Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Imagining Raising Kids in DC

Lately, I’ve noticed various bloggers and commenters writing how they can’t imagine raising a child in DC. This opinion is not extraordinary. When people say this, I believe them. They are really actually admiting that they have no imagination. The only thing they can envision is raising kids in the exact same milieu as they were raised – most likely a suburban or exurban milieu. They have fond memories of wonderful childhoods, and assume that wonderful childhoods are the direct result of the physical places they lived. I propose that a wonderful childhood is a direct result of having a wonderful family and has little to do with place.

I grew up in a typical suburb, just like the vast majority of white people my age. I had a great childhood. I had woods to play in, places to ride my bike, and ball fields close by. My friend had a pool. We kids ran around the neighborhood unsupervised all day. It was great! (Of course, if I had an ugly family life, I probably wouldn’t have such fond memories.)

Generations of Americans believe that this suburban existence is what made their childhood happy, and therefore it is what will make their own children happy. They believe that life in the city would deprive their children of these basic childhood experiences. I see it differently.

As a child, I wanted for nothing. Or so I thought. But that’s because I didn’t think twice about having to rely on my parents for a ride everywhere I wanted to go: the mall, the movies, a pizza shop, a friends house. It didn’t bother me that we weren’t allowed to ride our bicycles to the shopping center, nor were we allowed to walk along or across the busy roads. At the time, I wasn’t aware that this was an impediment. It was simply a given. Same thing goes for rarely visiting a museum or going to a concert or a lecture or the zoo, all of which were amply available downtown, but required too much time, too much driving, too much money, to do more than a few times a year. Again, that’s just the way it was. Not knowing that a different life style existed, I didn’t feel deprived at all.

A child growing up in the city won’t know that they are being deprived of the ability to ride their bikes down the street and run around for hours unsupervised. What my child will know is this: his mom and dad took him to a pool (either the public pool or a hotel pool or a Y pool or the JCC pool) all the time; his mom and dad played with him in parks they walked to; his mom and dad taught him how to ride a bike in the same parks; when he is older, his mom and dad let him ride the metro and go to coffee shops/movies/shopping with his friends: no need for a ride from mom or dad, either. On top of that, he’ll remember going to the museums all the time (both the free ones and the ones you have to pay for) as well as the zoo, concerts of all kinds, and even talks and readings as he gets older. Plus, he won’t have to sit in a car seat for hours a day.

Perhaps even more important, he’ll be in daily contact with people who don’t look like him, who speak different languages, practice different religions, and make different amounts of money (or no money at all). At five months, he’s already made friends with the staff of a local Eritrean eatery. This interaction is good: he’ll learn about the diversity of the world and how to negotiate his way through it.

And besides, our little guy won’t miss what he doesn’t know about. I firmly believe that the benefits of living in DC far outweigh riding a bicycle down the middle of the street or running around unsupervised all day. Our little guy will have a far more enriched environment here in the city than if we lived in the suburbs.

I find the attitudes of young couples who simply cannot imagine raising a child in the city troubling for a two reasons.

First, where you live impacts the environment. Deciding that you can’t raise your kids in the city, based on the erroneous belief in what makes a happy childhood, merely creates another family living a wasteful suburban existence in a big house on a big lot; another family with two cars (probably SUVs, because they need them); another family that takes a car for every single trip it makes.

Second, this chasing after the perfect childhood is actually depriving their children of so much that the city has to offer – the diversity, the learning opportunities, the simple exercise of walking, and time with their parents. I spend time with him every day instead of sitting in hours of traffic.

We each value different things. I try not to judge others by what they value, but it is human nature to do so. So I do judge people who publicly state that they can’t imagine raising a child in DC. But I don’t judge them too harshly – these are caring people who want to create nice childhoods for their kids, and they will, but not because of where they live. They will provide their kids with nice childhoods because they are good people.