June 4, 2009

Pool day! Well, not so much anymore

I've been trying to think of other fun things that we've stopped doing, and tonight at Barnes & Noble it hit me when I saw a couple of little kids running around the store in swimsuits. It's hard to recall the last time I saw such a thing, but I remember doing that plenty when I was 8 years old. You just left the pool and want to go do something fun somewhere else -- and i don't wanna go back home to change clothes, mom, just let me go to the arcade in my swim trunks!

So let's have a look at the data, which once more are from the Statistical Abstract of the United States. They show the percent of each age group that went swimming at least 6 times in the past year:

Everyone, but young people especially, are much less likely go to swimming in 2006 compared to 1986 -- by about half. It clearly has nothing to do with danger or risk, since improving technology makes it safer to go swimming, and crime has only plummeted since the early '90s. And it doesn't have to do with the qualities of pools going downhill. Take a look at the pool I went to in elementary school, the left picture probably being from the 1980s and the right one being recent:

After the renovation, there are surrounding buildings that look great, there's more green stuff, and in general it looks more like a water park than a municipal pool. It's only gotten more attractive, and yet fewer people are leaving their houses to enjoy it. Note the influence of helicopter parents: the high dive has been replaced by a chute. I think the sight of their 8 year-old kid springing into the air from 20 feet above water would give today's parents an aneurysm. But we did it all the time and lived to tell about it -- the damn things are safety tested, after all.

It may seem like a silly thing to worry about -- if kids these days don't go swimming as much as they used to. But how will young boys and girls mature properly if they don't have to undergo the rite of passage known as End-of-the-year Pool Day? After school is finally done, they let you all go to the local pool as one last field trip. I only did this during elementary school and sixth grade, while in seventh and eighth grades we all went to Hershey Park.

No matter what, though, you were going to see every girl in your grade in her bikini. Sure, you knew what her legs and maybe the lower curve of her ass looked like, just from when she wore booty shorts. And you probably saw her stomach now and again when she wore a midriff-baring top. But rarely did all of these separate glimpses occur on the same day. On End-of-the-year Pool Day, though, they all fell into place -- the overwhelming gestalt perception of her entire body, next to naked, made it worth suffering through all of those not-quite-so-revealing teases throughout the whole school year.

(Playboy, or whatever, couldn't take her place, by the way. It was cool to see a dirty magazine the first time, but what you really wanted to see was the body of the girl who kept teasing you by leaning over onto her desk in math class day after day.)

It wasn't all fun for the boys, of course: this day put to the ultimate test your skill in the art of hiding your zipper-bursting boner. Unlike savages who walk around with codpieces, we have to tame ourselves somewhat, and what practice we got on that day.

It's hard to imagine how brain-meltingly awkward and self-conscious the girls must have felt exposing themselves for the first time. They've got to come out of their shell at some point, though, and it might as well be when they're going through puberty, so they can get feedback about their value (whether they're approached a lot or hardly at all, for example). But a picture is worth a thousand words. Here's what the typical pubescent girl who's pretty cute feels like when the plan for the day requires her to bare herself:

For the autists reading this, her legs are locked together from the knee down, she's wrapping both arms around them just to double the protection, and the look in her eye is nervous in awaiting your judgment of her body.

Shoving kids into the spotlight with only swimsuits to cover themselves, letting them learn how to deal with the pain of belly-flopping off the high dive, taking the training wheels off their bike (assuming they even have one) -- it's part of making them grow up. The 20 sports and extra-curriculars that parents chaffeur them around to do not count, since the kids understand that it's only being done to please the parents or pad their college application. Their parents opinion couldn't count for less, and they only care about the admissions board's thoughts about their application, not who they are as a person.

Going to the pool, or wherever else that they no longer go to, is part of their own social world. They aren't trying to go through the motions to get their parents of their back, or to con the admissions board into thinking they're a great candidate. They have to interact with and make an impression on the people who really matter -- their peers. Also unlike with their extra-curriculars, where their soccer mom or sideline dad is always trying to win their battles for them, their behavior when they go with a group of friends to the pool is unsupervised (except for life-threatening behavior that the lifeguards look out for). They can get experience doing independent things when they leave the house, but why retard it until then? Just let them have a life.

And yet, as the data show, it's not just overprotective parents keeping the young people away from pools, while they go frequently themselves -- as though swimming pools were like R-rated movies. Even the adults are going less and less frequently. It's like there's a general level of sociality that characterizes a population -- how abuzz we are across all domains -- and that it's been declining since sometime in the early-mid 1990s. Of course, boring people are also better behaved people, so we got some plummeting crime rates out of the deal -- but still.


  1. I can think of a couple of reasons that whites may be nervous at pools now vs. 1987.

    One is that they actually encounter diversity at public pools now. This sometimes might include loud unpleasant rap music and some loud unpleasant people.

    Another reason moms and dads might not want to take their pre-teen and early adolescent kids to the pools are the twenty and thirty-something tramp women with thongs up their asses and tattoos on their bodies just screaming out "Im sexually available and sexually active", who talk on their cell phones with their girlfriends about the two guys they are currently sleeping with.

    Another reason is probably remnants of the child-abduction hysterias, and a latent sexual predator fear generated by media focus on the topic.

    Solar-phobia-mongering by the media might also slightly factor into the decision.

    Unrelated note: I know of one pool in an exclusive gated community in our city that one has to be a member or a guest of a member to attend. It has two large water slides, fountain, diving board, and a baby pool. That thing was packed when I got to visit. All rich whites in their own little gated fortress-world enjoying a day off from their corporate drudgery. It looked like a picture out of the 1970's-early 1980's at the old Hermitage Landing waterpark I went to as a kid.

  2. The municipality may have replaced the high dive with a water slide not because of helicopter parents, but because the insurance premiums would otherwise have been far too high.


  3. Note the influence of helicopter parents: the high dive has been replaced by a chute.

    Don't blame parents for this one. The blame for this can be laid squarely on litigation lawyers. Enough people got neck injuries from diving into pools/ hitting the bottom (and got paid handsomely for it) that the liability insurance is now quite expensive. These days you see diving boards almost exclusively in university pools (though I imagine a high school with a good tax base could also swing it).

  4. Ha, yeah, the damned lawyers could well be behind the removal of high dives.

  5. I can think of a couple of reasons that whites may be nervous at pools now vs. 1987.

    Nah, none of that was around in the late '80s. Gangsta rap wasn't popular until '91 or '92, and thongs, cell phones, and tattoos weren't there until the late '90s and early 2000s.

    Remember, it's not just pools -- it's also biking, basketball, parks, video game arcades, Halloween, etc. We want one explanation for all of that.

    The simple thing is to say that we've become less social, not that there is a separate cause for each of these related changes.

  6. I wonder if it is cultural. The under 18 group has a high percentage of immigrants. Maybe immigrants aren't so into swimming, or biking etc. Immigrants may be more likely to live in apartments where it is not far enough to ride a bike to a friend's house.

    I go to the pool each weekday for the 10 weeks of summer swim team. The girls all wear the same competition swim suit. Not too revealing really. Anyway they don't seem self conscious. Both boys and girls seem more concerned about their times. The team kids have been wearing those same style suits since kindergarten. They are so used to looking at them. It can't be too interesting to see; same suit, different year/girl.

    Many of the kids ride their bikes to and from, even the young ones.

    Swim team is great because the kids learn all the strokes and practice for an hour every day for 10 weeks. They build endurance and proficiency. I wasn't on swim team as a kid but we practically lived at the pool from 5th grade to 9th grade. It was so close, we just walked over there. That was back in the seventies.

    The family pool at the health club has lots of little kids and older teens. Middle school girls are rarely there. When they are, they are wearing bikinis, not doing much swimming. All the health club pools are new and 4 ft deep or less. No diving allowed.

    The nearby 50 meter country club pool (where my son kicked my tail in a 100 meter race) was bought by the city. It has a high dive and a 14 foot deep diving well. I have never seen the boards open. The admission is free and it is practically deserted. It's kind of funny to go to this enormous pool and there are only 10 or 15 people there. A huge fraction of the pool is deep. It was probably an insurance nightmare.

    I think many kids are either at home to poor to do anything or in organized after school programs and summer camps rather than feral like I was with my friends.

  7. Maybe there are more immigrants among young people, but remember that the pattern for most of these extends to all age groups.

  8. I'd say the explanation is pretty simple: increasing technology.

    Kids now have Facebook, IM'ing, video games, MySpace, Twitter, etc. They can't be away from their social technologies for any extended period of time. I imagine when kids hang out now, instead of going to the pool, they stay inside and go on the computer, etc.

    There's just more to do inside now.

  9. I am thinking of the immigrants I know, on average, two parents, three kids one grandparent, none swimmers, bikers or basketball players. I don't know whether the age distribution of immigrants would match the decline in participation in these activities. If immigrants move here and don't assimilate and participate in these activities at the same rate the native born population does, it seems there would be a decrease over time in all age groups as they comprise a larger share of each age group. Even if that is true, there is probably another trend working in tandem, likely the decrease in healthy socializing.

    Most of the families on my street are Asian immigrants. They socialize by having their family come over. When not at work, they are gone to their cousin or in-laws, or their extended family's cars are packed into the cul de sac. While my street can't be used to represent immigrants generally, a trend among immigrants to socialize within their own groups may mean they are less likely to participate in activities which have traditionally been popular here, and more likely to continue in activities as they had before. A while back I saw a group of boys practicing cricket bowling in their driveway. Hadn't seen that before.

  10. Kids now have Facebook, IM'ing, video games, MySpace, Twitter, etc.

    But the graphs show that going to the pool, riding a bike, going to parks, etc., have been declining since the late '80s or early '90s.

    The internet effectively did not exist until about 1994 for the average American. Cell phones are even later -- like late '90s.

    Video games, whether the home consoles or the arcades, hit their peak in the early '80s, at a time when doing outdoorsy stuff was still pretty popular. So video games and playing outside aren't competing options.

    The reason is that you can only play video games for so long in a day -- then you get a little restless and want to go outside. Or vice versa -- you hit diminishing returns for the fun of flying kites, so let's go back home and play some Mario 3.

  11. My sister is on the "park board" in my home town. She tells me the reason for the removal of "high dives" is due to insurance liability.

  12. "Maybe there are more immigrants among young people, but remember that the pattern for most of these extends to all age groups."

    The number of native born people in a given age group (except newborns) cannot grow. It can only decrease. However the number immigrants in any age group can grow almost infinitely (in theory). So there can be an ever increasing percentage of immigrants in every age category (except maybe newborns who are counted as native even if parents have only just immigrated).

    I am not saying immigration accounts for the trend, only that it is numerically possible.

  13. agnost this is OT, but I found this study you might be interested in: http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/fatty-foods-not-empty-stomach-fire-hunger-hormone-21834.html

    what do you think? i remember you arguing that fatty foods make us full.

  14. http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i37/37a05601.htm

    Education bubble article

  15. Maybe I don't understand this because I am one of those immigrants. But what do you mean by girls 'learning their value'? What's a sweet tween girl to do if she realizes she ain't all that, and how her parents supposed to deal with the low self-esteem?

  16. i feel pedo for saying it, but that girl is cute.


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