The Advantages of Raising Children in the City image

The Advantages of Raising Children in the City

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Everyone knows raising children in the city is harder, right? Well: yes and no, but mostly no, says Tim Keller in a superb talk on the subject which you can download or stream here. His approach is fascinating, and very practical. He begins by conceding three things that make cities harder places to raise kids—although I suspect only the first two are actually true of a city like London—and then gives eight reasons why they can be better places to raise kids. If you're bringing up children in cities, or pastoring people who are, it's well worth a listen.

Disadvantages

1. Cities are expensive. You will live in smaller accommodation, have less disposable income, have less personal space, be able to invest less in your family, and so on. This is almost certainly the biggest disadvantage, and the one that prompts the most families to leave for the suburbs or the countryside.

2. The logistical challenges on the “front nine.” I’d never heard this expression, and it immediately hit home: when the children are 0-9, it is far more logistically challenging to get around a city (on public transport) than a smaller town (where you can put them in a car seat, drive off and park somewhere). Keller immediately counters, however, that on the “back nine” it is much easier: when the children are 10-18, they can get themselves around by bus, tube, train, Uber or whatever, and most things they want or need are fairly close together, whereas suburban parents spend all their evenings driving their teenagers long distances from place to place.

3. The educational landscape is more difficult to navigate. This is clearly an issue in New York, since there are so many options and things are so expensive, but in London the schools are generally better and more accessible than they would be in most British towns (I can’t speak to other cities). So this may or may not translate to other contexts.

Advantages

1. Children grow up believing that they live in the real world. Teenagers who grow up in the suburbs—or in any place usually considered to be “good to raise children”—are usually desperate to get out by the time they reach 18, and go and live in “the real world.” Teenagers who grow up in cities, on the other hand, are confident that they already do, and this means that the faith challenges they face when/if they go to University are dramatically diminished.

2. Children grow up believing that their parents live in the real world, and that their faith works there. Keller quotes research to the effect that children who walk away from Christianity typically do so because they don’t think their parents understand the way the world is, whereas children who stay in the faith are those who can see that their parents “live in the real world.” Living in a city doesn’t remove all your problems (!), but it does make it difficult for children to dismiss their parents as ignorant of how things truly are. This undercuts one of the most common objections to Christian belief that older teens have.

3. Children grow up with more confidence, independence and self-reliance. This is pretty undeniable when you compare an urban child with a suburban child, I think (although interestingly, a genuinely rural upbringing can often produce the same result).

4. Children grow up handling diversity well. Ethnic and cultural diversity is inescapable in the city, and this trains children how to handle it well from a very young age. A lot of young people who lose their faith at University (if they do) find that the fundamental challenge is one of handling difference: they are suddenly surrounded by people who make them think about things very differently from the way they have grown up to think. Cities give teenagers that lesson years earlier, while their parents are still around to help them process it.

5. The family is pushed closer together. This is partly a function of the lack of space, and partly of the density of local services, but parents and children who live in the same space are forced to spend time together in a way that is far less common in larger, more spacious properties with gardens and nearby fields. This intensity can form closer relationships.

6. Teenagers grow up with Christian role models. In many suburban churches, the people from whom 16-17 year olds learn how to do life are other 16-17 year olds, who are not always the most mature examples; people in their early twenties have mostly left to go and live in cities. In cities, while there are probably fewer teenagers, there are an awful lot more hip young twenties, and these are the people whom older teens see living the Christian life and demonstrating what it looks like to be young, contemporary, cool and passionate about Jesus. This can greatly help their discipleship at an important stage.

7. Children face real life issues significantly earlier than their suburban peers. Sex, drugs, alcohol, crime, sexual difference: as Keller puts it, in the city you get to go to College with your children at 15, instead of sending them away to it at 18. This really helps them handle it (and you handle them!) well.

8. Children face far less pressure to conform. An awful lot of teenagers are stifled by the expectation to conform, because there is a type, or narrow range of types, that most people in their community “fit”; this is why the first year at University so often involves self-reinvention. Yet cities are so wildly diverse that there is no one type, and no real pressure to conform to it. This can be liberating, and release young people to be themselves.

No doubt an equivalent of this could be preached (or written) by a suburban or rural pastor. But given how widespread is the conviction that cities are difficult (or even bad) places to raise children, this is a very helpful corrective. You can listen to the whole thing, including Q&A, here.

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