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What’s most important to you: that your kids are happy, or that your kids are not jerks? I think about this a lot.
The reflexive answer from most parents is they want their kids to be happy. That’s certainly how I would prefer to think I would answer. When parents talk about how and where they raise kids, a lot of the details have less to do with raising happy kids and more to do with raising unjerky kids.
Both happiness and jerkness are relative terms. But the former has to do with how the kids feel, and the latter has to do with how others feel about them. And by “others” I mean their parents. Perhaps the most sacred parental right is to bring up your children in the manner you see fit; you own their upbringing, and as long as you don’t violate the law, you can instill whatever principles or lack thereof you care to. Parents may vehemently disagree about methods, but it’s a rhetorical nuclear option to say particular parents shouldn’t even have the right to decide how their kids are raised.
So when a parent says to me “I want my kids to have x experience and live y way and in z place so they can have values of a, b, and c,” what I hear is equating those things less with happiness of the child and more with satisfaction of the parent.
My family moved to suburban Westchester last year; both my kids were born in New York City. My wife and I both still work in the city, so we see it most every day. The kids might get back there a couple times a month. We moved for all the stereotypical reasons of more space, easy good schools, reduced quotidian hassles. We lost all the metropolitan advantages of convenience, diversity, urban energy. I used to worry about my kids becoming jerky New York kids. Now I worry about them becoming jerky suburbanites.
But I realized recently that I’m the jerk who is overly worried about reproducing jerks. The irony! I’m no parental saint, willing to sacrifice my own entire happiness on the altar of my childrens’.
I’m no parental saint, willing to sacrifice my own entire happiness on the altar of my childrens’.
I still love New York and I always will, though I’m quite happy with the suburbs. Part of it is recognition of my own youth, since I was also raised in a suburb (although the things I like about the suburbs now are not the things I liked then). My kids enjoy the obvious stuff: bigger rooms, running around the yard, going to absurdly large malls. I’m sad they don’t get exposed on a daily basis to everything I think is cool about New York, but they’re not sad. Why should I be sad on their behalf?
I loved living in New York. But the challenges of living in a very large city as an adult are magnified tenfold with children. It is by no means impossible, of course — millions of people do it every day, and tolerate it fine or prosper in the process. For us and some others, the difference was enough to make suburbanization attractive. For many others, it’s not. But if I didn’t think my kids could be happy here, I wouldn’t have wanted to move, even if I absolutely hated New York.
Regardless of how you feel about the suburbs, there’s one inarguable joy lost to every native New Yorker, and that’s moving to New York. Nothing compares to that first year. The same could be said of moving to Paris or Tokyo or any big city, but New York — c’mon! Imagine if you could live every year of your New York life like it was your first. Then nobody would ever leave. I would love for my kids to have that experience too, though since they likely will grow up in the city’s shadow, it will be different for them. That’s okay. I hope they live in as many places as they like, wherever they like.
Here’s the hard truth: If you obsess with imprinting what you love about where you live on your children, conflating your past with a value system and a lifestyle injected into their future, you are dooming yourself to disappointment and burdening them with lives lived not as their own, but as tributes to yours.
In other words, if you refuse to consider moving to the suburbs because you hate the suburbs and suburbanites and suburbanite living — well — notice the absence of your children in that sentiment. It’s easier, more rewarding, and ultimately more natural to live vicariously through your children’s choices than to try and make them live through yours.
Chris Mohney is chief content officer at Serious Eats. He has lived in several cities and towns and suburbs. His 2 children respect his opinions.