The city or the suburbs: which is better for kids?
As readers of Finslippy probably know, Scott and I once lived in Brooklyn, where we wrestled with the nagging question: now that we’re a family, are we ethically and morally bound to live in the suburbs? It seemed to be a question that most people answered in the affirmative. Children need space, they said, and yards, and stoops that are maybe a little less peed-on than your average city stoop. Both sets of our parents echoed this sentiment. We had grown up in the suburbs, after all, and while we remembered the soul-crushing boredom that characterized our teenage years, we looked around us and saw disaffected teens in Brooklyn, too. Maybe, we thought, maybe it wasn’t the suburbs but our teenagey hormones that caused all that ennui. Maybe the suburbs would reward us in untold ways. And think of all the space we’d get.
We looked in the suburbs. And decided we couldn’t do it. A year later we looked again, and decided we could. And we did.
And now, dear readers, after having experienced suburban splendor for two years, we are asking ourselves: did we make the right choice? We’re not convinced that we did. I’m not going to argue that the suburbs are terrible and a cultural wasteland. We’ve made excellent friends, and we’ve found plenty of culture, when we went looking for it. There’s plenty here to recommend the lifestyle—it’s just not one that seems to fit us.
The driving lifestyle, primarily, is what bothers me. It significantly changes the rhythm and flow of everyday life. Driving everywhere, there’s little opportunity for the unexpected delight, the street fair you didn’t know about or the puppet show spontaneously being put on in the park. (Note: I never actually came across spontaneous park puppetry, in all my years in Brooklyn, but it seems like the sort of thing that could happen.) Being able to (or having to) walk everywhere changes the course of your day. When you’re walking with your child, you discover things. When you’re driving, you tune out until you reach your destination. When you’re bored in Brooklyn, you can head outside and see what’s going on. But in a driving culture, you see the people you plan to see, and do what you plan to do. No more, no less.
For Scott, it’s the house maintenance that he can’t handle. Everyone around us seems to enjoy tending to their homes. We resent it–and then carp at each other because the house doesn’t respond to our carping. Every little repair becomes a reason to bemoan our poor decision-making. Maybe our stoop was urine-scented, but at least we didn’t have to worry about our crumbling soffits. And I don’t think my son is benefiting from listening to our shouting and grumbling every weekend when another item needs fixing.
Then we think about the future, and those teenage years looming in the distant horizon. Frankly, we’re feeling right now that suburban ennui that we remembered from our teenagedom. Why would we put our son through that, when we could all be happier in what seems to be our natural environment?
On the other hand! (There’s always another hand.) There’s no question that the quality of our day-to-day home existence has improved. Henry has a playroom, which would have been unthinkable in the city. He can have multiple friends over and they can tear ass around the place without bothering the downstairs neighbors (or me). If we move back we’d have to sacrifice a lot of space—precious, precious space.
For most people there’s the big issue of schools. The suburban public schools, for the most part, are considered superior to the city’s. In this town, at least, we’re just not seeing that. The local school is fine, but doesn’t have the resources that our neighboring schools in Brooklyn did. (And next year we have to deal with a half-day kindergarten, which is a whole other topic that you don’t want me to go into because then I will write in ALL CAPS.) For preschool, however, we would have been driven into penury by the Brooklyn private schools, whereas here we had our pick of wonderful programs that, while not free, were far cheaper than anything we would have found in the city. For that reason alone, I don’t regret living here for these two years.
Schools aside, living in the city versus the suburbs is essentially a trade-off between public and private space. And we’re more public-space-seekers—preferring a park over a yard we have to maintain. Our feeling is that the best environment for our child is the place where we’d all be happy—that it’s not wrong to seek out our own happiness in addition to Henry’s.
What’s your take on the subject? Is the city better for a kid, or the suburbs? Where did you grow up, and how did you fare?