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 Note the influence of helicopter parents: the high dive has been replaced by a chute.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