Thursday, December 16, 2010

This Is a Great Place to Raise a Family!

Most of my colleagues are not from this area. Like me, they only moved here for work. Whenever we discuss life in our small town on the border between Missouri and Illinois, we always agree that the area is boring, the climate is nasty, the food is bland and unhealthy, the culture is non-existent, and overall this is not a fun place to live. However, this kind of conversation always ends with my colleagues exclaiming joyfully, "But this is a great place to raise a family!"

For the longest time, I had no inkling what they meant by this. I find it hard to imagine a worse kind of environment in North America to raise children. For one, it's all highways. Kids can't go out to play with their friends, or anything like that. They have to rely on their parents to drive them around. From what I have been able to observe, the only way a child of a non-driving age has to play with other children is when a parent arranges a play-date (and what a vile, unhealthy invention that is), drives the kid there, and sits around waiting for the poor child to be done playing. Teenagers are also stuck at home after the school bus brings them back from school. In the street where I live, there are several teenagers. What a sad sight they make! They can't do anything or go anywhere, unless, once again, a parent agrees to drive them. And then bring them back. The whole roaming the streets with your gang of friends, sitting in coffee-shops, and playing the guitar in the square, which is what teenage life should be about, is absent from their lives.

Everything - the food, the clothes, the people, the landscape - is so uniformly and mind-numbingly bland that any intellectual growth for a child can hardly be expected. To grow intellectually one needs new experiences, sights, smells, sounds, colors, languages, people. Here, there is nothing of the kind. Even I have to make an effort not to stagnate intellectually. I, at least, am a mature adult who has a lot of free time to travel and see other places. If I were to stay permanently stuck here, I doubt much would happen for me in terms of intellectual development.

This small-town Midwestern lifestyle is not only bad for the life of the mind. It's also not extremely conducive to the health of the body. The excessive reliance on cars coupled with the very unhealthy food are almost a guarantee of obesity and low health.

Why, then, do so many people insist that this is such a great place to raise a family? After 15 months in this area, I think I have finally been able to figure it out. The reason why people say this is racism, pure and simple. What this area doesn't have (or almost doesn't have) is non-white people and immigrants. It gets to the point where - for the first time in all of my years on this continent - I find myself in a situation where many of the locals don't understand me when I speak to them. And believe me, my English is very good, with only a trace of an accent. How sad is it that people are so unprepared to deal with even such a minor difference as the one I represent?

Racism blinds the proponents of raising kids in this environment to the fact that racial and cultural diversity is the only thing that can bring relief to such painfully boring, stagnant places.


eric said...

You pretty much nailed it--typically the most boring, culture-free housing tracts are sold off by realtors as "family friendly", which besides the obvious racist connotations, implies that the subdivision would be a suitably safe holding pen for the prospective homebuyer's offspring until they are 18.

Luckily, my suburban neighborhood is fairly diverse, there's no shortage of healthy food to be had in the area, and the neighborhood kids are always out riding bikes or skateboards or whatever, which is pretty much how I grew up.

I'm surprised, though, that a small Midwestern town wouldn't have more to do in terms of outdoor activities. My guess is poor urban planning, and if that part of the country is anything like southern Arizona (where I lived for a few years during the last decade), they let developers do anything they want.

Clarissa said...

I'm sure there are outdoor activities, but because of the layout of the town, getting to those activities once again requires a parent with a car to bring the children there and then to stick around for the duration. I can only imagine what a drag that is for everybody involved. Teenagers especially "love" their parents to hang around while they are doing stuff with their friends.

Rimi said...

I'm sorry to be ignorant foreign alien, but what is a play date? If something's horrible, I want to hear all about it! :D

Re. your accent (I haven't had time to go through earlier posts yet -- where are you from?), I have a pet theory that there is a clear hierarchy of accents in the Anglophone world depending upon global histories of power. The US occupies the middle ground in it. People with a south-easten English accent reside at the top of the ladder (or so one would gather, from the US response to that accent), every kind of US accent comes right after, including working-class/ethnic accents (Irish and Italian accents from my US hometwon, Boston), with the Rest of the World coming below that.

Even in the lower grades, I think there are substrata. A thick subcontinental (Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi) rates lower than the soft-consonant East Asian one, and Mediterranean European accents rate above both.

Of course, I maybe completely wrong, but I'm yet to meet a second-generation immigrant (or even someone who immigrated as a child) in the US who does not speak with a local or generic television-US accent, *except* two second-gen English students in my class, who spoke with a perfect Oxbridge accent (although one set of parents were from Manchester, apparently). Also, I've met quite a few children of American parents who were born all over the world and grew up mostly in India, and all of them sport perfect US accents.

So personally, I think the environmental influence on children's accents are overstated. There is a very strong ethnic power structure influence to it. And often, an 'imitated' accent signifying integration with a more powerful ethnic group (white American or quasi-posh English) raises a non-white person's stock considerably. For example, I frequently had to wait a lot less in queues and things than my white American partner because people assumed I was English, and frequently commented favourably on my (posh Indian church-school) accent. It's just the way things are.

Anonymous said...

Heh. When I was a wee kid my family moved from one of the poorest, least white neighborhoods of Surrey (the B.C. version) to a street in a lower middle-class town which had white people on one side and brown people on the other. I believe the marketing for that place was something to do with affordability rather than any sort of family benefit. The big yards and open spaces and easily accessible public transit to the unusually diverse selection of amenities in that small town just weren't family friendly enough I suppose.

Clarissa said...

On play dates: I have observed a play date once, and it looked as follows. Mommies brought kids to one of their houses. They put the kids on a rug in the middle and sat around them in a circle in chairs. The kids were supposed to play, while the mothers were staring at them, discussing them, and issuing orders. Of course, any spontaneity of normal children's play evaporated.

On accents: I emigrated from Ukraine to Canada when I was 22. That was 12 years ago. I teach most of my classes in Spanish, but also some classes in English. And the students at all the universities where I taught never had a problem with my accent in English. In this area, though, people are so sheltered from any contact with anybody slightly different that even I seem exotic. :-)

Denny said...

Clarissa, I couldn't imagine raising children in the environment you are describing. I'm currently residing in Atlanta, GA, one of the larger U.S. cities, yet I find it incredibly bland and uninteresting. The first time I visited the "edgy, artsy" part of town, I had to struggle not to laugh at the fact that it consisted of approximately 2 small blocks with some eating establishments and a few stores (including a music shop and an used clothing shop). I could only conclude that in most of America, any shopping area which isn't filled with chain stores/restaurants is considered edgy.

With its lack of sidewalks and viable public transportation Atlanta is not that different from the mid-west you describe. The youth in both places are similarly reliant on their parents for mobility. This has plagued me ever since I had my first child. Not only do I not want to take on the job of a chauffeur, this basic lack of mobility for children angers me.

I moved to NYC when I was 7. I took the subway by myself when I was 8. It wasn't the best idea because I couldn't read English at that point. But by age 9 or 10, I was confident enough to ride the subways without adult supervision. I still recall fondly the summer my cousin and I spend what seemed an eternity on the trains in order to go swim at Coney Island. We were both not more than 11. This isn't to suggest I spent my pre-adolence traveling on the subway by myself. Rather, most of my travels were by foot. Whereever we lived, there was always an extraordinary number of places and people to see just around the corner. I'd walk for miles and miles, and the scenary continued to change and delight. And, when I needed to go further than I could walk, the trains and buses were ready and waiting.

Freedom of movement is not only necessary for physical and mental health, I think it's crucial for the development of adults who are truly cognizant of their automony. Yet, in the current cultural clime, even children lucky enough to be raised in urban environments are deprived of this freedom because of fearmongering over pedophiles and kidnappers.

eric said...

Play dates are inexplicable, given that the very definition of "play" is spontaneity. It reminds me of a bit by the late, great George Carlin, when he suggested that parents should just let their kids sit outside and just stare at a tree--until the child HAS to resort to using his or her imagination and start developing some independent thought.

As far as accents, I grew up speaking California English, and sometimes I will let slip "garbeej" instead of "garbage", "baig" instead of "bag", and "bing" instead of "bang", and people will look at me weird.

Rimi said...

Carling -- may he rest in peace -- has my vote. In fact, having grown up in India, where you study very, VERY hard to ensure a small foothold in the overcrowded marketplace after school/college, I'd appreciate the chance to just sit and stare at a tree. Most of the time after school, I was running to a special physics tuition, or extra-help maths lessons.

But yes, my best friend and I were left unsupervised by parents, and in the absence of the usual material abudnace most US children--and some modern Indian children--grow up with, we made up entire games and acted out parts in adventure stories. We had precious little time for play, but when we did, it was so much fun! And cleaning up after either, since we lacked so spectacularly in props.

Richard said...

I would agree that diversity is generally a very good thing in child rearing. In New Mexico (my retirement state) 40 per cent of the population have Hispanic names and 20 per cent are Native Americans. The remaining 40 per cent are called “Anglos” which really means non-Hispanic. Spanish, Mexican, and Indian cultures are very much part of the State’s heritage. The population here is very tolerant of foreigners (we Anglos) and an extraordinary number of the folks here are bilingual in Spanish and English. To my mind this is the sort of society that diversity should produce.

eric said...

Richard wrote: "Spanish, Mexican, and Indian cultures are very much part of the State’s heritage."

Yup, pretty much the entire West is like that, though NM is the best place for that kind of diversity. People don't realize just how diverse Hispanic culture is, because in New Mexico (and up the road here in Colorado to some extent) you have recent Mexican immigrants, some descendants of Spanish settlers from the 1600's (Hispanos), and even some of the Spanish-speaking population purported to be descended from "Marranos" (Crypto-Jews), in addition to some of the largest Native American populations in the US. I love the West!

Anonymous said...

Hello Clarrisa, just wanted to point out that your location (city , **** R*****) is shown on your twitter account viewed on the iPhone, probably because you have GPS enabling or some feature like that. If this is something you already know, that would be a relief. Just wanted to make sure since it seems to me you are purposefully not writing this info on your blog.

Also, I love your blog! I look forward to reading it every day. No need to publish this comment. -msa

Clarissa said...

msa: I can't not publish a comment of somebody who looks forward to reading the blog every day. :-)

The funny thing about Twitter locator is that it's often wrong. I've never been to this place they are claiming I'm writing from. Actually, I've never even heard about it. I have no idea how it works.

Thank you for your concern, though.

Pagan Topologist said...

My experience with play dates was that they were just a kind of swapped babysitting. Drop your child off to play with mine for a few hours and go do whatever. Then I will drop my child off with you for the same amount of time next week.

It always seemed to me that "A good place to raise children" referred to the perceived fact that children can in certain places be left alone outdoors without their physical safety being at risk. This is always a fantasy, I think, but if it means that parents allow children to climb trees, etc., without interference, it is probably a fantasy which is somewhat to the advantage of the children.