The City is No Place to Raise a Child?

The idea that the big city is somehow less kid-friendly than the ‘burbs is one that comes up with increasing regularity in conversations with my friends– and it always puzzles me. After all, I was born and raised in Manhattan, as was my husband Phil, as were many of our friends, and we all seemed to turn out okay. I also lived for several years in the suburbs as an adult, and didn’t find the living so very easy. Yes, I can imagine that navigating the subway or the bus with a stroller is tough, but I know that life with an automobile, with lawn care and snow removal responsibilities, and without ubiquitous take-out and delivery is also a hassle.

I now think that the city versus suburbs debate probably misses the point. I’m reading Not-So-Nuclear Families, by Karen Hansen, for an article I’m writing for the Population Reference Bureau (See "Books Acquired" at right, for more about the book.) Hansen, who is a professor at Brandeis, argues that the widespread idea that most families are independent is a myth. Although the idea of a self-reliant, private, contained family is cherished in our society, her study finds that even today, parents raising children without help from a larger community of family, friends and hired helpers are rare.

For a time, she says, scholars believed that it was only less-wealthy families that relied on networks of outsiders to care for children. Then, they believed that only relatively more wealthy families knew people with the time and resources to help pitch in with child rearing.  Now, it seems that families of all classes rely on networks of people to care for their children. It also seems that families without an adequate network suffer in their careers, at home, and from increased stress.

Hansen studies four families with working parents– affluent, middle class, working class — in depth, and even the most affluent families with live-in nannies rely on friends, brothers, grandparents, to fill in gaps either regularly or during emergencies. One family that she studies, the Duvall-Brennans, left the city for the better school districts of suburbia, but in doing so left their network of friends and neighbors that helped with babysitting behind. Hansen chronicles their struggle to provide seamless care for their two children, one 6, and one 3 1/2 years old, in the wake of their move. Their children spend up to 11 hours a day in school and child care.

The salient issue isn’t that this family moved from the city to the suburbs, it’s that they moved away from their "care network"–it would have been just as hard for a family enmeshed in suburban life to move into a more urban environment. So, it seems to me that the question of whether you can raise a child in the city depends on not just where your family and friends are, but where the people who are willing to help out with the kid are located–not all friends and family members are willing, or able to pitch in. (I’ll write more about reciprocity either in the story or here.) A nameless, faceless metropolis is probably no place to raise a child. But many of us city dwellers just don’t see the city in that way.

(By the way, parents recruit family members into their caregiving network by using the charming term "kin-scription". I love that.)


5 thoughts on “The City is No Place to Raise a Child?

  1. Alison, I agree that the idea that families are independent either in the city or in the suburbs is a myth. We haven’t seen independent families in America since the pioneers swept across the nation and separated their covered wagons from the train. They married in their teens and had 12 to 20 children partly to create their own internal support structures within the family to accomplish all the tasks required to survive in the wilderness. Today we have an entirely different jungle to confront and the concept of family has utterly changed as a result. The family is the economic unit under one roof, whether that’s Mom, Dad and the kids, or Grandma and the kids, or two sisters and their old Auntie, or two men and their dogs, or… you get the idea — an interdependent, economically linked unit living together. And the “extended family” is anyone else they choose to trust and let into their lives and depend upon. City or suburbs? It doesn’t matter at all. The quality of life depends upon the love and wisdom and richness of experience in the family home — within the economic unit — whether that’s on the prairie with a dirt floor and 16 kids, or in The City in a Park Avenue penthouse for two women and their parakeet. Yours, Kevin

  2. I just interviewed Karen Hansen, and we kicked around the idea of in some way formally registering the people that are “a family of choice” –the people on whom you depend, whether they are kin or not.
    She’s arguing that employers, companies, the government, should recognize and encourage people who provide essential support to children, or other individuals. (For example, allowing Family Medical Leave for a person who you care for and about, but is not your family member.)
    The practical problems are administration and regulation, to avoid exploitation. A person who has a large network of people might spend more time not working than working! Kinship ties are a convenient, if not inclusive way, of organizing behavior and benefits –in business, in society. Particularly in the context of the gay marriage issue, it seems like figuring out alternative strategies for organizing that behavior is one of the key challenges of our time.

  3. A good place to start would be to acknowledge household economic units as families to whom FMLA would be fully extended. Beyond that, perhaps the time has come to have an officially sanctioned way to “adopt” a sister or cousin into one’s life. By the way, some of us might also like to have ways to divorce blood sisters and cousins. Yes, I like the way this is sounding. — Kevin

  4. Your article started me thinking about the various reasons people tell people like you and me to move to the suburbs. I’m curious about your thoughts on them.

    1. There’s a concept that, for newcomers, the initial establishment of social networks is easier in the suburbs than in the city. This comes, of course, from the Golden Age of Suburbia in the 1950s-1970s when single-income households essentially allowed/compelled suburban women to become these juggernauts of social activity. I wonder if things have changed by now in our very different society.

    2. The ability to attend uniformly well-funded, ethnically homogenous public schools in certain suburbs.

    3. A perception of considerably lower violent crime rates in suburbs than in cities, brought on by the 1970s-1980s, when it was true.

    4. Most perniciously, the deep-rooted pastoral/Rousseauian/Jeffersonian strain in American culture where “the land” and green space are considered inherently more healthy for humans than dense cities. This one stretches back to, oh, I’m sure around the 1770s somewhere, if not earlier.

    I for one would like to perpetuate the idea that cities are less friendly to newcomers than suburbs, at least a little, so people can stop moving here and I can buy a goddamn apartment. Apparently people in Portland, Oregon dramatically overplay the amount of rain they get for similar purposes.

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