Kids and the City

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Raising children in the city has its benefits and drawbacks. Many parents who opt for an urban life say they couldn’t ask for anything better for their kids.

Ever since the days of 1950s sitcoms, owning a home with a white picket fence and a suburban backyard has been widely-held American ideal. What could be better than a carpeted basement for kids to play in, or a cul-de-sac for them to explore? So it’s no surprise that when mom and dad decide that they’d rather raise their family above a corner store with a subway system running through the neighborhood, some friends and acquaintances are quick to point out what their children are missing. But many of these parents consider the experiences their children stand to gain from life in an urban environment to be even more important than the things they might miss.

Annie Henstrand, of Brooklyn N.Y., says,”Since both my husband and I almost always work outside of the home, the most important thing to us was how much time we spend getting home and getting to work. Living in the city, we’ve never been more than a 30- or 40-minute subway ride away from my son’s daycare or school or our home.”

Henstrand, who has a seven-year-old, says, “I’ve worked with lots of parents who live deep in the suburbs, and none of them are less than an hour’s commute away from their children during the day – most of them are even farther away than that. I’ve always been happy with having the ability to be home quickly to spend family time together.”

Convenience is one urban virtue extolled by many city-dwelling families. They spend less time in the car because so many shops and services are located close to home. “We would never in a million years consider moving to the suburbs. Never,” says Tricia Cornell, who has a 16-month-old daughter. “We hope that our child will have a much less car-centered existence than she might growing up in the suburbs. There are ten small children right on our block that she’ll be able to play with. She will, in fact, be able to walk right out our door and go ring their bells when she’s old enough to do that. I imagine a life in the suburbs involving a lot of planned playdates and ferrying children around by car. Yuck!”

In his own way, Max, who is Henstrand’s 7-year-old son, echoes this sentiment. “The people in the suburbs all have to drive in their cars and so you can’t see anyone’s face, if it is smiling or mad,” he says. He adds that if he lived in the suburbs, rather than Brooklyn, “there would be no Prospect Park. And no Brooklyn Bridge, which is my favorite place. And no big U.N. building.”

Of course, city parents are realistic about the fact that where they live might not always be as safe as it is convenient, but they are often willing to make the tradeoff. “We have excellent libraries, museums, and a thriving arts community. But I don’t feel comfortable letting him run around on his own. We live in one of the more high-crime parts of town, and my son doesn’t leave my sight,” says Karuna Jane Kearney, who is raising her four-year-old, Dexter, in Portland, Oregon. And according to Dexter himself, “I like living here because we walk to stores and stuff.”

Experts also suggest that the diversity – both ethnically and economically – that children generally experience when they grow up in a densely populated urban area, provides many valuable life lessons. Dr. Melvin Oatis, MD, of New York University’s Child Study Center, says “Children can learn much from their subway rides and bus rides in the city where they can immediately question their parents about the world around them. It is a generalization, but most suburbs are fairly homogenized where we move into areas with people of the same race, culture and socioeconomic status. You can not escape the differences in the city.”

That is certainly true for Evan Lichman, a four-year-old resident of a high-rise building in Hoboken, N.J., where the elevator is always crowded. Evan says, “I like the playroom, the exercise room and seeing all the people. It’s like we’re all living in one big house.” Evan admits that he sometimes wishes he had a backyard, but he can “go to a park and see the river and ride bikes.”

Although the suburbs are often touted as having a small-town ambience, city dwellers say that their communities, too, can be reminiscent of a village where everybody knows your name. Eileen Kerrigan, who lives in the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia, says, “It’s very green, with cobblestone streets and lots of little courtyards and small shops – none of the anonymity of the huge suburban big-box superstores. There’s a certain thrill you get when you walk into the farmer’s market and the people behind the counter greet you by name, or the guy in the hardware store remembers the bolts you bought last week and wants to know if they worked out okay for you.”

Parents also say that unlike some suburbs, where the main hub of activity may be the local mall, the wide range of activities that even a small city has to offer means that their kids won’t grow up with nothing but time on their hands – a known recipe for trouble. Connell, who grew up in an area of “undifferentiated small towns squeezed next to each other” says, of her childhood, “Kids and teens hung out at the mall, at Denny’s or in grocery store parking lots. There was just nowhere else. I want more for my kids than that!”

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