Monday, September 04, 2006

Are Cities or Suburbs a Better Place to Raise Kids?

From Po:

I live in the city of San Francisco. Every year, families move away. There's a lot of reasons driving them, but at its core seems to be an abstract notion about what childhood is - or how it's best lived. The suburbs seem, at times, to be more pro-family, and family-friendly. A little better schools, pool clubs, plenty of fields for little league baseball - it's hard to pin down exactly what the attraction is. Does that make up for major league baseball, major museums, and the diversity of cultures to be exposed to?

Our family travels a lot, and in the past couple years we've spent weeks with friends who live in cul-de-sac suburbs in northern Virginia, or suburban Denver, or the Austin hill country. Sometimes it sure does seem nice, especially on a hot sunny day when we go to the local pool and it's clean and nice and warm and free.

But my wife has always argued that as young children grow up, they get bored in the suburbs. My wife doesn't mince words; she's blunter than she needs to be, usually. So the way she says it is, "There's nothing for a teenager in the suburbs to do but do lots of drugs, drink, and get pregnant from dumb dudes."

In a city, her point was, there's lots of art and subcultures and things to interest children. No kid in San Francisco can say, "there's nothing to do here." But until they're 21, they're not allowed into most of the city's great distractions.

Well, two new studies suggest my wife's got a point. One study looked at 340 regions of the country and how common was underage abuse of alcohol. "Abuse" meant binge drinking, which means 5 or more drinks at a time.

Most of the areas with the least underage alcohol abuse were in densely packed cities, like Washington DC and Detroit. Most of the areas with the highest abuse were rural areas (especially Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas). In general, non-rural areas drank less than rural areas.

But the study wasn't conclusive in terms of what factors led to less underage drinking. And suburbs faired both well and terribly. And some cities, like Boston, showed whopping amounts of drug and alcohol use. The national average is scary enough - 20% of kids aged 12 to 20 binge dank in the last month. But in Boston it's over 26%.

Here's a map of the United States, showing how common binge drinking was among youths age 12 to 17 in the most recent month; (white is least common, scarlet is most common). This map alone suggests alcohol abuse may have more to do with being northern. California looks pretty good in this picture.

So let's bring it back home. I live in San Francisco, and I think we have a lot of things for kids to do here without being so bored that they constantly turn to alcohol and drugs. How true is my perception? Not true at all. We're grouped in a region with Marin County, and they might throw our results off (or not). But either way, the results aren't pretty. Our region is the highest rate of cocaine use in California. The lowest is Orange County, which surprises me (Laguna Beach, lots of money to buy expensive drugs, et cetera.) And our region is also the highest of any California region in terms of teens (age 12 to 20) drinking alcohol. Almost 60% of our kids drank in the last month, versus statewide average of about 50%.

My real question to all of you is, "When you were a teenager, did you feel that where you lived was a factor in how likely you were to use alcohol or drugs to entertain yourself?" And if you're a parent of teenagers, "has where you live been a factor in whether your child was bored?" What are the tricks to keeping a teenager interested and engaged in the world?

Please share your opinion, and feel free to sign anonymously.


Blogger communicatrix said...

I grew up in the city of Chicago, and we moved to the suburbs (Evanston, just north) so that I could attend their public high school (for reference, I graduated high school in '79, so YMMV).

Kids drank and in the city; kids drank in the suburbs. What was worse about kids drinking in the suburbs, of course, was the driving. Lots and lots of driving. Mostly, in the city, drunken kids were walking, or taking cabs, or taking public transportation.

I wish I had the answer to keeping kids engaged and off the drink/drugs. I was smart and for the most part, involved; for me, the drinking/etc was more about fitting in than anything else (new school, new town, class of 40 to class of 1000). My parents were divorced, but there were plenty of kids from unbroken homes who were worse than I was.

For what it's worth, I think self-esteem plays the biggest role. Mine was pretty much in the toilet by then, so I didn't see drinking as the incredibly self-destructive thing that it was. And that self-esteem building needs to start early; you can't trowel it on as necessary in the teen years.

My hat's off to you for grappling with this head on, and yet not being a reactionary about it. For the record, some of the WORST offenders were kids from religious families. Talk about cutting loose...

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Claire said...

Could it be that our kids have had so much input from parents on how to fill their time and be kept busy, that when they get to the age where more freedom is allowed they don't know what to do with themselves?

I think this is a factor whether you live in the city or in the suburbs.

The fear is that when kids are bored they turn to drink or drugs, and the question regarding the best place to raise children seems to be about the boredom factor. But if children learn how to entertain themselves and their friends, they don't need a stream of activities and thrills to get their kicks.

And even if they do need structured activities, what happens to community sports that are feverishly persued since kindergarten, bowling alleys, movie theatres etc. Do kids not enjoy doing these things with their buddies when they get to high school?

My own childhood was not overscheduled. In fact it would be considered down right boring by some helicopter parents but it did allow me enough freedom to become responsible for myself and independant to a healthy degree.

In England going to the pub was a tradition and right of passage. Even though the legal drinking age is 18, I started going at 16 (this is not unusual). As a kid my family went to the pub in the beer garden. The smell of beer brings back many content memories of relaxing times with a bottle of coke by the stream!

My point here is that neither I, nor any or my friends or people I knew, abused drink. Binge drinking was not part of our vocabulary, if someone got drunk it meant they had one too many, not five. Drinking was not done to get drunk, it was the act of going out and being with friends rather than drinking alcohol and getting plastered. Drugs also were certainly available but just not interesting to me or my friends.

I feel that if you are given enough opportunity to learn from your own experience gradually, you don't head out full steam ahead and get into situations that you cannot cope with.

Also, if kids have learnt how to entertain themselves without props, they may not find that being bored leads them into destructive behaviour. I find my young children are most creative when they are bored. It always does them good once they quit whining about the TV going off!

I think the kids that spend most of their time in structured, adult led, activities are most vulnerable. Firstly because they are not used to entertaining themselves, and secondly because they have been supervised and protected by adults, both individually and in groups, and not had enough opportunity to test themselves and find their own limits.

Just my thoughts here!

7:03 PM  
Blogger Ben Casnocha said...


See my post on Big City America and Why I Love San Francisco:

6:15 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

Hey, Ben, thanks. I keep a little list of "Great Nights in San Francisco History." These are public moments that I think aren't recognized. I'll blog it down sometime.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Since Ben has weighed in in favor of San Francisco, I feel compelled to bring up the opposite point of view.

You see, I hate San Francisco.

But I digress.

I like your post, and I think it asks an important question, but I think it's difficult to make any firm judgements based on the data that you provide. You show us a map of state-level data, but this is essentially irrelevant to your titular question. California encompasses cities, suburbs, and farms.

You do cite more regional data on Marin and Orange County, but without providing the raw data for us to discuss.

Even with more granular data, we'd still have a tough time reaching any firm conclusions. So many other factors could affect drinking and drug abuse, with levels of wealth being perhaps more prominent than geography.

To draw any reliable conclusions, you would need to control for all factors other than location, such as wealth, education, race, etc.

Leaving aside the question of the data, one think I'd like to bring up is the misconception of what constitutes a suburb.

I happen to live in Palo Alto. Ben thinks that's a suburb. I disagree--almost all of the communities in the Bay Area are clearly cities. They may not have high-rises, but neither do they have farmland.

Many residents of major cities (LA, SF, NY, London, Paris, etc.) seem to think that everything else is "suburb" when that just isn't the case.

Finally, I will note one interesting fact, which I gleaned from Marty Seligman's latest book, Authentic Happiness.

In it, he describes a study of teenagers which looked at the amount of "flow" that they experienced on a moment to moment basis.

As you know, flow (as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) is the state that occurs when one is focused on performing a challenging task, and loses one's sense of self. It is the most fulfilling of emotional states.

It turns out that the amount of flow that teenagers experience varies widely by wealth.

The very poor and the very rich experience litle flow. I would speculate that for the poor, life presents impossible challenges, and for the rich, not enough challenges.

The working class and middle class experience several times the amount of flow.

I suspect that a study of drug and alcohol use would show an inverse correlation--the very poor and very rich would be heavy users, and the working class and middle class less so.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recall one night, at least 25 years ago, being an 11th grader in the suburbs of typical North American city, getting drunk with friends and trying to go crazy and cool on a golf green that had closed for the evening. At that moment in time, I realized how banal suburban life was, and craved the stimulation and vibracy of a city. I have spent the intervening time living in some of the most notable cities in the world, and loving the melee of human existence. Not every teen thinks this way. Most probably parental values and influence shape one's acceptance or rejection of the banal burbs.

2:32 AM  
Anonymous Kris said...

Another idea in support of raising kids in the cities is that (in my own experience) children in the suburbs tend to be a more naive about city life. I'm a teen living in the suburbs that spends every weekend and summer day in the nearest big city, forty minutes away. Whenever I mention this to one of my peers, the response always, "How many times have you been mugged?". The suburban teens I've met tend to fear the city, simply from having no experience of it. And from the group experiences I've had downtown, it's safe to say that their street smarts aren't up to par either.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmm, well, i'm a city kid, i'm 15 (sophmore) and go to a selective enrolment high school (so theres kids from all over the city here) blahblahblah....i dont think it matters where you live...i mean, my friends and i drink a lot, and i know my relatives in the suburbs do too. here, though, i think its easier, because noone is really paying attention and theres plenty of places to drink all we want. (my friends are mostly polish and mexican, so theres vodka and equila EVERYWHERE haha) tell you the truth, most of my friends and i, if we meet a kid from the suburbs downtown, we usually will either a) beat them up (we dont really want them fouling up our beach, if that makes sense) or b) harrass them. no real reason, we just find it annoying that they get the best of both worlds: "happy" family life, nice houses, money, AND they go and take up space where we want to hang out. :-/ its like, cant they go to their parents beach house in lake geneva or something?

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey Po,
i have a question for you.I'm from Africa, Ethiopia- where suburbs is home to very poor people. here in U.S suburbs is looked at as a place where rich people live, tatolily very different view! and again my question is that what make Suburbs(U.S's) a better place that most richer people could live?

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me kids drink everywhere, the only difference is how bored or lonely they are where they live. Do they have friends? I am also worried about other influences like sects, etc... Are they more common in the cities or in the suburbs? What is your opinion on that?

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kids drank and in the city; kids drank in the suburbs. What was worse about kids drinking in the suburbs, of course, was the driving.
Alcohol abuse affects millions. This site has a lot of useful information.

Alcohol Abuse

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in a big North Amercia city, and I loved it. Nowadays I make my living as a songwriter, and I doubt the suburbs would have given me the stimulation and inspiration to do do this. There's a certain vibe in the city that provokes thought and imagination. Contrary to the romantic myth of the isolated artist or intellectual, most great thinkers either grew up in or moved to places where other inspiring people are. The fact is this: You are your surroundings.

4:45 AM  

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