It's readily apparent how architecture can communicate a sense of history and heritage in a European city, as I discovered when I lived in Germany for a year in college, studying at a university in Freiburg in the Black Forest region. The town of Freiburg was founded in 1091, and the cathedral in the center of town dates back to 1200. The buildings are so old that it's easy to imagine generations of people inhabiting them over many centuries; monuments and statues are everywhere pointing to the long history of civilization and culture in that place. I fell in love with the city while I was there and would love to return someday. I also learned how to get around a place without a car, walking and taking buses and streetcars everywhere. It was in Freiburg that I gained a deeper appreciation for the value of public space as we frequented the farmers’ market in the plaza next to the cathedral. Architecture also helps distinguish one place from another; the unique aesthetics of distinctive buildings are part of what helps us form attachments to certain cities or neighborhoods where we live, and constitute our memories of those places later on.
One of the reasons I felt drawn to the city from an early age was the abundance of arts and cultural opportunities. Living in a small town or rural area doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be totally deprived of all arts and culture events, but they are certainly few and far between. My mother homeschooled us for a few years during middle school, and although I wasn't thrilled at the time, the flexibility of schedule certainly allowed us more opportunities for cultural enrichment. We took in free performances for students at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, concerts at Hilbert Circle Theatre (the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra), and ballet at Clowes Hall on the campus of Butler University. The organists on staff at Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle used to perform free classical music recitals every Friday at noon, and we went often. Afterwards we would get lunch from the salad bar at O'malia's (now Needler's Market) and eat in University Square next to the historic DePew Memorial Fountain.
Give your children a break from endless rounds of kid-focused entertainment (Disney on Ice! Monkey Joe's! SkyZone! Barbie or Hot Wheels museum exhibits!), which are okay, but not really unique or place-based or educational. Try something different and take a family culture trip to an interesting place you've never been around central Indiana instead. I’m not trying to be stuffy or elitist here; this is not meant to be a guilt trip. I certainly understand the attraction of letting your kids do something they've seen advertised, that sounds fun to them, or that they already know they like, thereby avoiding potential complaints. My husband and I definitely have said yes to Monkey Joe's on the occasional rainy Saturday; we just try not to let it form a pattern that leads to a sense of entitlement or entrenched family habits.
3. Diversity normalization
I've been hearing a lot recently about integrated schools and the worrying trend for public schools to gradually re-segregate based on gentrifying neighborhoods. I don't have answers for how to solve this and reach the goal of truly integrated public schools, or how to increase the number of cross-racial friendships within schools, or how to better integrate churches and communities. It seems like a highly complex and multilayered problem, far beyond the scope of this blog. Looking back, I am thankful that I did attend a truly integrated IPS elementary school in kindergarten through second grade, in my neighborhood (Irvington). In first grade I adored my black teacher, Mrs. Gaither, and hung on her every word, and I was in awe of the black female principal. I had both black and white friends in my classroom, and my first-grade ‘boyfriend’ was a quiet, artistic, biracial kid named Shauntori (we traded crayon pictures of hearts and rainbows). My intuitive theory has always been that two factors directly correlate with the development of empathy and a corresponding decrease in racial bias: the more people from a different racial group that a child sees and interacts with often, and the earlier in childhood that this happens. The reality is not quite that simple, but it turns out that my hunch isn’t too far off; research shows that parents’ reported beliefs about race actually don’t predict or correlate with their children’s racial beliefs. “But their modeling — what their children are seeing — is having an effect on their attitudes, and those attitudes then lead them to have more positive relationships with people of different racial backgrounds, and lead them to pursue those relationships as well,” says developmental psychology professor Amber Williams of California Polytechnic State University. “Making sure that your child has plenty of opportunity for cross-race contact is an important aspect of getting used to, and more knowledgeable about, the lives of people who don't look like them.” So to recap: the best way to teach my kids about race (and therefore help to shape a better world) besides having regular conversations is by actually living in a community where my redheaded daughter and sons will see and interact with kids and adults who don’t look like them—not only students and teachers at school (although we are grateful for our integrated school!) but also neighbors on our street, at the library, at the local parks, and at church. Professor Williams’ parting wisdom for parents (emphasis mine): "Educate yourself. Diversify your friendship network (authentically). Be intentional about making diversity a regular part of your child's environments. Expose your child to positive and diverse images of children of color (e.g., through books). Talk openly and honestly with your child about race, especially when they point it out. Consider developmentally appropriate ways to discuss discrimination."
4. Healthy independence
Almost every time I express to a fellow parent my wish for my own children to have the type of carefree childhood experiences that I had—where my sisters and I walked to the park in summer without any grown-ups, without any cell phones, and without any time limit on when we had to be home—I hear something like, “It was just a different time back then. It’s a scary world out there now.” I understand why people say this. The world certainly seems scary to me too sometimes, and the desire to protect our children from suffering (or bad things happening) is so strong in parents that at times it can feel to us like physical pain. But ultimately, this objection is simply not true; the world is actually a much safer place for children now than it was in the 1980s. As Lenore Skenazy cites in her book Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children, the violent crime rate in the U.S. has dropped by 50% since it peaked in 1992. She goes on to explain, “The problem is that we parents feel that childhood is more dangerous for our kids than it was for us. . . we’ll look at where those fears come from and which ones are utterly baseless and why they’re so hard to shake. . . .Our kids are more competent than we believe, and they’re a whole lot safer, too. We are extremely worried today about exceedingly unlikely disasters—or, as the experts put it, ‘negative outcomes.’” Today most parents are mistaken (sometimes wildly) in our understanding of safety, risk, and crime rates, partly because of what we’ve absorbed from the culture of fear that surrounds modern parenting and encourages helicoptering. Heather Shumaker describes the importance of healthy risk (physical, social, emotional and creative) in childhood in her book It’s OK to Go Up the Slide: Renegade Rules for Raising Confident and Creative Kids. “Giving children a chance to take risks puts them in a position as partners in their own safety. . . .We equate risk with danger. But risk is not a bad word. Healthy risk should be our ally; it helps us raise our kids and lets them develops into competent, confident people. . . .Overprotection can be more harmful than risk.”
I believe that if you become convinced of the benefits of ‘free-range parenting’ and healthy independence for your kids, there are ways you can put that into practice even if you live in the suburbs (start with the practical tips in the Free-Range Kids book). But it won’t be easy, at least not until your kid gets her driver’s license, because most suburbs were designed and built for cars. The auto-centric design of suburban neighborhoods excludes non-drivers, or at least relegates them to the category of dependents: children under sixteen, the elderly, the poor, and the disabled. If I decide my eleven-year-old is responsible enough for her first solo grocery store trip by herself, she could easily walk the two blocks. She eagerly anticipates being able to ride her bike to the middle school one mile away when she starts sixth grade. My older two kids have walked to the neighborhood park (two blocks away) by themselves. In the future, we look forward to the kids being able to walk to youth group events at our church three blocks away. As teenagers, my kids will be able to ride their bikes to friends’ houses in adjoining neighborhoods. We have a nationally ranked high school five blocks from our house, within easy walking distance. They will be able to do these things independently, without needing parents to drive them around. This helps children learn to assess risk, and develop a sense of confidence and self-reliance. Independence for kids also lowers anxiety and promotes physical health (walking and biking combat childhood obesity and depression). Would I let my kids do these things if we lived in the suburbs? No. Although some fringe suburbs near Indy are trying to make progress, especially in their town centers, for the most part the infrastructure is just not there to keep pedestrians safe, because they were originally designed with the automobile in mind. There are not enough sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, or other pedestrians to keep people safe. At its best, urbanism is inclusive because it is designed with walkability in mind. Errands can easily be accomplished on foot, by bike or by transit. And this helps children along with the rest of us.
5. More free time
Living in an urban neighborhood means less time spent driving. Everywhere you need to go is closer, and it’s easier to avoid accidents, construction delays or freight train crossings because you can take alternate routes using the grid of city streets, instead of being stuck on the highway if there’s an obstacle. (One proof of this is the shockingly low number of miles per year on our cars since we moved downtown 7 years ago). Less time in the car driving to and from school, work, church, and events equals more family togetherness and more unstructured time for your kids to just be kids; play is the natural and necessary work of childhood, and play helps their brains develop optimally in the first years of life. My favorite memories of my own childhood are of playing outdoors with my sisters and the neighbor kids. We built secret forts in the trees and bushes near the alley behind our house. We walked to the park along the creek (Pleasant Run) underneath graffitied bridges and caught minnows in the water with our butterfly nets. We wandered around the neighborhood pretending we were on a camping trip looking for 'edible' nuts and berries. I do remember been driven to some extracurricular activities like gymnastics and art lessons, but we were not overscheduled in the way that our culture expects of children now. Our society's general FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) extends to our offspring; we're afraid that their future psyches and careers will be harmed by a missed opportunity to be a star if we don't start them in music lessons or organized sports at age 4. So this one is pretty simple; who’s going to say no to more free time? There are so many books and blogs and research reports saying this and I’m sure you’ve heard it before, so I won’t belabor the point. We as a society need to slow down; to stop overscheduling our kids and pushing them into sports too young; to apply the lens of minimalism to our busy schedules and trim (or ruthlessly gut) our calendar until it doesn’t feel hectic anymore. While our children are young, let’s make family dinner around the table an inviolable routine every day of the week. Let kids get bored in their free time or unstructured play time (don’t rush to placate them with a screen); research shows that boredom fosters creativity. Spend time as a family or with gathered friends on your front porch (another benefit of living in an urban historic neighborhood—porch parties!) and get to know your neighbors; those relationships won’t happen or deepen if our schedules are too full to stop and chat.
If you’ve read all the way to the end—much respect. Also, I hope you enjoyed the jumbled fusion of personal memoir, urbanist theory and parenting philosophy that helps explain why I care about urbanism and why I write this blog. (I suppose this post could also be fairly accurately described as “Life According to Amy.”) Thanks for reading, friends. As always, you can contact me with any questions you have about urban living in Indy, or parenting, or foodie restaurants, or book recommendations, or anything else :).