Are you cool enough to raise kids in the city?


Halloween-RittenhouseFor my “Urban Christian” class, we’ve been looking into family life in urban areas. I was asked to comment on the challenges and benefits to raising kids in the city. Because it’s almost Halloween, I decided to use this incredibly cute picture as well.

Let’s face it, if you’re not already raising kids in the city (and probably even if you are), the idea of doing so can be terrifying. But, thinking about it, I wonder if this has less to do with the nature of cities themselves, and more to do with the lack of precedent many of us have when thinking through raising kids in the city.

This leads to two dynamics: fear of the unknown, and so concerns about safety, money, education, and child “corruption” by the wider culture arise because of the limited exposure most of us have to anyone that has done this before and come out the other side. This leads us to have to rely on stereotypes and caricatures of the city to inform our fears and concerns.

Secondly, this lack of examples can lead to the fear of improvisation, because raising kids in the city, frankly, takes a lot of creativity and leaps of faith. In one of our readings by Tim Keller’s wife, she extols the freedom that comes with your 11-year olds being able to take themselves to their own appointments on the subway. Okay, I’m not even married and that remark made my heart drop! The idea of a child of mine doing that at that age scares me right now. There are seemingly so many variables to raising kids and no established rhythm for doing so in our culture.

But though this lack of precedent is a major fear for those considering raising kids in the city, I personally have a greater fear for those considering this. I fear the biggest challenge of raising kids in the city comes from our generation’s own sense of irony, cynicism, and reactivity.

I fear kids being raised in cities by parents who simply think it’s “cool” to do so. Because most of us are transplants into cities and never grew up there, I wonder how many of us are still acting the role of “urban dweller”, so that our “urban-ness” is more defined by how we’re reacting to our own upbringing than it is by any true connectedness and identity-formation from the city. (Does that make sense?)

I’m worried too many young urban people bring up kids in ways that are either ironic (“let’s go the park because that’s what cool urban parents do!”), cynical (“Ugh, if we have to go to the suburbs, let’s at least take the train so we maintain our street cred.”), or merely reactive (“I’m such a better parent than my parents because my kids are able to see culture, diversity, and gay people.”).

(By the way, no, not many of us would think these things consciously, but it’s the way we inhabit our lives that both reveals and affects what’s really going on in our hearts–even when it’s not conscious.)

I guess it’s the like difference between the guy that goes to museums because he wants to look like a cultured person and the one who goes out of an overflow of his genuine culturedness and love for those things. Do we as current and potential future urban parents want to do it because of a love of the city, or more out of a love being seen as an urban parent? This is a very real fear of mine for my own generation, especially as I watch the young urban (usually hipster) parents figure out child-rearing in my own city.

but there are good things…

And yet, the benefits of raising kids are legion (see the what I did there?). I grew up in Dallas, Texas, nowhere near anything you’d actually call a beach. And so, our vacations were spent going to museums in the area and states around us. I’m the only one in my family who ended up loving art and art museums, but my childhood was full of history and science museums, trips to major cities and tours and education. I love it and it was one of the most formative things for me and my life.

I want to give this to my children. And this is most certainly easier in Philadelphia, which has an entire part of the city set aside for nearly all of its major and most impressive museums (especially art, but also history, natural history, and science). Rather than having to take entire family vacations (or even an entire day!) to go to one or two museums, it can be a whim of a decision on a random weekend. Same goes for music, performances, plays, and festivals of various kinds.

There’s a also a counter-intuitive thing that I’ve heard many older urban parents mention as a benefit, even though it can seem like an irresponsible and dangerous upbringing for kids: in the city, children are exposed to things earlier, but this is a good thing.

They encounter drugs, violence, alcohol, sexuality, poverty, pain, political turmoil, and injustice more clearly and more frequently in an urban setting than elsewhere. And better yet, they are first exposed to these things in a safe place with their parents and church that can walk them through it, rather than the first day out of their parent’s house. Further, if this family is made of Christians, these moments give opportunities to teach kids how the Church speaks to, addresses, and tried to alleviate these areas of brokenness around them. Children can even start participating in these practices of redemption in cities, to help repair what is so broken and dark.

I once heard a piece of audio from an incredibly well-known pastor who serves in a suburban area. He said that, every once and a while, he felt drawn to look up and watch videos online of middle-eastern beheadings, acts of terrorism, executions, and other bits of violence throughout the world, just to remind himself of the weight of life before the Christ’s return and the need for continued work and redemption to be done. It was easy to forget how broken the world is.

Of course, he didn’t advocate this for other Christians, and said it was just something he felt a conviction and freedom to do, but I can’t help but wonder if he would have had the same need if he lived in and ministered in an urban context. It’s not better or worse or anything. It’s just different. We all need reminders of reality now and then rather than being swept into idealism and naiveté. But for those in the city, and their kids, they often only have to look out their front door.

What do you think? Do you raise kids in the city? What are some of the benefits or challenges? Have you decided against doing so? Why or why not?

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6 thoughts on “Are you cool enough to raise kids in the city?

  1. Well, some of the more obvious hardships of raising kids in the city have been omitted – like spending an hour with 3 kids in a grocery store, returning with a car load to feed five people and having to park a block away from your front door and make numerous trips with everyone back and forth to unload – and then do that every week – in every weather -even when you are pregnant. . . or the fact that the cost of living is so much higher that you may live closer to a wide variety of cultural experiences, but you may not be able to afford them as easily. I could go on.

    I don’t mind diving into the big discussions, with my kids, that living in close contact with so many different types of people prompt, but the actual physical hardships of schleping small children all over the friggin’ city cannot be underestimated. For this reason, any person who has lived in the city longer than five years with children realizes that to continue to do so is never cool. It’s a choice.

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    • Haha. Yeah, I’m sure the “cool factor” gets beaten out of you the more kids you have and how long you have them. And of course, there are TONS of challenges. I was trying to go bigger. But thank you so much foot what you do and how well you do it. And know that i didn’t have any of you all in mind, by the way.

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  2. As a new father of a 6 month old and as an urban transplant – this discussion comes up almost weekly between my wife and I.

    Both my wife and I grew up in small towns/rural areas – my childhood town had a whopping population of 300. We now find ourselves living in the middle of Dallas – surrounded by six and a half million people. While we have no desire for suburban living we have both often thought about relocating to a small town.

    Our number one fear of raising our children in the city is the lack of safe ‘enough’ areas in which kids can be independent. I grew up freely roaming my town by the age of 7. I was unsupervised for a good portion of my youth and I feel like it greatly strengthened me. This fear also take the form of what we perceive as a typical urban/suburban parent mindset of considering it child abuse to leave your kid unsupervised. Even if we feel the neighborhood is safe enough to let our kids go wandering by themselves – will our neighbors call the cops on us?

    On the other hand our hopes are that our children will know and see people of different social-economic class, different cultures, and different values. That they will be immersed in the cultural events and happenings on a weekly basis. This is in fact what we love about Dallas and hopefully our love will become their love.

    We chose our house in Dallas because it was in a historic neighborhood which not only meant nice architecture but a defined urban boundary that feels safe enough. We are also planning to try and get to know as many people as we can in the neighborhood. We are playing a lot of it by ear as we don’t have anyone in our lives who has gone through the process before. And it might fail and maybe we find a small town to relocate to.

    Finding a good small town is another long comment for another day…

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    • An interesting thing i read for the class was that, statistically speaking at least, “young people” die more frequently in the suburbs than cities, mainly because of cars, especially after they’re the one driving them.

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