For the first 13 years of our parenting journey, we raised our kids in large cities — Phoenix and Chicago, to be exact.
When our oldest was almost 14 and our youngest was 5, we moved to a college town with a population of 30,000 — more than two-thirds of whom are students — in the middle of vast acreages of farmland. The closest largish city is an hour and a half away. While our new home is not a one-stoplight town, it’s definitely a sea change from Chicagoland.
I was excited but nervous about the move. I spent my early childhood in a tiny town, and my husband was raised in a town of 7,000. Frankly, the cons of our small town experiences seemed to greatly outweigh the pros.
However, not all towns are created equal, and the small town we chose has a lot more to offer than the towns where we grew up. After living here two years, I’ve discovered some great things about raising kids in a small town, along with some things I’d change if I could.
First, the pros of raising kid in a small town:
It was a little bizarre to move to a town where half of my friends don’t lock their doors when they leave the house. Not that they shouldn’t, but they don’t feel the need to. I also have some friends who’ve lived here their whole lives who don’t lock their cars and will even leave their keys sitting in the car. Bad things can happen anywhere, but compared to even the relatively safe Chicago suburbs, crime is really, really low here. It’s a nice luxury.
I didn’t realize how much time and energy we spent in Chicago dealing with traffic. We can drive from one end of our town to the other in 10 minutes. There’s another town 15 minutes away that has more stores and restaurants, and we drive 30 minutes to another town to get to Costco. But we never sit in traffic. Rush hour here is more like rush 15-minutes, and it basically means you might not make it through a green light on the first go. We never have to plan for traffic. It’s awesome.
We had a lot of family, friends, and acquaintances in Chicago, but they were spread out throughout the city and suburbs. A cohesive sense of close community was sort of lacking. There was a larger big city identity, but there’s something about the “Oh, I know so-and-so who can help you out with that” small town networking that’s quite lovely. Even in our college town that has a lot of transient residents, there’s a community feel that’s palpable.
I was concerned about leaving the limitless number of activities the big city offered, but it turns out there’s a silver lining to narrowing the possibilities. Life is simpler with less. Having fewer museums, parks, restaurants, extracurriculars, etc. to choose from is actually refreshing. Less decision fatigue, more simple outings — it’s nice.
And the inevitable cons of raising kids in a small town:
Lack of Diversity
We live in a university town, which brings a level of cultural diversity that would not be here otherwise. So we’re not totally bereft. However, it’s still limited compared to the vast diversity one finds in a big city. Without the college here, our town would be quite homogenous. I don’t want my kids to grow up with one or two token friends of other races and backgrounds. Diversity is extremely important to us, so we purposely seek out cultural activities at the university that help broaden their view of the world.
I know I said that fewer choices made life simpler and that this is a good thing. Overall, it is. But I do feel bad when my kids express an interest in a sport or activity that our town simply doesn’t offer. We can track down most things, but not everything. Want to be a trapeze artist? Too bad, kid. Want to go to the opera? That’s a 90-minute drive. Major concerts? Five hours away.
Missing the City
There really is something magical about a big city. As much as I don’t miss the crowds and traffic, I do sometimes miss seeing the Chicago skyline lit up at night. I miss spending a whole day exploring the city and barely scratching the surface of it. I miss the hustle and bustle of downtown, the breathtaking architecture, the creative energy of humanity vibrating through it all. It was always so exciting to take the kids train into the city with our kids.
Simplicity has an important place in kids’ lives. But then again, so does complexity. Sometimes I think about the things our kids are missing out on — learning to navigate public transportation, exposure to world-class arts and cultural experiences, witnessing and understanding economic disparity, and more — and I wonder if we are doing our kids a disservice by taking them away from the complexities of city life.
Then again, as with everything else on this list, there are trade-offs. It’s almost impossible to find a place that offers everything one might want for their children; each city or town has its bonuses and its pitfalls. I am thankful to have raised kids in a metropolis as well as a small town so that we are at least aware of how our kids are benefiting and what they’re missing out on.
I don’t think either choice is superior. No matter where we live, we can make sure our kids are getting the most out of where they live. We can teach them to bloom where they are planted, and also expose them to different ways of life. We can help them build the skills to thrive wherever they end up after they leave home. And whether it’s in a big city or a small town, we can give them a welcoming home they can always come back to.