Why Americans love suburbs #2: family life and children

A consistent finding of researchers when studying day-to-day suburban life or asking people about their suburban aspirations is the belief that the suburban life benefits families and children. Living alone in the suburbs presents particular problems.

That the suburbs are preferable for family life had an early start in Anglo suburbs. Historian Robert Fishman argues early English evangelicals like William Wilberforce moved from London to Clapham to give their wives and children safer and purer spaces outside the city. While the men could commute to the city for work and other engagements, the women and children had their own domain in the suburbs.

This image of a safe suburbia for families perhaps reached its peak in the decades immediately following World War II. The birth rate jumped (hence, Baby Boomers) and families needed more space. The country and many major cities faced a severe housing shortage. The social scientists who wrote the ethnographic study Crestwood Heights, a study of a Toronto suburb in the postwar era, noted that suburban social life revolved around the children: “In Crestwood Heights the major institutional focus is upon child-rearing.” (4) Even as these new suburbs may have offered few opportunities for teenagers until they could drive (sociologist Herbert Gans said Levittown was “endsville” for teenagers), families flocked to new homes, more green space, and new schools. Television shows of the era depicting suburbia tended to show white nuclear families enjoying a comfortable suburban life (think Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Brady Bunch).

Today, many of these ideas about how much better suburbs are for children remain. The suburbs offer more green spaces. They are quieter. They have lower crime rates. There is less traffic. Kids get a more “typical” American upbringing (and the modal experience in recent generations is a suburban upbringing). Single-family homes in the suburbs allow a family to purchase more space for the entire family, acquiring separate bedrooms to extra rooms to larger yards.

One of the strongest indicators regarding the importance of families and children in suburbia involves the importance of school districts for the desirability of communities, property values, and helping determine where people move. Schools are important because they are viewed as the one sure thing that can propel children to greater heights: going to a good school district leads to a good college which leads to a good job and then a high income and a comfortable life. These school boundaries must be defended at all costs. Examples abound. This includes both the busing issues of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the recent case of students in the failing school district serving Ferguson, Missouri who for one year had a shot at a better education at a whiter and wealthier district until the law was changed. This includes a debate chronicled by anthropologist Rachel Heiman among New Jersey suburbs about which kids should go to which high schools (and the wealthier families were able to keep their kids in the better-performing schools and limit which other kids were able to come to their schools).

Whether suburban children always come out ahead compared to kids from cities or rural areas is less clear. Even if the suburbs can be exclusionary, some upward social mobility is possible, such as one study that suggested DuPage County offered more opportunities than other counties or programs from the federal government, such as the Gautreaux Program or the Moving to Opportunity program, that aimed to move kids from poorer urban contexts to wealthier suburban communities. Part of theexcitement about a return of Americans to cities involves the choices by some families to stay in major cities, such as the influx of families to Battery Park in Manhattan. But, many Americans associate the suburbs with kids playing in the yard, multiple institutions that help nurture children and family life, and successful family outcomes decades later.

7 thoughts on “Why Americans love suburbs #2: family life and children

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