It takes a city to raise a child

In a recent ‘Dear Friends’, a monthly letter to CCB I wrote, ‘We can all be involved in stemming the flow by shelving our desires to leave London, or at least delaying them for a while. It doesn’t have to be forever, but if you were thinking of leaving next year why not stay for one more year. If you thought you’d stay for two more years why not make it four!’

Those words are hard to hear if we’ve long worshipped the idol of raising our kids in the suburbs or the regions! I know because I’m familiar with the temptation.

Tim Keller’s reflections on raising kids in the city is something that I return to from time to time so that I can remind myself and Rosslyn that staying put doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re sacrificing the kids on the altar of city ministry! It stops the martyr syndrome that can sometimes take over. You can find it here.

The first thing that struck me was that this isn’t an attempt to expound the Bible. There’s not a single biblical reference in the entire talk. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, or that it’s heretical. It simply means that the Bible is silent about where we decide to raise our kids. And Keller recognises that. He argues that the motivation for being in the city has to be more posoitive than negative. In other words since the Bible doesn’t say that we have to live in the city, we mustn’t attempt to bind people’s consciences. I think he uses the phrase ‘we have to trap people with the joys of being in the city!’ And so Keller’s reflections are in the realm of wisdom.

His central thesis is that, in general, the city is a better place to raise the kids. It won’t be right for everyone. It won’t be right for every kid. But, on the whole, the city is not only a possible place to raise a family, it’s a better place.

He acknowledges that three factors make it a hard place to rasie kids. First, because of the prohibitive cost of everything you’ve got less disposable income to invest in your family. Secondly, he talks about the ‘physical logistics on the front nine’ make it harder to get round the city with small kids. In others words transporting small kids in the city can be a real pain. But after that, the ‘back nine’ is a real joy. Thirdly, the educational terrain is complex and hard to navigate since there are so many options and so little cash!

That said he then lists eight counterbalancing factors that sway the pendulum in favour of staying put and not giving flight.

1. The kids will grow up thinking that they live in the real world rather than growing up in the suburbs and straining at the leash to get to the real world. Of course everywhere is the real world but they don’t think like that. The city is where it’s at and they know that. That’s why they want to escape surburbia or the regions as soon as they can. But if they grow up in the city they know that they live in the ‘real’ world.

2.  The kids grow up knowing that you have a real faith. They want to believe that their parents’ faith is disconnected to reality. It gives them permission to be disparaging about Christianity. But they can’t do that if they know that you’ve had to work out your Christian discipleship in the real world. It undermines their desire for unbelief.

3. The kids will grow up and become self reliant, independent and confident because nothing freaks them out. As a country boy who went to sixth form with mates from the city who then moved to the ‘big smoke’ in his mid twenties, I’ve got to say he’s absolutely right on that one.

4. The kids grow up being adept at handling diversity. Most surbuban white kids don’t grow up with Muslim neighbours and Afro-Caribbean mates. But you do in the city. Their breadth of cultural engagement will far outweigh the kids who grow up out of town.

5. The kids grow up being pushed into family. The city is a relationally intense environment. It ‘forces’ families to spend lots of time together. The commute is less, the house is smaller, there aren’t any fields to escape to. It all adds up to lots of ‘face time’. If you’re into relating with your kids, that’s a good thing.

6. The kids grow up with Christian role models. In the suburbs kids grow up with a peer group. But do you really want them learning about the faith from their teenage mates? On reflection, not really. In the city they get to their teenage years and they see the Christian life being modelled by credible ‘trendy twenties’ whom they respect. In the suburbs they get to see the Christian life being lived out by guys with kids. But who grows up wanting to be like their Dad! In the city they don’t have to.

7. The kids grow up facing the issues. They’ll be exposed to a whole range of ethical issues a long time before the suburban or rural kids. Because London is like a massive University Campus we get to go to College with them before they’re even old enough to apply! They’ll come across homosexuality, drugs, alcohol, crime, sex and so on and we’ll be with them when they do. Unlike the parents in the suburbs who live out there to escape from it we have to confront it and get to help them deal with it.

8. The kids grow up without the pressure to conform. The city is so accommodating of diversity that it’s hard to think of a fad, fashion or obsession that it wouldn’t tolerate. And so the kids get to grow up being themselves, without having to become a carbon copy of others.

I’m not saying that it’ll be easy, but I’m persuaded. I’m enjoying the feeling  of being constrained by the joys of the city!

6 thoughts on “It takes a city to raise a child

  1. Phil C June 3, 2009 / 9:52 am

    A bit out of leftfield perhaps – but I think a lot of these principles also apply to the question of whether you home-school your kids or not.

    • theurbanpastor June 3, 2009 / 9:19 pm

      Do you mean that we shouldn’t home school our children but rather send them to secular schools? That’s a can of worms you’re proposing to open up! Why don’t you blog on it and deal with the fallout?!!

      • Phil C June 4, 2009 / 1:02 pm

        I’m not saying either/or, though I have my opinions!

        It just seems that many of the reasons above can be used to argue for sending children to secular schools…e.g. you could say that in a secular school, the kids will grow to be more adept at handling diversity than if they are home-schooled.

        Obviously it’s only an overlap, but the parallels are there.

  2. Dan C June 17, 2009 / 10:04 am

    I completely disagree with Tim Keller\’s thesis that the city is a better place to raise kids. All of the eight counter-balancing points for staying in the city with the exception of number 4 are arguable and cerainly not compelling enough to make someone want to raise their kids there. With wise and culturally-open parents, a good church and a good supportive network of friends/family, raising kids in the country is every bit as healthy if not more so than in the pressure cooker-like conditions you get in a city. I say all this while attempting to do the very thing I disagree with!
    However, I consider the country a much more suitable environment for raising kids where the surrounds are fresher, more healthy, with more space for a kid to play, explore and express themself without the confines and pollution of a city. It is no wonder so many of the kids in cities are pasty-faced, unathletic and prone to indulge in adult vices, when there is little space or alternative arenas for them to express themselves. The suburbs, of course, are not free from danger, but a child has his whole life to acquaint himself with \’the issues\’ which readily present themselves in cities. With sex education now being taught at primary school, is there no such thing anymore as the sacredness of childhood? Is there really such a rush to put on our children the heavy issues that plague the adult world?
    Anyway, God places us where we are and we work with him in our environment wherever that maybe. In my opinion though, cities are for adults and the countryside is for kids and this is reflected largely by the activities, the built-environment and the general ambience that is displayed in cities/country.

  3. Phil C June 19, 2009 / 12:56 pm

    Dan, what are we raising kids for? You are talking about them having space to “play, explore and express themselves”. It sounds like you are idealising rural/suburban existence, and your description is centred on the child’s enjoyment and absolute security rather than about building their character and godliness. People don’t have their “whole life” to deal with big issues – childhood is formative and important, as is teenagehood (hence each of the points being about a child “growing up” doing x, y, z).

    Keller is arguing (in general terms – he’s not saying it’s for everyone!) against removing children to an idealised periphery. For good or ill the city is where most people are, where most decisions are made, and where change comes first. Removing yourself and your children from that context is an important decision.

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