Raising Happy Kids in the Country

From city life to small-town living

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Parenting tips for raising children in a small town setting. How to embrace a new setting and the many advantages that follow.

For those of us who swore we’d never leave the bright lights of the city—not to mention sophisticated friends, the plethora of art and culture, and the proximity to anything and everything of interest—it undoubtedly caught us off-guard the moment we decided to pull up our roots and transplant them to country soil.

Environments with the strongest gravitational pull in our earliest parenting years don’t always solve the lifestyle equation that evolves as our kids start growing up. Carmen Pelaez of St. David’s, Pennsylvania, remembers her Upper East Side apartment well: widely accessible to everything, it offered both her and her husband easy walking access to their respective offices, corner grocery stores, and the dizzying liberation that accompanies life in midtown Manhattan. After her first baby arrived, she adjusted to parenthood there, schlepping groceries up narrow flights of stairs, hauling laundry with one baby on the hip and a basket on the other, and of course, a daily stroll to Central Park for sunshine and fresh air.

Her attitude changed after baby number two arrived: these errands got more tedious, their previously adequate quarters got unbearably cramped, and the yearning to be out in nature tugged at her.

But it’s not always mere inconvenience of city life that appears to be the driving force behind the exodus to country living. The trend is pushed by parents reassessing their lives and opting for simplicity. Having tasted the byproducts of a success-driven lifestyle and of the frantic pace it inevitably demands, they are anxious now to find a slower pace. Simple pleasures. Fresh air and fresh vegetables. Safe streets and safe neighbors.

Leslie Boris of Haverford, Pennsylvania, admits it was not necessarily an organic lifestyle that attracted her to a rural environment. Living in center city Philadelphia, first as a single working woman, then as a working newlywed, and then as a working new mom, she walked outside only to witness her horrified next-door neighbor, who ten minutes earlier had been attacked—at gunpoint—just outside her own front door. With one new baby and a full-time nanny inside her downtown home, she quickly decided it was time to make the shift. “I wanted to raise my kids with lots of green space, lots of fresh air and sunshine, and less concern for their personal safety.”

Devoid of serious crime, the country offers kids opportunities to explore nature and enjoy the bucolic surroundings that families who have made a similar choice crave. Our tiny town not only feels like it fell out of a Norman Rockwell scrapbook; it looks that way, too. Wide boulevards shape tiny Main Street, lined with white-steepled churches and freckled with the Town Hall, the post office, fire department, hardware store, pharmacy, and library. If this looks too much like a set out of the TV classic “Green Acres,” it’s because it bears a strong resemblance. Yet most of us living this lifestyle do so by choice, seeking the quiet comforts of the country with as much gusto as thespians seek the bright lights of Broadway.

But just because we view this lifestyle—from our organic coffee to our quiet retreats in the woods—as the perfect anecdote to most of today’s ills, our transplanted children would not necessarily have claimed this as their own. The accoutrements of our times—from cell phones to plasma televisions and Play Stations—serve as honing devices to our kids. And sometimes the pull to the country, though impossible for us parents to resist, is met with reservation by those in our charge, even if it is just the change that is unsettling.

So just how do country parents raise happy country campers?

Embrace This Healthy Lifestyle

Children develop beautifully in the country. They are getting the pure oxygen, outdoor activity, and relaxed pace that aid in their physical development. They naturally appreciate green grass and blue skies. They adopt stray cats, raise puppies, and take horseback riding lessons because country living practically requires a love of animals and of nature.

Nicola and Roy Messing of Ridgefield, Connecticut, who have always lived in the country, bought plenty of acreage for their three kids to freely explore. Their youngest child is responsible for cleaning out the newly constructed chicken coop, where freely roaming chickens produce marvelous eggs. “We’re into the whole fresh air and sunshine thing,” says Nicola. “We want our kids to witness firsthand the cycle of nature … that the eggs they enjoy for breakfast come from the chickens roaming around outside their back door.”

Appreciate the Distinct Advantages

As newlyweds and young parents, city life might have offered everything you could have ever hoped for—and more. But that fresh air that oxygenates your toddler’s lungs might be all the reason you need to make the switch. Toddlers are thrilled to explore wide-open spaces. To see deer sprinting in front of their very eyes is exciting. Wild geese, woodchucks, snakes, and bunnies are the stuff of early childhood.

Older children thrive in the country, too. Emily Messing, now fourteen, grew up with horses, yet learned along the way the intense maintenance required to keep them. Now working several hours a week to care for them, she earns her riding lessons with sweat equity. “She’s obsessed with horses,” claims her mother. “Always has been. And she knows that if she wants to continue riding them, she has to dig out stalls and earn her keep. There are no negatives. There’s no time for getting into trouble or wasting money at the mall. She spends every free minute at the stables. We want our kids to learn that things don’t just arrive on your plate, but rather, that you work for them.”

Celebrate the Natural Cycle

Your child might be learning biodynamic farming at the same time that he is learning the alphabet, and most country families agree that’s a wonderful side benefit. This lifestyle offers valuable lessons in the circle of life: country kids know full well that cows produce milk, lambs produce wool, and that chickens—not plastic cartons—produce eggs.

Even very young children can enjoy helping out in the family garden or on the farm. And kids who have an active part in growing their own vegetables are often more likely to eat them. How’s that for benefit?

Delight in Close Relationships

My son’s fifth grade homeroom teacher is a member of our church; I wouldn’t hesitate to call her if my son ever needed extra help or counseling. The bus-stop “mom” is my fourth child’s Cub Scout den leader; and my daughter’s friend’s brother bags groceries at our neighbor shop, while her sister scoops ice cream at the local dairy bar. If we ever had an emergency—and what family doesn’t?—any number of families would quickly come to our rescue. It’s simply a necessity of country living. The relationships among us are interwoven tightly. We bump into each other at the pharmacy and the grocer. We share pews on Sundays and news on Thursdays. Country living promises neighborly affections. We preserve—and cherish—relationships and a strong sense of community.

In the end, you may find, as we have, that the lure is simply too strong, the fresh air too intoxicating, the joys too numerous, the simplicity too compelling. Country living, offering all of these benefits and more, guarantees a lifestyle where your kids—and you—will thrive!

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