Advice: good citizen vs. good parent


I want to tap into the collective wisdom of the board to see what you guys think of the following dilemma. I’m in academics and will be shopping for jobs at colleges and universities in the not-too-distant future. I’m also a parent of a toddler. The problem I’m grappling with is deciding where we should live. I feel like there are duelling priorities and I’m having trouble reconciling them. (Tangential but relevant is that my wife is in residency for general medicine, so she’ll be able to work anywhere with a pretty good income).

I really want to be a good citizen of the world. For me, that means an environment that is designed for people, not cars: good public transport, reasonably high housing density, and good “walkability” (sorry about the trendy buzzword, but it’s a handy short-hand I think). I’d love to be able to walk/bike/publically transport to work and also to have lots of “third places” – I picture parks, populated shops, ideally even public facilities like museums – available within a relatively short distance. I don’t need to be in a thriving metropolis (I probably can’t afford to live in a big city anyway), a smallish town would be fine, but I don’t want to live in a car-oriented suburb.

It’s equally important to me to give my kid a good childhood. To me that means freedom and security. I want him to be able to play safely in the neighborhood without supervision. I want him to know the people we live near and to go to (public) school with those kids. I don’t want him to be inundated with the gritty sides of life; I don’t mean to shelter him, but I’d really rather he not be surrounded by human desperation in his environment. And I want him to have a good education in public school – this is very important to me. Private school would be a measure of last resort.

As I said, I’m finding it hard to reconcile these priorities. The places that represent the best environment for me (good character and lots of academic jobs) are the big cities, which seem to violate most of the priorities I have for my kid, especially the quality of the public schools. Conversely, the places that have good public school systems and safe environments (Chapel Hill, for example) tend to be pretty car-oriented.

So, let’s say I land a job in an area that’s pretty vibrant and where I could bike to work and walk to amenities, but with that has so-so public schools and a rather intense environment for a kid; and let’s say I could live 30 miles away in a friendly and safe but quiet community that’s got good schools located nearby, but I’d spend 30 to 45 minutes each way commuting by car and I’d have to drive to shop or do anything. Which should I choose? And more importantly, are there places you know of that represent a good compromise between these alternatives?

I haven’t lived there for a long time, but have you considered Boulder, CO? They have a good bus system, are very eco-minded, shops, parks, bicycle people, etc. It sounds like your cup o’ tea.

The town you’re looking for exists, for the most part. I think you just have to take your time and explore a little. Boulder is a good place to start.

Do you have to live in a big city or sprawling suburb? Why not think about a smaller town–say less than 100,000–and pick an area that is walking or biking distance from schools and other things? There are lots of places like that; they just tend to be smaller towns that have grown relatively slowly. I’ve heard claims that the older areas of town in Texas can be like that (because people mostly want new houses there), and I know that the place I live in is. Or you could look for some of the new housing that is springing up, in “new urbanism” developments.

Of course, there are tons of other people just like you, so you may have to pay a premium for such a location.

Actually I grew up in a Denver suburb and I like Boulder a lot.

I guess I should have clarified, though, that I’m worried that I won’t be able to pick a particular town to live in – as many of you undoubtedly know, academic jobs are pretty hard to come by. Seems to me that there aren’t many places that really satisfy all constraints, so my question is which I should compromise on if I’m not lucky enough to land a job someplace like Boulder (other similar places I know of are Madison WI, and even Chapel Hill where I am now though it’s really pretty car-oriented).

I think there are places for both of you, but they may be expensive.

If it comes to a choice, you can visit museums or travel to work far easier than your kid can.
So if it comes to a choice I would get a good neighbourhood for kids + good schools.

Unless you are in a wide-open field of academics, it may be a while before you can hope to base your decision on anything much beyond the quality of the institutions that are offering you jobs.

That’s my inclination too, but it feels just so Al-Gore-convenient, and it seems like the damage it does to the community and to the planet is pretty severe.

I plan on being pretty non-discriminating about where I work. It’s a third priority by a fairly long margin (I’m getting TONS of shit over this decision). But that’s a really excellent point.

Ann Arbor MI maybe?

This I’m not sure you’re going to find anywhere, though if anybody has the opposite experience, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

I think you’re in for some tough sledding, unfortunately. As an academic, you have to go where the jobs are, and I’m not sure you’ll have all the liberty in the world to pick the city that’s right for you otherwise. You’re going to have to compromise on one or more of these things.

I will put in an incidental plug for Boston. Lots of academic jobs, lots of medical jobs, decent public transportation, good parks and museums, some good public school systems. The downside is the cost of living, of course.

I LOVE New England; there are good schools in the urbanized areas in/near Boston? (I shouldn’t get my hopes up, it’s doubtful we could afford it…)

Unless you’re in a super shitty neighborhood, I think you should concentrate on the best job situation; the one that will let you grow into a better pick-and-choose situation. I think the school systems are adequate for the most part, when kids are little. You supplement your own knowledge and life view so much when they’re little…unless they’re contending with gunfire on the playground and really horrible conditions, they’ll be ok for a few years. And by then maybe you can move to a more desirable location.

That’s a good point; that simply does not exist any more. Part of what made that possible was a culture in which most mothers were home during the day, and in which most people had no problem telling other peoples’ children how to behave–so there was something of a safety net, in that there was generally someone around who was willing to help out if necessary. Now, neighborhoods are far emptier during the day, and people can’t tell other kids how to behave because the parents will probably come and scream at them. And anyone who sees a kid under 9 running around alone will think she’s being neglected and call the police.

Kids in my neighborhood do play outside without a hovering parent, but they are generally a bit older, and the parent is somewhere in the background. The kids aren’t going off of their street; they’re playing basketball in the driveway or riding bikes in circles. If I saw a 6-yo I didn’t know wandering around my street, I’d assume he was lost and try to get him home.

With an academic job, I think you might be looking at a hopeless cause. You might get some of your wants, but not all, and you won’t be able to afford the houses in the areas you want unless you’re willing to sacrifice the school excellence and live in a district with poor scores–good schools are a major reason for expensive homes. There are ways around that; you could rent an apartment, or try to find a district with a lot of school choice, you could try to improve the school you do get through volunteering, or you could go private and hope to get a better school later on, or homeschool (which isn’t nearly as anti-public-spirited as people assume).

I see your point but I think an important part of a good childhood is stability. My wife moved a TON when she was a kid and she’s really hoping we can avoid doing it to our kid. I agree that environment doesn’t matter that much to a little kid, but the roots that develop during that time mean a lot later. I’m much more inclined to compromise on what job I get if it means having stability.

Agreed - for the most part you can “make do” with an elementary school. I think you’ll be surprised - in academic neighborhoods, the public schools are often pretty good - even in big cities. At the University of Minnesota, the professors tend to live close to the University - and the public schools close to the university reflect that - where some of the public schools in the less educated areas of the city aren’t as good.

While this is veering into somewhat different territory, I’m really interested in what you’re saying, I think it speaks to a larger truth about life becoming a lot shittier for kids. This is a large part of why I have no intention of pursuing the brass ring in academia – I want to enjoy seeing my kid having fun as a kid.

You might consider the Pioneer Valley of western MA. It seems pretty close to what you’re looking for.

We’ve found it to be a great combination of culture, community, nature close at hand, and there are a bunch of colleges clustered together for academic opportunity. Boston’s a two hour drive east.

So what exactly are you saying? Are you hoping for a lifestyle in which your kid has a SAHM? What is it exactly that makes life worse for kids–the overscheduling? The environment (commercialism, glorified sexuality for little kids, etc.)? A lack of parks? A lack of free time?

If you clarify exactly what you want for your kid–realistically–then we can at least recommend some reading or strategies we’ve found useful.

spazurek - do you live in Chapel Hill? Because if you do, then you know you can take the bus to other parts of Chapel Hill or Carrboro. I think for a town of its size, the bus system is actually pretty good - and free, too.

Have you ever looked into someplace like Southern Village in Chapel Hill? In a place like that you’d be able to do more shopping without driving (though personally I find no attraction in schlepping groceries on a bus or a bike). My boss lives in Carrboro and his place is within bus, walking, and biking distance of both work and the Main Street stores.

For you to have more (and more convenient) public transportation choices, you pretty much are going to have to go to a large city in this country. Public transportation is expensive here, and you need volume to make it work.

Either that, or move to Europe, where the distances are smaller and the choices better.

Maximal freedom and opportunity. I’d love for him to be able to go out and do his own thing from a young age and to have lots of options, both cultural and natural. What makes life worse to me is the structuring and limitation, the sense that they can only do the things specified by mom or dad and then only under continuous supervision. Just having a SAHM (or more likely D, in this case) isn’t sufficient if the environment isn’t conducive – e.g., no other kids, unsafe/lots of traffic, etc. Now I’m well aware that it’s impossible to optimize all the constraints I’m listing, I’m just stating my theoretical optimum.