Where You Grow Up: Interestingness vs. Safety

Parents of young children often say they’re moving from a city to the ‘burbs because “Suburb X is a good place to raise a family.” I would guess the real reason sometimes is, “Suburb X is less expensive.” Though suppose cost were irrelevant and we evaluate the parents’ reason at face value.

It’s a good place to raise a family. What does this mean? At its core this usually means it’s safe, i.e., in the suburbs the kids can play outside at night and we don’t worry. (Sometimes parents say it’s for the schools but suburban schools are not widely better than urban ones.)

There’s a flip side to an ultra-safe environment: it’s less interesting. The interestingness of a place is inversely correlated with its safety. Somewhere, there is an optimal point, but parents seem to sometimes forget this tradeoff.

I’m biased. I grew up in a neighborhood (Haight-Ashbury) in San Francisco that at the time was fairly rough-and-tumble. The full range of human impulses were on display. My childhood activities were extremely urban: city parks and playgrounds, streets and noise and pollution, dodging crime-inclined juveniles.

While there were some less pleasant run-ins with homeless people or the neighborhood gang, in total, I think the diversity I got exposed to contributed positively to my upbringing. All the sights and sounds around me made me more interested in how those things came to be. It exposed me to a wider range of lives and behavior. It made me more curious.

Bottom Line: Life’s about tradeoffs. Safety is no exception. I’m not sold that suburbia is usually a better place to raise a family, if safety and stability are proffered as the reasons why.

14 comments on “Where You Grow Up: Interestingness vs. Safety
  • I’ve heard this argument from a lot of people, and I don’t really agree with the idea that the ‘burbs are any safer, in the long run. I think it’s more to do with sheltering the child from a lot of the darker sides of a city. I myself grew up in a suburb, and hated it. I’ve moved to the city with my wife (who also grew up in the ‘burbs) and we’re raising our son here.

    David Cross did a bit about that, growing up in an area outside Atlanta. He made reference to the fact that there is much less racial diversity in the suburbs than the city, and some people want that.

  • Safety/Interestingness is a false dichotomy.

    There are plenty of interesting things you can see and do that don’t require exposing yourself to danger.

    Singapore, for example, is renowned for its safety (and for caning people for chewing gum) but also offers great food, a multi-cultural environment, and tons of kick-ass attractions like museums and zoos.

    On the other hand, Cultural Homogeneity/Interestingness is a true dichotomy.

    Too many people head for the suburbs with a cry of “safety” when they really mean “no blacks, Latinos, or poor people.”

  • I’m biased too- I grew up in a suburb and found it a tedious horrible nightmare of a place to be. Got travelling then outta there as soon as I could!

    Some kids are fine in suburbia, no doubt- I think at least some of the brighter ones are liable to find it much more limiting & frustrating than relaxed & safe.

    The real reasons people move to the burbs to have kids, I think are cheaper house prices (big house & yard nicer for kids than being stuffed into a weeny NYC apartment) and an easier less hassle-laden lifestyle for the parents. They are taking on a big new job by having kids, so you can’t blame them for trying to rationalise things- but calling that “safety and stability” is indeed a bit of a con.

  • I grew up in the country, though the area is slowly becoming a suburb of Atlanta. Re: lack of diversity in the suburbs – that may be true in the north and near suburbs, but my high school was at least 30% black, and in college (Northwestern) I found that most of my classmates there had gone to high schools with only a handful of black people. Boulder, where I live now, is disturbingly like that too.

  • For the mother, soon the realization dawns about her real role – to deliver children obstetrically once and by car ever after 🙂

    Urban youth has this experiential upside of social consciousness – being able to walk across the street and experience a completely different culture or turn to a neighbor and recognize a completely different family structure – that can richly enhance a child’s life and provide them with a kind window to the world that some adults are not able to see in an entire lifetime.

    Knowledge guarantees its own brand of safety too.

  • Excellent observation Ben. (I found your blog via Marty Nemko’s blog and this is my first post.)

    Personally I can afford to live in the more affluent part town but I prefer to live in the fringe area. There’s always action and I’m part of it.

    My personal motto is: “Do anything to me but just don’t bore me!”


  • Parents move to the burbs in the hopes of getting their kids into the best peer group possible, not because it’s cheaper to do so. Peer influence is far and away the biggest factor in childhood development (see Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption and the last two hundred pages of Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works), far more so than anything the parents can do, so it makes sense for parents to try to get their kids among the best peer groups possible.

  • Kevin — it’s not clear to me how/why the peer group in the burbs is better than an urban peer group.

    Chris — “exposing yourself to danger” seems stronger than what I mean to say. I don’t think you need to or should expose yourself needlessly to danger, when you’re in a city or the suburbs. However, exposing yourself to a bit of discomfort, seeing some lawns that aren’t always trimmed to a T, etc. would be fruitful. There isn’t much of this in the suburbs.

  • I grew up in big cities in India – a detached single family home with yard is a luxury in most places.

    Out here – How about commute? (No kids yet to worry about schools etc)

    As someone who works in the chip industry, I find most companies are south of Mountain View. Its a drag to commute more than an hour from SF.

  • Although they wouldn’t admit it, I’d bet that most people don’t want interestingness. They prefer the familiarity of Chili’s, Walmart and Best Buy. To Alice’s point, it’s easier to manage your life with one less X factor.

  • I grew up in a suburb right on the Chicago border. It kinda split the difference–we saw and experienced a lot of city life as kids, but we still had the quiet-ish neighborhood with the single family detached homes. Friends I have that grew up further out in the ‘burbs seemed much more likely to have stories of spending most weekends getting completely wasted/trashed in basements and cars; in contrast, we were trolling the streets of Chicago, dancing all night and going to art galleries. And, we for sure did some dumb, dangerous stuff as kids–stuff our parents would have gotten all shrieky about had they known. But I wouldn’t trade any of it for a whitebread upbringing in a far-flung suburb–nosiree.

  • I think that it is interesting that there was no mention of another alternative for childhood — the rural upbringing.

    Granted, I am biased — I grew up 30 minutes from a town of 700 — but it was one of the most interesting and safe upbringings I can imagine. We didn’t have a key to our front door, my brother and I were allowed to play anywhere and do anything (except during hunting season, when we had to wear orange and stay within shouting distance). Although our community lacked ethnic diversity, the bio-diversity that I was surrounded by was amazing!

    I was one of the lucky few who had both safety (and therefore tremendous freedom) and extreme amounts of interesting things to do. It was literally impossible to be bored.

  • I grew up in country Australia, which is a different kind of unsafe. Surrounded by rivers, dams, kangaroos (believe me, they are a menace!) and all sorts of dangerous animals, machinery and vehicles, country kids such as myself learned common sense at a very early age.
    As a result of this, my parents allowed me to roam around the countryside both by myself and with friends whenever I liked. Friends who grew up in both urban and suburban areas almost never got the option of unsupervised play as children.

    I look at all the things I did as a child, and the bulk of them were very unsafe. I guess my experience is the exception to the rule – despite all the inherent dangers of the country, it was a good place for my parents to raise a family.

  • Actually, burbs are increasingly diverse (think South Bay…) and cities are decreasingly so because of how expensive it’s becoming to live in them.

    There’ve been some good journal articles about the phenomenon of diversifying burbs and the transformation of cities (esp. like San Fran) into the playgrounds of (mostly white) yupsters.

    That said, when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, the suburbs were the places where people had less stuff to do – so consumed more drugs and alcohol at a young age. We city kids would hang out in the rough areas of Seattle – mingling with the angsty 90s grunge scene – but we did not do meth the way our peers in suburban and rural Washington state did.

    These were often kids from ‘good’ (read: white, middle-class) families…

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