Controversy of the Day: Pool or Pond?

Hi Readers — Today’s New York Times has a really great piece about a town in New Jersey whose sand-bottomed, spring-water filled swimming hole has been the joy of local kids since 1929. Until, of course, today.

Now half the residents want to fill the pond in and replace it with a standard concrete pool, making it easier to watch their children. The other half say this is helicopter parenting taken to extremes. The pro-pool people cite the death of a 14-year-old last year — the third drowning in 80 years — as proof that the swmming hole is unsafe. Personally, I’m terrified of drowning and feel terrible for this boy and his family, but are 3 deaths in 80 years proof that something is unsafe…or proof that something is actually quite safe: One death every generation?

Anyway, I figured this was something we’d like to discuss. And if you’re off at a Labor Day picnic, splashing in some sweet body of water somewhere, all I can say is: I’m jealous. (And stay safe!)  — Lenore

37 Responses

  1. This is a ridiculous overreaction. Of course the drowning is a tragedy. Of course we want our kids to be safe. Just because something is surrounded by concrete doesn’t insure that it’s safer than something that is not. Kids still drown in pools.

  2. Yeah. God knows, people only drown in unchlorinated water, after all.

    Give me a break with this stuff already. I’m with you. If they’ve only had three people drown in the biggest part of 100 years, I’d say they’re doing well.

  3. I don’t get it. How is a concrete pool any better?

  4. The number of deaths by itself is a completely meaningless statistic. More people are killed taking a shower than free climbing tall buildings, but that does not mean that the former is more dangerous than the latter.

    Find the ratio of drowned kids to pond visits and compare it to the ratio of traffic deaths to car trips. Then you can make a quantitative statement like “letting your kids visit the pond once is as dangerous as driving them to school four times”.

  5. Here’s an idea: they can build a swimming pool somewhere else and those who prefer to see all the way to the bottom can take their kids there.

  6. Any body of water combined with unsupervised children is dangerous. Maybe they think a pool is safer because the image of a pool usually includes a life guard?

    Either way I think it’s a shame. A pool won’t be any safer, but it would certainly cut interest and fun considerably. I suppose it only feels safe if it looks like it was made by a machine. Ooh here’s a great idea to make everyone happy: (sarcasm eminent) let’s demolish the existing spring and replace it with an expensive instalation of an artificial-natural concrete fiberglass spring! Compromise at it’s finest!

  7. I was once a member of this pool, and it makes me sad to think that they’re going to change it from a pond to something so mundane.

  8. I’m cribbing most of this from Stephen Fry, so fair warning (and credit) where it’s due.

    Oscar Wilde, when asked why America was so violent, reportedly said, “It’s because your wallpapers are so ugly.” While this might sound flip, there’s actually something more than just the witty about it. We have a need, it seems, to remake nature in our image, but what we end up with is a pale, lifeless, comparatively ugly imitation. Swimming pools, instead of ponds. Lawns, instead of fields. Gardens, instead of wildflowers.

    There’s something in the human spirit that craves beauty, and when we frustrate that need by giving it wallpaper instead of nature, or in this case, a swimming pool instead of a pond, we deaden our souls a little more each time.

  9. Concord NH just a couple weeks ago had a drowning of a 3 year old in one of it’s town pools with 3 life guards on duty and her mother near by. A chlorinated pool didn’t help.

  10. Well, I usually agree with most of your columns but for this one, I think the motivation is misunderstood.

    I don’t think the reason that they’re rebuilding the pool is for helicopter parents to have a better view of their kids. I think it’s for two other reasons discussed only briefly in the article.

    First and foremost, they’re losing money. Towns really don’t want to lose revenue to other nearby towns. And it doesn’t make sense to charge the few people who are left more money to pay more to keep it open the way it is.

    One reason they are losing money is the sanitation issues. This “swimming hole” was a man-made beach. This was great 20 years ago but now the place has become infested with Canada geese who have made the water and beach their home. It’s much harder to get rid of the contamination from Canada geese in sand than concrete. In fact, it is very expensive to keep a man-made beach clean.

    Look, I’m not a helicopter parent. I’m the one who drops my two kids (10 and 14) at our own town pool and then looks for them at the end of the day.

    If this were an article about the pool closing altogether because of one recent drowning or about them hiring more lifeguards in a kneejerk reaction, I’d join in the bashing, but there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.

    This is a practical answer to a sanitation issue. That’s all.

  11. Kradcliffe,

    “Here’s an idea: they can build a swimming pool somewhere else and those who prefer to see all the way to the bottom can take their kids there.”

    The article mentions that in fact, Ridgewood residents by the thousands have been going to other town pools in the area and paying for the privilege.

    That’s the crux of the problem. Ridgewood is losing money and the town isn’t going to be able to afford the park’s upkeep much longer as less people decide to join.

    So if the pond proponents win, they’ll likely earn a hollow victory as the park will eventually have to be shut down anyway due to lack of support.

    Yeah, it’s sad but it’s reality. Geese are gross and they are expensive to clean up after. But that’s the price you pay for living in the suburbs. Ridgewood is not a rural Mayberry no matter what we’d like to think.

    This isn’t a Free Range issue. This is a “reap what you sow” by clustering people in the suburbs issue.

  12. The days of my youth were so much more simple. Pogo sticking about the neighborhood without a care. Boing boing boing. “Hello Mrs. Davis, large weather we’re having?” “Found Fluffy yet, Mrs. Murrell?” Oh, the neighborhood. Mr. Asmus lording over me to count the dandelions I pulled from his lawn. Three for a penny, and an inch of root. A harsh standard, but a lesson well earned. Mrs. Bronson telling little Eddy put it back into his pants or she will call his mother. Missouri firecrackers blasting apart poorly constructed plastic Revel automobiles in the alley behind Schlegels drug store without a worry of anyone calling the law or being branded a youth in need of counseling. Hot and humid summer nights with no air conditioning and no notion to be in need of it. Cold hard winters letting a bit loose to allow a stream of melting snow to be damned to flood the corner in the hope that the nights freeze would create a hazard and a fender bender to prompt an impromptu block party. Streets named for heroes and trees and things too simple to comprehend.

    Alas, it is all gone. There are rules now, and new codes to live by. There is zero tolerance and we all are either precious or damned to hell. We have rights, but wrong is too clearly defined and not nearly as well tolerated, even in its most innocent form. We are buckled and belted and strapped into narrow definitions of what we are told passes as normalcy. Helmeted children cast suspicious eyes as they wheel past neighborhood watch signs on their way to play meetings at the end of cul-de-sacs or fancily named lanes. The lawn service puts the dandelions to their end and Fluffy is easily found through the proper frequency. Heat and humidity and cold hard winters are dealt with and budgeted for. Skyrockets burst to orchestration and pogo sticks are now recalled for their hazardous nature. I wonder what ever became of little Eddy?

  13. The community conflict strikes me as classic free-range vs. overprotective parent wrangling.

    With diminishing demand from free-rangers and many more risk-averse parents, they’re trying to keep the place adequately funded and used.

    As such, it seems to me the issue is less about evidence of harm from the pond vs. a pool than the need for the pond’s supporters to keep membership/usage numbers up.

  14. I briefly lived in Elk Park, North Carolina, where the local swimming hole was a fifty-foot waterfall. A constant stream of kids hiked up the trail, jumped into the frothing pool, rode the current to the sloping rock beach, and did it again. And again.

    No idea if that swimming hole is still in operation – I hope so – but it took me about thirty seconds of watching ten-year-olds do it to know that any ordinary 23-year-old should be able to manage. It was wonderful.

  15. I agree with Tardy’s comments on this. If you actually read the NYT article it only mentions the drowning breifly (and points out that it was a South Korean boy who had only been in the country 2 days and swam out of his depth), it seems to be more about the sanitation issue. And the fact people have been going to nearby concrete pools instead.

    I don’t think it’s only helicopter parents that care about sanitation, no one want their kids swimming in truly unsanitary water. It will be a shame if this pool closes but I think the sad fact is it will be a lot harder to keep it clean now that it was 100, 50, or even 20 years ago.

  16. The issue here as I see it is that Graydon cannot survive when its users are leaving in droves — a sad, but fair, point. I grew up in another NY/NJ area community dotted with small lakes where all the kids went swimming in the summer. The neighborhoods were strong and vibrant with kids playing and mothers chatting all summer. Now, as the mother of 7 and 5 year old kids, I love bringing them to grandma’s to swim in the lake of my youth. Yet, I’m astonished that the lakes today are largely unused, except by the children of my peers who grew up with the lakes. All the new folks in town have built pools in their backyards because of the perception of the lake being murky and dirty. (Our lake no longer has a geese problem because of a neighbor who, ahem, takes care of them). Instead of taking the opportunity to learn about the natural life cycle of the lake, with its attendant late summer algae, many families bypass the lakes altogether in favor of pool water that looks like it came out of a bottle, regardless of the chemicals used to achieve that effect. I see this as just another aspect of the trend away from the natural and towards artificial sterility.

  17. Unbelievable. We just took a sidetrip through Texas to hit a swimming hole that has been there for years. It was so refreshing to be in a place where the rules were at a minimum and fun was at a maximum. There was real sand, real diving boards, real water (with sometimes wierd floaty things in it….cool!) and real, live fun.

    It’s sad that some busy bodies would rather pave and chlorinate rather than just getting rid of the geese. I will go out of my way for a swimming hole, but another sanitized, chlorinated, suburban piece of homgenous life? No thanks.

  18. Pools are hazards too. There was a little girl here in MN who became stuck on the pool drain and it pulled her intestines out of her body. It was extremely tragic and the poor girl died. I believe a law has been enacted that now requires a special grate to prevent that from happening again.

    No body of water is entirely safe. And I agree that one death a generation seems like a small level of risk for the swimming hole.

  19. Funny, my sister was just telling me all about this the other day. I grew up in Ridgewood, and both my sisters live there still.

    One thing I think it’s worth noting is that, according to what I was told, the kid who drowned was swimming in a part of the pool that was closed at the time.

    Now I grew up going to Graydon every day during my summers and I swam in it without any complaints, although I will say that when I saw the crystal clear water of the other towns’ pools, they did seem more appealing, from the POV of a kid, anyway. But my sister left me with the impression that the water was not as clean today as it was when we were growing up. The NYT article contradicts this, so I’m not sure what the facts are there. My sister did say that her boys will not swim in Graydon. I do not know if they have any place else to swim. I’m fairly confident that my kids would swim in it happily, but we do not have a town pool where we live, so my kids are ecstatic to swim any opportunity they get.

    I do agree that this is a free-range issue, but I don’t think there’s really anything that can be done about it. Too many parents won’t want their kids swimming in water that isn’t perfectly sterile and clear and the pool will lose money and won’t be sustainable, and that’s the financial reality of the world we live in.

  20. “…are 3 deaths in 80 years proof that something is unsafe…or proof that something is actually quite safe: One death every generation?”

    I’d actually be quite relieved. “Okay, that’s that one out of the way; we should be right for another twenty-thirty years now! In you go, kids!”

  21. I live off the shore of Lake Michigan. Our village has a village pool – very nice, clean, chlorinated, outdoor, all that good stuff. But this year I opted out of purchasing a membership for my family and instead we spent long, lovely days exploring the wonderful lake beaches. The children (2, 4, and 6) were beyond entertained with all there was for their imaginations, not to mention other kids to meet and frolic with. I enjoyed relaxing on the sand so much better than being “on” at the pool. Yes, there were some times when I asked the kids to avoid the algae bloom wash-ups, or please don’t play with the dead fish, but when they didn’t listen (or chose to investigate anyway) we had a great science lesson. And they figured out WHY I asked them to stay off the algae – it’s darn hard to get rid of the stink! I grew up going to the beaches in Michigan (Lake Huron), and a pool can be fun, but only for so long. A lake, or natural swimming area, offers endless fun and adventure.

    It’s very sad that people desire so greatly an artificially sanitized, monotonous, unnatural world. Dirt isn’t bad. Dirt can be fun. That’s why God made us washable!!

  22. How many kids drown each year?
    How many at a facility with life guard(s)?
    How many in a bath tub or in a bucket of rain water?
    Here we go again, protecting our kids from EVERY possibility of danger does not protect them from anything except to keep them from becoming self sufficient adults. Ohhh, wait, maybe we could hire someone to watch them AFTER we die and aren’t around to protect them from the world???

  23. My husband lost both front teeth (the permanent ones) in a concrete pool accident when he was a child. I’d rather swim in a pond any day.

  24. I would like to swim in a pond any day.

  25. Tom’s comment baffled me, but I’d be delighted if any of my students turned in a composition of that merit. 😉

  26. @Eric I can’t help but remark that England is one of the countries that raised gardening – as a totally controlled imitation of nature – to an artform. 🙂

  27. Danielle, something similar to that happened to an acquaintance of a friend when he was on holiday.

    Peter, that’s true, but I’ve seen a helluva lot more neat, manicured lawns that go on and on, or small manicured squares of grass in footage of American suburbia then I’ve ever seen in the UK… No offence meant.

    On this topic, there was an outdoor pool near me (a proper pool) that’s had to close because everyone was going to the ‘safer’ but certainly warmer indoor pool.

  28. I just had a great summer with 4 & 6 year old girls that included a LOT of swimming (4 or 5 times a week, usually spending several hours in the water). We are very lucky and have the choice of a lake or two outdoor man made pools. The lake is free, the pools cost the equivalent of $2 per visit for all three of us.

    I, personally, love swimming in the lake but the girls prefer the pools. Why? Because the pools have diving boards, slides, waterfall mushrooms, and even a kids water obstacle course, plus a dry playground, and a crazy golf course.

    At the lake there is a man-made beach that is tiny and therefore always over-crowded, and a jumping platform in the middle that is great for teenagers but too far out for my girls to swim to. Plus the lake, being deeper, is always much colder than the pools and with a 6-year-old who doesn’t have much fat on her that means she gets cold (blue lips and shivering) in the lake very quickly even on hot days. The lake is surrounded by farmland so it’s fenced in and doesn’t give much opportunity to play out of the water.

    I view myself as a “free-range” parent – I let the 6-year-old jump off the 6 meter diving board and the 4 year old do the 3 meter board this year (they loved it) – and am comfortable with them in the water. It’s not a safety issue for me or anything to do with chemically cleaned water. It’s purely an enjoyment issue and for us the “proper” pool gives much more enjoyment than the lake and we’re willing to pay $2 more for that.

  29. It seems that in this issue there is a lot more going on than safety…but in general, I think we’ve got a lot of misguided and expensive regulations built up artound pools in the name of safety. I blogged about it:

  30. I live in that part of NJ. Unfortunately, we never did get to any pool this summer because by the time we could pony up the membership for a pool– $150 for the family plus $75 for me, even though I’d be the person taking the kids to the pool– there really wasn’t enough summer left to be worth it. And the natural pool in our area opened only when school closed and closed 2 weeks before the end of summer… so we never got there. *sigh*
    Most towns in our area restrict memberships to the pools, which is kind of silly; it seems like if they need the money they could offer more memberships…

  31. I understand concern about the goose poop in the pond, but I remember when my son was little I used to take him fishing in a large pond that had once been a gravel pit. After about 10 minutes of fishing he would get bored and take off his shoes and jump into the pond with its snakes, turtles, ducks, geese and their associated droppings. I so much treasure my memories of him swimming trying to catch turtles and crawdads. He never got sick from it and he now has a powerful immune system….and oh yes, he just got back from deployment in Iraq in one piece. Hooray!

  32. My kids swim in a creek. Unsupervised. Its not a very deep creek, and they aren’t allowed there after a rian when the flow rate and depth are significantly increased.
    My 11 year old fishes in the creek without me. He catches his own bait, baits his own hooks, pulls his own fish off and releases them back into the creek.
    We have snapping turtles and pike, as well as leeches, and numerous other less ‘dangerous’ wildlife (frogs, badgers, foxes, deer, rabbits, etc). He knows not to stick his fingers in the mouths of pikes and snapping turtles and to come get disinfectant if he cuts his finger on a fish-hook. His towny friends are all either wildly jealous of him or terrified of the things he does (crickets have wiggly legs, ew).

    One reason he does these things without me is because it’s good for him. The other reason is that the things he wants to do are things I think are gross. When I get in the water I like to be able to see the bottom and not share it with fish and amphibians. I see no reason to impose my squeamishness on him.

    I say those who want a concrete and sterile swimming place should make it, but leave the swimmin’ hole folks alone.

  33. I gew up in Ridgewood, and was a lifeguard at Graydon in the late 80’s, early 90’s.

    The pool is well maintained with a complete filtration system. The geese will be there no matter what color the bottom of the pool is. The chemical levels were checked and managed constantly during the day, from multiple parts of the pool.

    My guess is it’s no less sanitary than any other pool. People just fear the different.

    It really saddens me that such an icon of my youth, a place i hoped to one day take my daughter, might be ripped out by a group of the overly-paranoid and under-educated.

  34. Seems reasonable that they are compromising. They aren’t closing the lake, just making it easier to clean and care for in an attempt to keep up their subscribers.

    I’m a free-ranger but I’m also practical. I’d rather pay less for an easier to maintain pool than a hard to maintain lake.

  35. @Louisa, the NYT recently had an interesting article on concerns about the safety, or at least health, effects of indoor pools — particularly on the lungs of small children (due to the chemicals). You can find it here:

    @GeorgeW, I cannot speak to Elk Park, but I was in the mountains of NC this summer in a state forest and found a lovely waterfall the swimming hole under which was packed with swimmers of all ages including kids in what were clearly many groups from camps and/or churches. So yes, it’s still going on and in an (at least semi-) organized/official way.

  36. Jane: 6 meters?!?! And I thought my local park’s 3-meter board was really high!

  37. Follow-up: I did some quick Googleserchen… turns out that 6 meters is not as high as I thought, considering that in Germany it is a common wives’ tale that “Bei einem Sprung vom Zehnmeter-Turm im Schwimmbad könne bei einem Bauchklatscher der Bauch platzen.”

    A rough translation is “A belly flop from the 10 meter platform into a pool can cause your abdomen to burst.” (By the way, that is not true, though it can cause broken ribs if it’s nearly “perfect” [i.e., totally horizontal]).

    Try Googleserchen (no quotes on any of these) “10 meter turmspringen”, “10 meter turm”, “zehnmeterturm”, “10 meter sprungturm”… you’ll likely find many results, many of which look different from each other (meaning, there are numerous public 10-meter platforms in Germany). By comparison, there are only two public 10m platforms in the USA as far as I know. One is in Idaho and the other is in Alabama (you can easily Google for the names; I prefer not to mention them here just in case a “pouncing” lawyer [the ones who literally look for accidents and approach the victims and hand them his card] is reading).

    Basically: 6m is very high to most Americans, but Germans see platforms even higher than that as a way of life rather than a rarity.

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