I grew up in a small town. During the summers, my friends and I would ride our bikes for miles along country roads all day, then play cops and robbers or kick the can all night. In the winters, we sledded, tobogganed, and ice skated on the town pond. But we never ate Chinese food, and our school didn’t have a single non-white student. In the ten years since I left for college, I’ve lived in big cities—first New York and now San Francisco—and I’ve discovered a few things about the differences in growing up country versus growing up urban. While urban kids eat sea urchin, they don’t get to go swimming in ponds or make snowmen in their front yards. Kids from suburbia, on the other hand, play sports and catch lightning bugs all summer, but their first experience with theatre may be a play at their high school. People who grew up in suburbs can’t imagine raising kids in a bustling city, and urbanites don’t understand why anyone would want to grow up anywhere else.
Even though I have no plans to move back to my small Ohio hometown, I wouldn’t trade the experience of growing up there for anything. Yet it’s hard to say whether I would want the same upbringing for my own kids, if I have any. When I first moved to New York, I marveled at all the amazing things I’d never been exposed to—ethnic food, amazing museums, immersion in different languages, and innumerable cultural experiences I’d never had—and I was jealous of people who had grown up there, because for them, these things were commonplace. They knew how to order Szechuan food, they weren’t afraid of the subway, and many were bilingual. So which is better for kids—growing up Gossip Girl or Friday Night Lights?
Country Bumpkins or City Snobs?
Many people stereotype small-town life as being all about tractors, cow-tipping, and shopping malls. Growing up in a small-town part of the Midwest or South is supposed to reflect a down-to-earth lifestyle of hard work, fair play, family values, and pickup trucks. City dwellers, on the other hand, are seen as discerning sophisticates who eat organic arugula salads with expensive wine, and thumb their noses at anyone who isn’t up on the latest cultural zeitgeist. These stereotypes filter down to children, too. Who hasn’t seen a movie featuring rural kids covered in dirt and shooting pellet guns at each other? Just as likely, though, is a film portrayal of city kids who are insufferable know-it-alls.
Kids who grow up in a city have an enviable maturity about them, because they’ve been exposed to so much culture at such a young age. They take the subway alone, they know how to navigate a metropolis, and they meet people of different ethnicities and political persuasions every day. They have a worldview that’s incredibly expansive because their world is so full of experiences. I didn’t eat sushi until I was in my twenties, but I knew nine-year-olds in New York who claimed it as their favorite food. Growing up in a city isn’t just about culture, though; it’s about developing an early understanding of life’s complexities. City kids come face to face with poverty, homelessness, racism, and discrimination, and learn how to deal with it early on.
While urban kids do become quite mature and savvy, it’s hard not to think that they’re getting cheated out of a precious part of their childhood—innocence. Growing up in the boondocks isn’t exactly glamorous—there are no celebrities and it seems like all food is required to come fried and covered with gravy—but it does afford those who grow up there the luxury of being a kid. Middle America may not always be up-to-date on the latest fashion trends, but it does give kids the chance to play in a sandbox, have a swing set, and get dirty.
Bright Lights, Prude City
The suburbs can’t totally shield kids from the world, though. Children raised in small, quiet towns might not be able to use chopsticks correctly, but it doesn’t mean they’re not worldly in other ways. The CDC’s 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that high schoolers in New York City were less sexually and chemically adventurous than students from other parts of the country. Specifically, students were less likely to carry weapons, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, use drugs, or have unprotected sex. The only way in which the city kids were at greater risk? They watched more TV.
Drunk driving and teen pregnancy rates tend to be higher in rural and suburban areas, too. Kids who once rode bikes all day start looking for more grown-up ways to pass the time, and without many options in a small town, many turn to risky activities. Urban kids can traverse their city to go to museums, see movies, or hang out with their friends, all without driving. Their worlds have more options and they find more productive ways to entertain themselves.
In the end, growing up happy and healthy is much more important for kids than whether they spend their weekends attending the theater or driving ATVs around a pond. As for me, even though I enjoyed growing up in the country, I love being an urbanite too much to give it up, and I’m excited for my kids to get to eat exotic foods and appreciate the beauty of the symphony, even if I find nine-year-olds who get manicures to be just a wee bit creepy. My future kids might never have a pogo stick or a backyard swimming pool, but they’ll have a whole city to play in. If we start yearning for the outdoors, we can always install a sandbox on the fire escape.