08 Jun City Kids
My brothers and I grew up in a Long Island suburb. After graduate school, I came to Greenwich to teach, and stayed. My children grew up here, and now I have grandchildren in town as well. But I also have two grandchildren who live in New York City, and I have concluded that city kids lead very different lives.
Suburban kids go everywhere in cars. They are driven to their destinations by parents and nannies, do their thing, and then get driven home. They don’t need to think about the routes they travel. City kids walk or ride bikes to the park, school, neighborhood restaurants, the ice cream shop and after school activities. They learn about the crossing signals (Before the age of 4, they could explain, “When the man is white, you can go. When he is red, wait.”) I was always terrified to take them to the park because they would speed ahead on their bikes. I had to cross my fingers and pray they would stop at the corner to wait for the light, and look before riding in front of a parking garage. (What if a car was coming out?) They always did.
It has been years since the boys would let me hold their hands crossing a street. They didn’t need or want the help. In Greenwich, I still take my suburban grandchildren’s hands when we cross the Avenue, even with a policeman stopping all traffic.
At ages 10 and 8 my grandsons are now permitted to walk alone to school (8 blocks away!) and to the Baseball Center (4 blocks) on their own. “Oh My God,” my mind shudders. “Remember Etan Patz, the boy who disappeared on his way to his bus stop in Soho in 1979?” That was every parent’s nightmare for a generation. And what about careening buses and siren-blasting fire engines?
“They have to learn independence,” my son tells me. “They know what to do.” He was only 10 in 1979 and doesn’t remember Etan Patz.
“I trust them,” my daughter-in-law says. “I’ve talked to them about being safe.” I trust them too. It’s the other people I don’t trust.
Are we suburbanites overprotective? Or is it just that long roads without sidewalks and farther distances do not offer opportunities for kids to take themselves places? I don’t know any answers. I just know city kids lead different lives. And I realize that I am less at home in the city than they are.
The boys easily navigate the Upper West Side. They are confident and comfortable on the streets. They know the way to Arte Café, Isabella’s and other local eateries. They ride their bikes out on the pier over the Hudson River and in Central Park.
I take comfort in the fact that when they walk to the Baseball Center, they each have two baseball bats (wooden for practice, metal for games). Anyone who tries to mess with them had better watch out.
Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years of experience in working with young children.