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.


Fellow DC Transplant said...

I found your take on raising a child in DC quite interesting. My husband and I are also raising a toddler on one income in DC. He has a good gov't job so we are comfortable. Not wealthy, but comfortable. Do you or your wife have family in the DC metropolitan area? Does it make living in DC easier (ie playmates for your child, etc)? The reason I ask is that my husband was offered a position in another state where I have immediate family. And yes, it is in the suburbs. While we absolutely **LOVE** DC for the many reasons you describe, we also ache for the relationships that only family can provide. At the same time, we think suburbia may be soul-killing. I know we are strangers but I'm curious what advice you would give.

Kwest said...

We don't have relatives in the area. My wife's parents are about 2 hours away, so we visit every once in a while. I don't know if having family around would make it easier; we have friends with kids and friends who don't have kids, and they all like spending time with us and the baby; it's kind of like a big extended family, in a way. My opinion is you have to do what is best for the you and your family, and sometimes it's not the obvious choice, like going for a job that makes more money or moving closer to family. If I'm comfortable and happy, I'll take quality of life over more money. But that's a tough choice. And sometimes being close to family is good, sometimes not - depends on the family.

Erik Cooke said...

Right on!

I used to simply get tired of people running the standard can't-imagine-raising-kids-here line. Now, I just feel sad for them and especially their children. For the very reasons that I choose to live in a city, and particularly DC, I want my children to grow up in DC. You hit the nail on the head - cultural diversity and access, a non-car-centered life, playing in parks instead of private yards. The suburbs are on the downswing. Even if they continue to expand in the US, in the rest of the world, dense cities are the norm. Suburbia, for all its green lawns and quiet streets, is another layer of isolation from the rest of the world.

Great post and thinking that too often goes unsaid.

Dan Bryant said...

"What if I wake up one day and find out we’re bankrupt? Or under investigation by the SEC? Or that my bank sold my mortgage to a loan shark, and he’s coming over with a crow bar?" I laughed when I read this part of your post.

Your surviving on just one income has nothing to do with luck, it has to do with your being money smart. If half the people living in DC are smart spenders like you and your wife, I think they'd also be able to afford things they thought they would never be able to afford and have money left to go on vacation.