Traditional Cities and Towns: Incubators of incompetent children

First off, before I’m assaulted by urban defenders in an all-out flame war, let me clarify that my tongue is planted firmly in cheek here. A little background:

I’ve written before on the intersection between traditional / smart growth environments and child-rearing, first at the level of the neighborhood and then, later, at the level of the house. Those posts reflect my steadfast belief that, while our modern consumer society happily provides all sorts of work-arounds to help us manage our parenting challenges, historic patterns of human settlement actually had more meaningful solutions built right in.

I live in a traditional town and am surrounded daily by anecdotal evidence reinforcing my cities-are-good-for-kids instincts, not just with my own child but with other kids too. But then I started thinking: I wonder if there are aspects of modern life, routinely accepted as normal, that my child won’t be prepared for. As she nears adulthood, are there experiences destined to confound her, all because I’ve chosen to raise her in a traditional, urban environment?

Turns out, there are. For example:

At The Waters in Pike Road, Alabama, all manner of neighborhood services and amenities are right down the street.

She may suck at getting to places on time. All her life, almost everything she’s done has been within a five or ten minute walk, bike ride or drive. School, friends, church, doctor, dance, shopping and parks. With that kind of window, even if you don’t leave the house until the time you’re supposed to be somewhere, you still get there pretty much on time. God forbid she ever land a job with a 30-60 minute commute. The chasm between doing something in one place and doing it in another will seem insurmountable.

She may be a terrible driver. When all your friends, all your activities, and lots of shopping are a short walk or bike ride away, there’s not a whole lot of incentive for a teenager to spend much time driving. After all, driving takes money for gas and parking while the other modes are all free. It also requires sucking up to Dad for the car which, for a teen, is an even greater disincentive. Thus, should she find herself in an auto-dependent environment at some point in her life, I apologize in advance to all the other drivers on the road.

She may be devastated by saying goodbye. When I was growing up in the ‘burbs and we reached the end of elementary school, our class was split up according to where we lived and we were shipped off to a host of different regional middle schools. Then we were splintered again when different zones dictated all different high schools. By the time I was a senior, I had said a permanent goodbye to more friends than I could count. In contrast, here in my little town, kids start off in their neighborhood school and then, beginning 4th grade, all neighborhood schools combine. At that point, they’re among the exact same classmates they’ll be graduating with nine years later. Contrast that with what she’ll likely experience in the workforce: Friends jumping ship every couple of years. I hope she can handle it.

She may fail to realize that services often cost money. One aspect of living in a walkable neighborhood is that you meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends. Diverse friends with all kinds of skills and interests. And one aspect of having all these folks around, especially close by, is that it amounts to a lot of people willing to help you with things — moving heavy objects, building things, fixing things, watching your kid, or having hot meals provided in times of difficulty. I fear my child has come to believe that this is normative. Thus, if the day ever comes in which she finds herself in a more conventional place — where it’s harder to meet and befriend a wide and diverse collection of neighbors — she may be shocked to discover that there are people called “movers” or “handymen” or “mechanics” or “daycare workers” or “caterers” that expect money to do those sorts of things.

She may be dumbfounded to find that some people think separating jobs, shops, parks, services and churches from where they live is a good idea. If her circumstances ultimately lead her to some outlying bedroom community, and that community begins investing in its own future by exploring ideas like zoning reform, downtown development, or suburban retrofitting, it’ll surely feel to her like one step closer to home. I can see her embracing the idea and wanting to share her enthusiasm. And that’s the point at which she’ll discover that some folks like things just the way they are. That they’re a willing participant in car-culture and wouldn’t have it any other way. And I fear that that’s the point at which she’ll exceed her capacity for humoring delusional thinking and her head just might explode. Which is not what I, as her parent, want. At all.

A bad place to raise your kids? You be the judge.

So there you have it. Mounting evidence that, in embracing timeless and proven models, I may very well be the worst parent alive. Or not. I guess it all depends on how much credence you give critics like James Howard Kunstler, and how much you choose to believe that our auto-dominated suburban nation exists as a permanent condition.

Me? I think I’ll stick with what I’ve been doing.

(Get in on the fun. What other “problems” are we creating for our children by raising them in great, urban places? Comment below.)

Scott Doyon

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Comments

  1. Geoff Koski says:

    Great post, Scott. I would hate to see your daughter’s head explode, so keep up the good fight. I too struggle with many of the same child-rearing issues you speak of here. Lately, I’ve begun to wonder what all this “city-life” will mean for my teenage son. As a late-model teenager, he’s exploring his rebellious, anything-the-parents-do-must-be-totally-lame phase. While I think this may suit him well when he confronts certain peer pressures at the local house-parties, his other recreational pursuits may end up veering in, what I deem, illogical ways.

    He’s taken to admiring old gas-guzzling muscle cars, for one. Of course this is not unusual for an American teenage boy. However, when he brings it up, all I have to say is, “why do you want a car, you can walk everywhere you need to go.” I’ve even taken to offering up some rugged individualism for him by “letting him” take the public transit by himself. But that’s lame. That’s what dad does. Now, driving everywhere at 8 miles per gallon? That’s cool. “No one” does that – as far as he knows.

    Now he’s asking me to take him into the woods to go hunting. He wants to kill and eat a deer (this may come from his vast experiences with the local farm-(forest?)-to-table foodie culture). I’ve told him that I don’t think I’d be much help on that one, which apparently proves my lameness.

    I fear I’m raising a future exurbanite, right here in the big city. Yikes.

    • Aksel Olsen says:

      Just hang in there, Geoff. You can make it. Teens do that kind of stuff but then they turn 30 and lo and behold, they follow, not always, but often, in their parent’s footsteps, full with nostalgia of what was. If only he will have peers doing the same, but signs are that he might.

  2. Finally, an articulate explanation of ways traditional town life inhibits kids from developing coping skills they’ll need later on. Without early exposure to endless commuting, play-dating, helper-hiring and the other obligations that come with suburban isolation, how prepared can they be for making the transition from teen angst into adult despair?

  3. Fantastic piece, Scott. Our kids are doomed to keep their souls without hour-long commutes.

  4. Mark Johnson says:

    Lest we be charged with preaching to the choir…another perspective is also valid. One person’s “livability” may be another’s “liability.” A kid I know well grew up living “the teenage dream” school sports, scuba diving, surfing, and hot rodding a ’58 Corvette through some of SoCal’s most storied beach environments from Dead Man’s Curve (yup, been there done that) to Doheny, Trestles, to the Point, Brooks St., the Wedge, Huntington and all the way up to Steamers Lane. The Endless Summer premiered in our High School auditorium, and scenes were shot on the beaches and in the hills of “our town.” Recreation included weekends in the high deserts and skiing and camping both slopes of the High Sierra. It’s what we did. It’s what everyone did. “The World” was assumed to end in some evil mist somewhere vaguely east of Las Vegas, and there was no one who could envision wanting to go further “out there” than maybe down into the Baja, over to Hawaii (for the big waves of winter, naturally) or up to Hollywood or the Bay Area for the music.
    Our’s was and is a car culture…like: “Hey man, what do you drive?” not, “Where do you live?” too weird that, right? I mean “all over…where the waves a breakin’ big and the party’s huge”…Spring Break is on The River, lasts a week or more and is spread out over 100 miles or so. Sure, you gotta have a really cool ride just to get there, but it needs to be able to pull a hot ski boat if you want the hot babes to hang with you, obviously. Distance is a measure of time, not mileage…and time can be collapsed back in on itself with enough horsepower. Anyway, life is about the journey..not the place…a string of pearls suspended in time and experienced with sun bleached hair and salt air breezes taking you as far and as fast as you can go. Too bad we can’t go home again. Trap me in a city? Gag me with a spoon!! Now that I’m an adult my neighborhood has expanded to include at least half of the planet. That’s where my friends and family are scattered. Where I sleep is temporary.

  5. John Czarnecki says:

    Dear Dr Scott:
    Both of our offspring live on their own (one is married). We all live in the same walkable neighborhood . My partner, Mary, and I seldom use the car for commuting (30 min by trolley, 45 min walk, 15 min by car + parking and other evils) so it ends up being used by three households. Now the problems:
    1. Are we coddling them by letting them maintain connections to our property way into adulthood? (They “mostly” return it full)
    2. Are we damaging their access to a good credit history by reducing their need to purchase a vehicle on “time” (as they used to say), and thereby diminishing their own opportunity for a piece of the American dream?
    Thanks in advance.
    -Anxiously Awaiting Wisdom

    • PlaceMakers says:

      Ha! Now that’s good stuff.

      Were I to have any concerns about the welfare of your adult children, they would not be related to your query so much as to the fact that you have sought such advice from a town planning firm rather than a parental psychologist or a credit counselor. That, in and of itself, leaves them in a potentially precarious position!

      Still, not to leave you high and dry, I would say: 1) You are not. You are merely maintaining key familial connections, which you will inevitably and increasingly draw upon as you age. In due time, the balance of give and take will shift and you will become the mooch in the equation. And it will be a beautiful thing. 2) This could be an issue. I recommend that they all buy Vespa scooters and finance them over 24-36 months. But that’s just me.

      We struggle along in these walkable neighborhoods yet, somehow, we survive. Good luck! -SD

  6. John Czarnecki says:

    Thanks for your help.
    My query was directed to you largely because Town Planners and Architects (I am one) suffer from the conceit that comes from a broad, critical-thinking education combined with right brain action and specific skills. I’ve found that neither many family counselors nor many financial advisers exhibit the affliction.
    (Besides, what do they know from Vespas? It seems to me a scooter could offset some neuroses)
    Thanks again.
    AAW

  7. Scott – I grew up in NYC and it confounds me how often people have been surprised to know that there are children that actually grow up IN NYC. They take it for granted that it is not a good place to have a family. For the most part, it was awesome. There are over 8 million people there, I tell them, and they’re not all sterile. It is hard to learn to drive there, but if you do, you can drive anywhere. As my oldest child is now 16 I can attest to the fact that sucking up to me for the car is not something she’s ashamed of. I will go on to say that driving here in Decatur, and the Atlanta area in general, prepares her to drive in more challenging situations than the rural inhabitants of the SC town in which Gloria grew up, who always need to drive, but are often scared to go so far as Charlotte, which is only an hour away (because they’re used to being one of two on the roads at any given time). So you might be ok there. I also thought it was interesting that having grown up in NYC, certainly an urban environment, I said “goodbye” to my classmates often and it is something I consider in retrospect to be a negative, that I commuted further than anyone I know in rural communities ever did. I hardly had any friends that lived near me, and as a result my social life suffered. I think of Decatur as a perfect mix between urban and rural, it has some real small town qualities and I personally think of the continuity in school as more of a rural characteristic (Gloria, for example went to school with a few of her friends from Elementary school through College). We moved here from Snellville, so our kids have a little practice in saying goodbye, but I certainly think that experience will come regardless sometimes just because people grow apart. Maybe in general our kids won’t be prepared for an inferior kind of community, but my hope is that they’ll know enough not to choose one. Keep doing what you’re doing. I know I will.

  8. David High says:

    I fear that I may be causing irreparable damage by raising my children in a neighborhood that is worth caring about. I need to constantly reinforce that jobs and status take precedence over neighbors and community. What if they decide that moving up the ladder isn’t worth leaving a place that they care about? What if they actually decide to take a lower paying, less prestigious job so that they can stay among friends? What if they don’t realize that they will actually need to leave a home that suits them quite well so that the world can see that they got that promotion?

    In a similar vein, I don’t think I’m doing the right thing by feeding them local produce from the farmer’s market three (walkable) blocks away. How will they realize that tomatoes in December are a technical possibility? Oh, the blinders that I am forcing on my children!

  9. Scott, I have such sympathy for your poor children. They’ll probably end up drug addicted and jobless, living in such a hellish neighborhood.
    It’s time to get a McMansion on a cul-de-sac.

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  1. [...] Traditional Cities and Towns: Incubators of incompetent children | PlaceMakers.  This is tongue and cheek- but a great commentary on the benefits of raising kids in cities. I agree! Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailMorePinterestDiggTumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in City Planning Reflections by http://www.katiestebbins.com. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

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