How to raise kids in a city

The plight of booming cities

I moved to Philadelphia fifteen years ago and it was a different city then. I remember Frankford Avenue, the bustling corridor that rivals Passyunk East as the best night life strip in town, just had two bars on it worth walking to: it was either Johnny Brenda’s or Atlantis: The Lost Bar. Now there are restaurants and bars on every block from Lehigh to Girard on Frankford Ave. It’s a whole different world (that is, by the way, part of the reason why we want to give our building near Frankford and Norris a face-lift and update its façade). Anyway, the Riverwards aren’t unique in the sense that they’ve changed. Philadelphia has dramatically changed over the last fifteen years, in fact. It moved from a town with a dwindling population to one with a growing one. And it remains the fifth biggest town in the country.

The urban renaissance Philadelphia is experiencing is part of a nation-wide trend. But an Atlantic author noted that another trend might be emerging. Derek Thompson writes, “Last year, for the first time in four decades, something strange happened in New York City. In a non-recession year, it shrank” (The Future of the City is Childless). Thompson concludes that the decline in population is the result of less births and more families moving out of the city. Why? “Raising a family in the city is just too hard.”

Cities, he argues, moved from places for all classes, to places that are hostile to children and children with families. Immigrants, who are responsible for much of the urban population growth over the last decade (remember that next time you hear someone telling about how immigrants will hurt our economy—they actually benefit the labor market and economy, whereas protectionism and isolationism and the racism that precedes those things do the exact opposite), land on Ellis Island, in this case, and end up in a New York City suburb that is more kid-friendly and affordable.

Is workism to blame?

The author argues that wealth and workism replaced children in cities who have swapped “capital for kids.” This brutal screed concludes with this incisive blow, “The modern American city is not a microcosm of life but a microslice of it. It’s becoming an Epcot theme park for childless affluence, where the rich can act like kids without having to actually see any.”

The author will continue, while never saying that childlessness is a sin (and in fact saying the opposite), the author makes the case that there is a growing movement of opposition to bearing children and that threatens (of course) the progress of the United States. He also argues that it will increase our political polarization and the urban-rural divide.

The solutions he poses are affordable housing near downtown areas (which means combatting “NIMBYism,” a.k.a. Not-In-My-Back-Yardism). His solutions stop there, and he goes on to mention a lack of interest in sex and reproduction as a whole. He thinks it is ultimately changing the fabric of our society and will lead to regression.

I have to say that I admire the author’s point of view and willingness to bring a subject, children, into political and social discourse. This may be a good way to get a dialogue going about how our economic form and subsequent pressures are changing us. The author is arguing that our pursuit of wealth and of careerism is damaging parts of society, including how we bear children. Personally, I think it’s an overstated, but, as I said, an admirable argument.

I’m not objective, Jesus is the lens through which I find truth

The author may very well start with his conclusion, and as the Atlantic is known to do, tickling topics that surround the culture wars makes for moveable content and distinguishes it from its immediate long-form-journalism competitors in the field (think New Yorker and Harper’s, for example), who are decidedly more liberal. So pardon my cynicism, but I’m also wary, for the same reasons the author is about not having kids in the cities, that framing the subject this way increases our polarization. His line of reasoning can quickly bifurcate us into warring sides, and perhaps that is not his intent, but I sense the risk. I am wary of painting cities that are big as they ones in question with a broad brush that so paints so conclusively about motives and trends.

The so-called “anti-natalist” movement, which often described as misanthropic, is a trope that is stereotypically pinned on many people without much generosity, but I think that the reason that people are having less kids is far more numerous that simply a wanton pursuit of wealth and money and a disinterest in sex. I don’t think our solutions are strictly economic, even if it seems, if you intersect the data one way, that economics are the driving reason to not have children. But I think that’s too simplistic of a solution.

The author may have started with a premise and found a way to conclude it using data. That’s the risk with so-called “evidence-based” policy, and in general, with empiricist epistemology. A philosophy must precede it, one that isn’t rooted in the material world, but rather that comes from another realm altogether. I’ve based my life that good philosophy comes from God. The media is particularly susceptible to ignoring the contingency all of our data-based conclusions have on philosophy, and I think it benefits form posing itself that way because “objectivity” sells. In fact, if you think you have a corner on “objective truth,” you can blindly allow your partisanship to lead you, while thinking you just made a rational choice.

I, for one, think it is much better to be open about your philosophical bias and simply state that you are using that as your lens for interpreting the world and data. As a matter of fact, I see things differently than the other, given the same data set. I don’t think my conclusions are more “objective” than the author’s, but I want to admit that a philosophy precedes them. In this case, it is my faith and my community that does so.

Maybe it’s not just selfishness that is leading to less births

Part of my framework comes from the fact that I am not wealthy, and live a fairly “balanced” life, and have two children enrolled in schools in town. I don’t live very close to Center City, but we’ve made our lives work rather well for us, considering we have the “burden” of children. For what it’s worth, I think the alleged workists who don’t have kids and suburbanists who do, as framed by the article, see children as a utilitarian end, which I think is highly problematic. I think people that think kids are an elemental part of a healthy marriage are guilty of the same utilitarian objectification of children too.

Neverthless, I’m defensive because I think that it is possible, and preferable, to raise children in the city, and I think we should make a concerted effort to refute the lies that it can’t be done. I don’t think the author offers many tangible solutions, but rather glaringly tells about a problem. Another problem that cities are causing us. Because we can’t say they are crime-infested cesspools anymore, because they are actually growing and developing and improving, we have to find new problems that plague them. This time, they are ruining our population growth and economy because they are filled with anti-natalists.

The data is undeniable, but the reasons people are not having children are numerous. Maybe it’s fear that they will raise children as poorly as their parents did. Maybe it’s anxiety about climate change and uncertainty about the future of the world. Maybe it’s trouble finding a good public school, private school tuition, or insecurity about a lottery that decides your kid’s future. It might be that bearing children comes across as burdensome, which is exactly the mentality the columnist plays into. The artificial choice is to pick one: kids or career. And sadly that choice is too often gendered. For women, they often feel like they have one choice. So it’s no wonder ambitious women feel like they can’t have children, especially as they are coerced into marriage and children. Those sort of norms cause rebellion and backlash, of course. Apparently, it’s a nonstarter for women to work and raise children in many circles. Our society does very little to circumvent this conflict, offering no guaranteed maternity leave, after care, and so on. Hardly any of it is affordable. Kids are expensive, so to speak, because we make them that way.

It’s time to stop isolating nuclear families

We make it work in the city in a variety of ways. Not least of which is our community. Not only is Circle Kids an affordable option for care, we raise our children together. We say we do it in a “village.” We think of parents as having a unique opportunity. We say, “Parents have the unique privilege of creating a family where grace and truth may be known. The church surrounds them with support and everyone plays a part in each child’s protection and growth.” We’re all involved in raising children, and if we had a collective consciousness about that, I think the trends in the cities would change. Raising children is a village idea, not a singular one.

Perhaps we should do away with the nuclear family altogether. As stabilizing as it has been for economies, in particular the American one, they seem to pressure new, young parents too singularly, and children subsequently need therapeutic intervention to recover. I think distributing that responsibility in community is a better method than the nuclear one. Furthermore, more experienced parents (and grandparents) generally help rookie parents who are so overwhelmed they sacrifice their livelihood or move closer to their parents for mere survival.

Doing it in community also helps couples make sober decisions about having children without thinking that if they don’t they won’t have the opportunity to raise children. We can do it together. We don’t have to live in such bifurcated environments.

Not having kids is akin to Paul’s argument about not being married in the New Testament (see 1. Cor 7). It’s an option and in some cases preferable. Paul’s argument largely surrounds his idea that the apocalypse is imminent. Some people choose to have kids and others don’t. Some are able to have them and others aren’t. Same goes for marriage. Making a principle one way or the other seems flawed to me. We should support one another, though, and create spaces where people are free to make the choices God is leading them to make.

About half of the people I’ve married over the last nine years have children. I’m glad we have a diversity. But I will say, raising them in community is the best thing that we can do. We village parent that way. Raising and bearing children in suburban isolation or bringing them up in a single-unit dweller in urban isolation might be the worst of either scenario. We should raise our kids together, not ignore each other, and give everyone an opportunity to bless them and be blessed by them.

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