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  • Bradley James Davies

L is for Lifeguard Parenting

Educators have become too focused on parenting don’ts rather than dos.

DON’T be a helicopter parent.

We all know a helicopter parent or two, those who hover and meddle more than most. They worry about playground safety more than most. They help out their kid on the science fair project more than most. They contact the school more than most.

If death by a million emails were such a thing for educators, helicopter parents would be prime suspects.

DON’T be a bulldozer parent. (Or in wintry worlds, DON’T be a snowplow parent.)

Although not as common as helicopter parents, bulldozer parents endeavor to push aside whatever is getting in the way of their child achieving some family-defined notion of success. Disregarding school policy, too common is the elementary-school bulldozer parent who asks the principal for the opportunity to choose their child’s homeroom teacher. High-school bulldozer parents are notorious for pressuring coaches about playing time.

Bulldozer parents are like bullies with a beer buzz–a bit too brazen in their behaviors with an impaired ability to see the bigger picture.

DON’T be a drone parent.

Of all the dysfunctional parenting “don’ts,” drone parents are the rarest and most pernicious. They take their hovering and barrier removal business to a place of clandestine violence akin to no-holds-barred espionage.

The 2019 William “Rick” Singer college admissions scandal is an extreme example of drone parenting. In this situation, drone parents of college applicants paid millions of dollars to guarantee admission to selective universities. Sadly, in addition to faceless college admission competition, drone parents’ victims are educators and students. A teacher, they feel, is not up to snuff and therefore should be fired. Someone else’s child, they believe, is a bully and thus should be kicked out of school. Drone parents demand more “accountability!!!” and accuse the school of doing “nothing!!!” All the while, they spread rumors, covertly build coalitions around their cause, and relentlessly pursue their desired end as though it was their life’s highest calling.

Drone parents are middle school mean girls and bully boys all grown up but not yet fully matured. And with decades of refined dirty tricks at their disposal, they are dangerous to any school community and make educators question their belief in the goodness of humanity.

Considering the negatives associated with these dysfunctional parenting tropes, it makes sense that educators often decry:

“DON’T be a helicopter parent.”

“DON’T be a bulldozer parent.”

“And, please, please, please DON’T be a drone parent.”

Lots of don’ts. But what is a good parent to DO?

Do seek to be a lifeguard parent.

(And educators, let’s seek to be lifeguard teachers and lifeguard leaders!)

But how?

Lifeguard Parenting 101: Five Steps to Save Your Child & Thereby the World


Be it the beach or the pool, to ensure a setting is safe, lifeguards first have to show up to work. However, for a lifeguard, showing up isn’t enough. Lifeguards can’t be distracted from their work by looking at their phones or talking with friends. Only once fully present can they accurately assess risk and respond accordingly.

Like lifeguards, lifeguard parents consistently show up. They are present at back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences, competitions, and performances. They even attend the insanity-inducing annual elementary school recorder concert!

And also like real lifeguards, when present, lifeguard parents commit to being fully present.


Lifeguards spend most of their day watching the water and assessing risk. If a potential threat is identified, lifeguards discern how imminent the danger is and whether or not it requires immediate action. Like lifeguards, lifeguard parents watch their kids closely, and when the situation requires it, they draw closer for more information.

For lifeguards and lifeguard parents, there is no perfect recipe for knowing when to engage. Whether we are talking about the sea or the SAT, the pool or the prom, discerning the difference between real risk and normal, everyday drama is rarely crystal clear. When in doubt, both lifeguards and lifeguard parents get in the water; they get involved.

What they do (and don’t do) next is crucially important.


After identifying a potential danger, lifeguards get in the water and race toward the struggling swimmer. As a plot twist, lifeguards refrain from saving immediately. Instead, they stop to tread water just beyond the swimmer’s reach.

But why?

First, their training has taught them that taking hold of a scared, struggling swimmer risks the rescuer being dragged underwater and the safety of all being compromised. Second, “self-saving” is incredibly common, especially when help is known to be present. So, lifeguards initially tread water close by because it is the best strategy to save a life. It turns out that providing a supportive presence and verbal encouragement usually results in the most ideal save of all—a “self-save.”

In times of trouble, lifeguard parents also race to their children. Once engaged, they stay far enough away to avoid being pulled under themselves but close enough for their kids to feel emotionally supported. Like real lifeguards, they recognize the dangers of being pulled underwater by a situation involving their struggling child. They also believe that the best save is a self-save because that is where learning and growth happen.


Once a lifeguard or lifeguard parent has arrived at the scene, to improve the probability of a self-save, they seek first to calm with words, and then, ask questions.

Upon arriving at the scene, lifeguards convey a strong presence and declare the swimmer’s safety. To elicit calm, their initial message can sound terse and almost robotic: “I am a lifeguard. I’m here to help you. You are safe.” Once some semblance of calm is established, the lifeguard begins to ask questions, in a more tender tone, that can help guide the struggling swimmer to a self-save. They might ask: “What do you need now?” or “Can you grab the safety buoy?”

Lifeguard parents sound similar to real-world lifeguards, but with one significant difference—any authoritarian tone is replaced by a compassionate, gentle tenor. Lifeguard parents convey kindly: “I am here for you. You are loved unconditionally. You are safe.” When some calm is established, the lifeguard parent begins to ask questions that can help guide the struggling child to a self-save. They might ask: “What would help right now?” or “What other stories might be true?” With a presence that proffers safety as fact, consoling words, and lots of active listening (and as-needed, hugs and more hugs), the probability of a self-save increases dramatically.


While a self-save is always the ideal outcome, the reality is that some struggling swimmers are not always able to save themselves. When this is the case, lifeguards and lifeguard parents proactively shoulder the rescue. But when is the right time to take control of the situation?

Only once a struggling swimmer can no longer keep their head above water do lifeguards engage physically to save. The moment a struggling swimmer’s head bobs below the surface, lifeguards lunge to take hold of the victim and bring them safely to shore.

Lifeguard parents have to save their children from time to time, too. Like real lifeguards, they only do so after all other self-save options have been tried and when it’s clear that their child is in over their head. Only then, and not a moment before, does a lifeguard parent race to rescue by sending an email, making a call, or setting up a meeting.

What’s At Stake? They Just Might Save Us All.

Unlike lifeguards, parents rarely get a day off. Day in and day out, lifeguard parents:

  • Show up to the proverbial pool and are fully present.

  • Watch the water, and when in doubt, get in for a closer look.

  • Swim toward the splashing and then tread water close by.

  • Seek a self-save via presence, encouraging words, and active listening.

  • Save, but only after all other options have been exhausted.

Like all other parents on the planet, lifeguard parents do swoop in and save. The crucial difference is how and when they rescue and the mindset that motivates them. Lifeguard parents believe that, more often than not, no saving is needed. They believe that saving too soon robs their children of crucial opportunities to grow. They believe that struggle is the only way to become strong.

Lifeguard parents also know that most children’s struggles occur in the shallow end of life’s pool. Armed with this perspective, lifeguard parents are freed from the fear that befalls so many helicopter, bulldozer, and drone parents. As a result, lifeguard parents’ kids grow stronger through struggle, rather than weaker via too many premature saves.

So, let's be done with the parenting don’ts.

Instead, let’s encourage each other to be lifeguard parents, lifeguard teachers, and lifeguard leaders. If we can successfully normalize the lifeguard approach to working with kids, the next generation of our global community will grow into superbly strong swimmers. With formidable life muscles made early on in the shallow end of life’s pool, our kiddos will learn to navigate life’s worst white water, dive to life’s deepest depths, and surf life’s biggest waves.

And as they do, they just might save us all.

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