Tuesday, December 07, 2004

In defence of city kids

Rarely does an op-ed truly offend me. But David Brooks, in "The New Red-Diaper Babies," boy, has he done it. He tells of the new exurban family, with plenty of money, plenty of kids, and none of the crassness or debauchery NYC kids are exposed to. He implies throughout the piece that parents who choose to raise a large number of kids in the exurbs somehow care more about their children, that the lack of anything else going on means that their focus is primarily on their children, unlike those horrible city parents who are more interested in doing lavish things like seeing movies at the Film Forum than in "try[ing] to shepherd their kids through supermarket checkouts lined with screaming Cosmo or Maxim cover lines."

They [exurban parents] are having three, four or more kids. Their personal identity is defined by parenthood. They are more spiritually, emotionally and physically invested in their homes than in any other sphere of life, having concluded that parenthood is the most enriching and elevating thing they can do. Very often they have sacrificed pleasures like sophisticated movies, restaurant dining and foreign travel, let alone competitive careers and disposable income, for the sake of their parental calling.

OK, yes, I'm offended by Brooks' premise, which is that the more kids a person has, and the fewer non-parenting activities the person has going on, the more he or she cares about being a parent. I am an only child, and growing up was exposed to sophisticated movies (including one I remember seeing when I was little, at an Israeli film festival, in which an actor playing Ben Yehuda coughed up blood, turning his white wine red. Left quite an impression.), some restaurant dining, and, yes, some foreign travel. Does the fact that my parents chose to spend money on these things and did not have four more children mean that they were uninterested in being parents? Some parents value exposing their children to obscure films, restaurants, and, when possible, other countries--their interest in these things does not have to come at the expense of their children.

The people who are having big families are explicitly rejecting materialistic incentives and hyperindividualism. It costs a middle-class family upward of $200,000 to raise a child. These people are saying money and ambition will not be their gods.

Um, how? Why are the couples raising one- or two-child families in places like Manhattan necessarily money-hungry and wildly ambitious? Can't it be that parents who themselves value the cultural resources and diversity of the city want to raise their children in an enviroment they consider optimal? My parents both grew up taking public transportation and going to large public high schools in the city, and, having done the same myself, it gives us a connection through shared experience that we would not have had my parents picked up and moved to one of Brooks' beloved exurbs.

I take Brooks' point, though, that few people can afford to raise 5-child families in Manhattan. But Brooks seems to be discussing those who could presumably afford to raise one or two kids in the city but prefer to raise larger families elsewhere, noting that "when people get money, one of the first things they do is use it to try to protect their children from bad influences." Yet, for some parents, life in an exurb would constitute a "bad influence," and those parents spend their money accordingly. Furthermore, living in the city is expensive, but it is also cheap. I never once thought to ask my parents for a car--they don't have one, either. This "restaurant dining" Brooks scoffs at include trips to Chinatown for meals that cost less than one would spend at an exurban Denny's. People choose how they spend their money depending on what they value, and those who value living in a place like Manhattan will almost always have to make certain sacrifices.

Like most Americans, they wonder how we can be tolerant of diverse lifestyles while still preserving the family institutions that are under threat. What they cherish, like most Americans, is the self-sacrificial love shown by parents. People who have enough kids for a basketball team are too busy to fight a culture war.

Sorry, but all I can say is, gag me. This "like most Americans" phrase, repeated again and again, suggests that there's an evil minority of Americans, living in liberal urban centers, who don't give a damn about self-sacrificial love for their children. Brooks' exurbians may "wonder how we can be tolerant of diverse lifestyles," but city kids take the subway, don't ponder it, but ride it, don't theorize about gay marriage, but have classmates with openly gay parents, and learn not to tolerate diverse lifestyles but to love living in a city where choosing your own path is encouraged.

In celebrating the couples who choose to steer clear of the scary city and all of its crude ambition, Brooks is showing the scary, anti-cosmopolitan side of conservatism, surprising, coming from the liberals' favorite conservative. It's fair to say that not everyone can or wishes to live in upscale, liberal urban enclaves, but to imply that those who choose to raise their children in such an enviroment are somehow more selfish and worse parents is unnecessary, untrue, and mean-spirited.


Anonymous said...

Brooks likes to present himself as oh so connected with Red America but I guarantee you he wouldn't live in the "exurbs" if you paid him to.

Anonymous said...

Excellent rebuttal to Brooks. Will you send to NY Times and/or Brooks? Definitely publishable. Sometimes I wonder about columnists -- how much of what they say is "just enough over the edge" to provoke strong reactions and thereby get attention, etc. From what I know of life in the exurbs, plus what has been documented by research, life there has lots of social dangers. One must fill the empty scene with something, usually alcohol, drugs, and sex. Rarely foreign films, travel, and reading. --JM

Unknown said...

Settle down, Phoebe. Brooks is writing this column almost entirely for city dwellers. He doesn't claim that it's better to live in the "exurbs", only why these folks have chosen it. The New York - LA pop culture axis has been anti-suburban as long as I've been aware there was such a thing. Brooks has made it his mission (along with a few others) to educate you people about us people. Let me tell you, he's got this article pretty much spot on. This is what we think we're doing out there in flyover country: having babies and believing we're better than you. We know how you live. We watch it every day on our tv screens. But your impressions of us are all just nasty charicatures. Brooks is doing a service to readership. Don't look for attacks where none exist. (I'd like to stress that "me" and "you" aren't Phoebe and Aaron, but "Red" and "Blue".)

Daniel said...

Thought of another point against Brooks. He said : "It costs a middle-class family upward of $200,000 to raise a child. These people are saying money and ambition will not be their gods."

By that measure, people living in places like Manhattan instead of places like suburbs are also saying money will not be their gods, as it is far more expensive to live in a city than to live just outside of it. You could also make the point that those that choose to live outside of a city choose not to care about culture at all - as there are less museums in suburbs (or ex-urbs or whatever it is we call them now). I don't think the article is useless (as a disclaimer, I grew up inside of a city - Atlanta and then Memphis - in a three children household), but clearly there are some holes.

Alex B. said...

What about people who don't exactly choose to live in suburbs, but who find themselves priced out of cities? It is wrong to generalize and to assert that all suburban folk are philistines whose idea of a "cultural" family activity is a Sunday afternoon spent at Wal-Mart or Home Depot. Plenty of people live just outside cities because their incomes don't allow them to live downtown. What do these people do on weekends? They drive (or take public transportation) to the city to go to the museum, to eat in restaurants, to attend concerts; they raise their children by encouraging them to read, to listen to music, to cultivate their intelligence... If there's a little money left at the end of the year, they fly across the Atlantic for a (cultural) trip to the Old World.

I don't think it's as black and white (or, in this case, Red and Blue) as some would like to paint it; rather, it seems to be a situation in which both the urbanites and suburbanites are trying to justify their respective lifestyles. It's not really a culture war. It's more about who has the means to live in the city and who doesn't.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I acknowledge that people get priced out of cities in my post. Brooks, though, is not talking about those who cannot afford to live in cities, but rather those who, in search of wholesome places to be good parents, choose to take their money elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Brooks, though glancing on the correlation between religion and natalism, doesn't go far enough. The most ardent of religionists--the closed societies of Hasidim, for example--can go about their business of natalism, big time, smack in an urban setting. Is this the extreme Brooks believes the exurban backlash aspires to? And where does income fit in with this?

Anonymous said...

No disagreement with all your points in defence of city kids. But, is brooks really celebrating those natalists? It seems to me that he rather writes about their self-undestanding than celebrating them.

His usage of 'like most Americans' might be stylistically awkward, but it does not imply a 'dangerous minority'. Rather, he suggests that these natalists are not that different from anybody else. That's it.

You're right finding these natalists strange, to say the least. But Brooks isn't celebrating them as you suggest.

Anonymous said...

People move to the exurbs because that's where the government is spending the most money per capita. It's not planned that way, but if you want the most bang for the other guy's buck, you want to be just outside. It's the glory of the frontier. That's why the suburbs were the place in the 50s and 60s, and the exurbs are the place now.


I grew up in the city, and my sister is raising my two nieces in Manhattan. Simply put, the city is the best place to raise kids, especially teenagers. Little kids you can raise anywhere. Since you have to keep an eye on them, you can control what they see and do. Still, it's a good idea to expose them to some of the world. As one Politburo hack put it, "you don't want them going crazy the first time they see a sweater in a department store".

Once they get old enough to go places on their own, you run into problems. Either you drive them EVERYWHERE or you have to let them drive. As for staying out of trouble, remember, there is NOTHING to do in the suburbs or exurbs. I've lived in suburbs and exurbs and the kids are bored out of their skulls. If the ice cream place closes at 9, what do they do for the rest of the evening?

In the suburbs and exurbs, they do what kids everywhere do. They go for sex, booze, drugs and dangerous machinery. You can tell the good parking spots by looking for condom wrappers, contraceptive foam applicators, beer cans and shotgun shells. I think the shotgun shells are more exurban than suburban.

I have nothing against sex, booze or target practice, though I wish they wouldn't litter. I expect that city kids do the same stuff, but now and then they break up the routine with a trip to a museum, some shopping, an art movie, a bookstore, a gallery opening, some gawking or a concert. I know I did, and that's what my nieces are doing.

In addition to offering distractions from their innate evil passions, the city is safer for teenagers than elsewhere. By any measure, buses, subways and taxis are safer than teenaged drivers.

Enough said.