are your relative, but they may not be your family.

I googled the definition of family just now and at first found a couple of things that are more in line with what I would call relatives, but I also found a few definitions that I really loved:

A group of objects united by a significant shared characteristic.
A group of people united in criminal activity.

If anything, we really should be choosing our families based on the latter definition. Who would you want in your circle if you were robbing a bank or running a drug cartel? I like the first definition though, which has roots in biology, because it goes back to that idea of surrounding ourselves with people who share our core values and beliefs.

The definition of a relative is a person connected by blood and marriage.

In my last post, I brought up this notion we have that we’re supposed to keep all of our relatives in our close circles simply because they are related to us. I really want to challenge this line of thinking because I don’t think any of us should feel guilty for who we have close relationships with and who we don’t, regardless of whether or not they’re related to us. I think we also need to make the distinction that just because people may not be in our closest circles doesn’t mean we don’t love them, appreciate them, and support them in their own lives.

I have relatives that I have lived close to my whole life, and relatives that live in other states. The distance between us does not determine how close our relationships are. I only see my California-residing relatives every couple of years and I don’t really keep in touch with them other than Facebook, but when my family goes down to California or they come up to Oregon we have a blast. I love them just as much as my Oregon-residing relatives.

But I did not invite them to my wedding. Why? Well, partly because I was only engaged for six months leading up to my wedding (not a lot of time for people to make travel plans) and my husband and I decided that we did not want to wait a year to get married (which would have given us more time to plan, save money, and invite more people). I didn’t want to make anyone feel bad if they couldn’t go due to the short notice. And we wanted a small, intimate wedding (which is really impossible unless you elope, but we did pretty well).

The main reason, though, was because my husband’s family did not go to our wedding. My Oregon-residing relatives all know my husband, so I knew that having them there would make him feel supported. I was worried that having all of my extended family there, especially all of the people he’d never met, would make the absence of his own family hurt even more (a special thank you to the Evers family members who were there to support Kevin on our wedding day – we love you!).

My point is that I did not allow myself to feel the pressure to invite all of my relatives (and friends) because I knew that they would understand and they wouldn’t take it personally and even if it hurt their feelings a little, they’d get over it. Because we are all adults and we have to make the choices that are right for us. And we shouldn’t have to feel all of this guilt and pressure over making everybody else happy.
It’s impossible, really, so why not focus on our own happiness?

Surround yourself with people who love and support you, who share your core values and beliefs.

These people might be your relatives, they might be your close friends, they might be a mix of both. I, personally, am very close with my parents and brothers and couldn’t imagine our relationship being any different. But it could very well have been different if my parents were toxic, if my life was different growing up. And that could be your story. You should not feel the need to keep people in your close circle if they are toxic or if they bring you down. Sound familiar? I’ve said it before, and the point is that it doesn’t matter if they are related to you. The same rule still applies.

Understand that people change, and your close circle might change over the years.

I remember being a kid and being so close with my cousins. I loved going to family gatherings and hockey games and hanging out with them. I still love them all to pieces, and it’s great to see them on holidays and birthdays. It’s great to watch them grow into young adults, but our relationship is not the same as it was ten years ago. And that’s okay. They have their own friends and they’re growing into these unique human beings, and they know that I will be there when I can to support them. And who knows, maybe in the future we’ll have that really close relationship again.

Also understand that some people don’t change, and you may have to leave them behind.

When we’re little kids, we have this unconditional love for family members, relatives, close friends, and that stems from knowing that our parents love these people and trust these people to be around us. As we grow up, we form our own opinions about these people we’re surrounded by and that unconditional love starts to fade. It’s not that we stop loving people, we just start noticing their quirks and their flaws and their personalities. And we start to figure out who we like spending time with. I encourage you to let your kids do this. Let them decide which family members, relatives and friends they enjoy being around. This doesn’t mean they get to be rude to everyone else, but they do get to have their own opinions and share them, when appropriate. We don’t live in the children must be seen, not heard era anymore. Plus, I guarantee they won’t be any more rude than their druncle (drunk uncle) is at any family gathering.

Ultimately, you have to do what is right for you.

Only you know the ins and outs of your relationships. You get to decide who is in and who is out. This isn’t some high school clique, this is your life, and you do get to decide who is involved in it.

Choose the people that make you happy and reduce your stress.

They’re your family.

Toxic Families

I’ll be totally honest here. I probably have no right to even attempt to give advice on how to deal with toxic families, since I have had a hard time figuring out how to deal with my own family. But I’m hoping that my own experiences will help you to find the right course of action in your own situation. Or, at the very least, make you feel like you’re not alone. Because you’re definitely not alone.

Every family has drama. But you can have drama and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are surrounded by toxic family members. The way I would define a toxic family member is someone that is repeatedly bringing negativity, drama, or complication into your life. So even though family drama sucks and it’s easy to point fingers, don’t eliminate someone from your family circle because of one or two small issues. Our families are usually very close to us, so we try harder to work through problems with them because we know that we’re still going to have to see them at the next birthday party even though we’re super pissed off that Aunt Karen is currently on some pro-NRA agenda and is lashing out at everyone else for being too liberal (this is not a real-life example by the way – I don’t have an Aunt Karen).

There are three things that have helped me deal with toxicity amongst my own family members.

The first is open communication. I know, weird right? Who would have thought that just communicating openly with people could help resolve issues? Pardon my sarcastic tone, but it’s a really simple thing that would solve a lot of problems and misunderstandings if people actually did it.

The second is understanding that everyone has their own truth. This is a hard one, especially if you’re one of those people who sees things in black and white and thinks you’re right most of the time (like me). The thing is, you only see things from your lens, your perspective, your view of the world, no matter how progressive or open-minded you think you are. Everyone else still sees things through a different lens than you do. But that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong and you’re right. It just means that their truth is different than yours.

Acknowledging that someone else has their own truth does not mean you are justifying it or agreeing with them.

It just means that you are acknowledging that they believe what they are saying. You don’t have to think they are right. In fact, you can think they are utterly and completely wrong. But you can’t really tell them that their truth doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist, because it does.

It has nothing to do with being right or wrong.

The third thing is realizing that you can still love someone despite all of this. You can still love a toxic family member. You can still love a family member who has an extremely different truth than you do. You can still love a family member who is really just a pain in your ass. Trust me. Your parents loved you even when you drove them crazy, didn’t they?

There is a consequence for every action, right? That consequence could either be positive or negative, depending on the situation. When dealing with toxic family situations, everyone involved needs to understand that there are going to be consequences for their actions. It’s one of the most basic principles we teach our children, so it shouldn’t be that hard for adults to understand.

For example, if Aunt Karen thinks it’s okay to make openly racist remarks at the Thanksgiving dinner table, the consequence might be that you don’t take your kids to see Aunt Karen anymore. The consequence also might be that you teach your kids about racism and they call Aunt Karen out the next time they hear her saying something inappropriate.

Aunt Karen isn’t going to know about these consequences unless you say something. No, it’s not your job to say something and you’re right, she probably should be able to figure it out on her own. But let’s go back to that idea of open communication. Let Aunt Karen know your feelings on her racist comments. Let her tell you about how back in her day everyone said those things and it was fine.

Then you can say, “Well Aunt Karen, I understand that you don’t believe there is anything wrong with being racist because that’s how you grew up, and that’s fine if you don’t want to change that, but I have already told the kids that I don’t find your behavior appropriate and if it continues, we won’t be coming to see you anymore.”

Now it’s Aunt Karen’s choice. You’ve acknowledged her truth and you’ve let her know the potential consequences. It’s up to her to decide what she wants to do in response.

This is not an ultimatum. You have every right to decide who you spend time with and who your kids spend time with. You are under no obligation to spend time with someone just because they’re related to you. Don’t let anyone try and tell you otherwise.

One of the most freeing things my family has ever done is we started spending Christmas at home. Just my parents, my brothers, and me (and now my husband and my brother’s girlfriend). We used to wake up early (around 7) and open presents, then my grandpa would come by for brunch, then we’d get dressed and drive to Hillsboro to spend the rest of the day at my grandma’s house with aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was exhausting and by about 2:00pm we all just wanted to take a nap.

Now, we have no schedule for the day. We wake up when we want to and we take however long we want to open presents. We eat whatever delicious breakfast my mom has prepared for us. We take naps in the middle of the day. We go out and deliver presents to friends. We play games. We eat pizza for dinner. And we love it.

Does this mean I don’t love my extended family? Of course not. I do see them at other times throughout the year. Now that I live in another state, I really value the time I get to spend with my immediate family. And realistically, it would be impossible to see everyone during the short time I am back in Oregon so I do have to prioritize.

The point is, you are not obligated to spend time with family just because they’re family. You are not obligated to do things the way that they’ve always been done. You are not obligated to tolerate someone’s shitty behavior because they’re family and that’s just who they are. Side note: there will be a follow-up post on this because I think it’s such an important topic.

I cannot stress this enough. If anything, I think we should hold our family members to higher standards than we hold other people. After all, these are the people in our closest circle. The people that we have listed as emergency contacts. The people that can pick our kids up from school or watch our pets while we’re on vacation. The people that we spend holidays and birthdays with. It seems ridiculous that we wouldn’t hold them to higher standards.

But we let a lot of things slide with family and I think that’s a mistake. Because we don’t really let things slide. We just don’t mention them and we keep a running list in our head of all the things we let slide, until one day Aunt Karen does something and it’s the last straw and we just lose it.

So if you’re dealing with a toxic family situation or a toxic family member, don’t let it slide:

  • Communicate openly with all parties involved.
  • Acknowledge each person’s truth.
  • Be transparent about the potential consequences, but let each person decide their own path forward.
  • Remember that your love for this person isn’t contingent upon whether they make the “right” choice. You can still love them, even if your relationship changes going forward.

If you decide to cut ties with a toxic family member, you do not have to justify this decision to anyone. That decision is yours and yours alone.

Toxic People

At the end of my last post, I briefly mentioned toxic people and the role they play in our social media etiquette. The overarching goal of my last post was to get everyone to just get along already, so this might seem a bit hypocritical in contrast but we need to let go of toxic people.

I think that one thing we need to be mindful of is that people may be toxic to us, but they may not be toxic to everyone. They might, in fact, have a great circle of friends who share their values and beliefs and who absolutely love them. Which means that we shouldn’t feel bad about cutting people out of our life who are toxic to us. In fact, we could very well be toxic to them.

Oftentimes, I think it is a mutual thing. We should be able to tolerate everyone, but that doesn’t mean we have to include everyone in our circle, or have close relationships with people that we just don’t jive with. And chances are, if you are having a hard time being friends with someone because they really grind your gears, they could be thinking the exact same about you.

I am not proposing that we cut out anyone who has a different opinion than us and surround ourselves with people who are carbon-copies of ourselves because realistically this could never happen since we are all unique, but it would also keep us from growing and learning and becoming more open-minded.

am proposing that we keep our closest circles full of people who share our core beliefs and values, but who also challenge us to be better people. Because we’re going to be happier and more successful if we do this.

And I think we should be honest with each other about how we feel.

It’s easier said than done. I struggle with this daily. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, I don’t want to cause any drama, and I will make up excuse after excuse because maybe I just don’t have the energy to deal with it.

But wouldn’t it be a lot better if we could just say, face to face, “Hey Karen, I know that we’re still Facebook friends but I really haven’t talked to you since high school and I realized that we really have nothing in common and to be totally honest the stuff you post on Facebook really gets under my skin sometimes, so I wanted to see if you felt the same way about me?”

To which Karen responds, “Actually, I was feeling the same way myself. Thanks for bringing this up like an adult. Now we can part ways civilly and move on with our lives!”

Obviously this is grossly oversimplified. Not everyone is going to react the same way, and not everyone acts like an adult (unfortunately). But I think being transparent and honest with other people is something we should all strive for. It really does come down to treating others the way you would like to be treated. I’d certainly prefer if people were up-front and honest with me all the time, instead of feeling like they have to put up a front or pretend like they agree with the things I say. I don’t know how many people in my life feel like they have to do that, but I’m sure there are some.

And even if telling the truth does hurt someone’s feelings, it’s probably still the right thing to do. I recently had a very close friend decide to cut me out of her life. Although I was very hurt by the way she decided to do this (which was not up-front, transparent, honest, or face-to-face), I have started to realize that our relationship was not really that great. At first, I tried to fix things the way that I know how, which is through open communication. This was not well-received and, with the help of my husband, I realized that it was probably better to just let it go.

Letting it go is not my thing. I like to attack things head-on, aggressively, until the issue is resolved. But that’s not always what needs to happen (as I am slowly learning) and not everyone handles things this way. Although I do still hope there will be reconciliation, I am trying to accept that maybe this was the right thing for both parties. Maybe we were toxic to each other, and maybe we are better off and will both be happier in separate circles.

To wrap this up, I’ll leave you with a few steps that I hope are helpful when it comes to cutting out toxic people (and surrounding yourself with people who share your values and beliefs, because that puts a more positive spin on it).

Step 1: Be aware of how you feel when you are around other people (or when you see their posts on Facebook or get text messages from them). Does being around them bring you joy or does it stress you out? Does it recharge your energy or leave you feeling depleted? Do the conversations more often have a positive tone or a negative tone? Ask yourself these questions when you are around the people in your circle.

Step 2: If you feel like someone in your circle is not bringing you joy, if they are bringing toxicity into your life, then be honest and open with them about it. But be kind. Be cognizant of their feelings. Treat them the way you would like to be treated. Be calm, be understanding, and be open to a potential resolution. You never know, maybe there has been a misunderstanding and all it needed was some open communication.

Step 3: Invite this type of communication from other people. If you are going to go out there and tell people how you feel, they should be able to do the same.

Step 4: Remember that this is not some shallow bash-fest where you go on a rampage telling everyone what you really think about the color shirt they wear with absolutely no regard for their feelings. This is serious. If you’re just mad about some one-off instance, like that time Grandma shared some political propaganda, just un-follow her on Facebook for a couple of days and let yourself cool down. Don’t act out over one small thing. This is about who you want to surround yourself with for the rest of your life, so you’d better spend some time thinking about it.

Step 5: In retrospect, this should have been step one. Think about yourself and how you interact with people. Are you bringing them up, are you having positive conversations, are you adding value to their lives? Do you think they enjoy being around you? Don’t over-think every interaction you’ve ever had with someone, but take some time to think introspectively about whether or not you have been a toxic person in the past. We have all been at some point, I guarantee that, and we’ll continue to have those moments but we should constantly challenge ourselves to be better.

While I think this is a great start, it does not encompass all of my thoughts and feelings about toxic people. For example, toxic family members are a whole different ball game. I’ll get into that in a follow-up post. But I’d also like to remind everyone that this is just one perspective and, like everything you read, you should take all of this with a grain of salt. Think about it and see if it is even applicable to your life currently or if you have an entirely different perspective on toxic people.
But hopefully this got you thinking.