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City versus country: Urban vs. rural childhood

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by Jeff Cookston

 

Twice a year I teach an undergraduate class in lifespan development for about 140 future teachers and psychologists.  Although most are there to fulfill a course requirement, many are seeking information that will help them when they become parents.  When they ask questions, I usually hear about their nephews or a child they know down the street.  Comments include, “My sister’s son is 12 months old and isn’t crawling yet.  Is he autistic?” and “What is the youngest age a child can contemplate suicide?”  I love these questions because they serve as teaching opportunities – one child you know doesn’t represent all children; children’s conceptions of death are complicated – but just as common are the Affoumado -- Backpack Kids at James Lickattempts to use personal information to refute the social science evidence I’ve used as the basis for my lecture.  After a lecture on the positive benefits of warm parenting, someone is sure to blurt out, “I was spanked, and I’m PERFECTLY FINE!”  Although I’m inclined to reply, “Yes, your ability to control your anger is commendable and evident to all,” I usually end up reminding them that research trends are just that:  trends.  In human development, as in most areas of life, there are few absolutes and usually the best answer is, “It depends.”

One question I field each semester is, “Is it better to raise your kids in the country or in a big city?”  Parents aren’t the only people to wonder whether farm-livin’ should be the life for them; researchers have long pondered this very issue.  On the one hand, large urban areas – as a function of their large numbers of residents and, therefore the proliferation of ideas and activities  – have been praised for creating what Georg Simmel refers to as the “blasé attitude” or a general indifference to things.  Cities have also been vilified for exposing children to the seedier sides of life, thus resulting in indifference.  I reviewed some of the approximately 700 journal studies on the differences between the life experiences of children and families in urban and rural settings (mainly so I’d have an informed answer the next time a student asked the question), and thought I’d share what I found.

In one Canadian study there was evidence that children in urban areas were about two times as likely to be hospitalized for a bicycle-related injury as children from rural communities. However, the children in rural communities were about twice as likely to suffer a head injury as were children in urban areas.  This difference was explained by the fact that doctors in urban areas were more likely to recommend hospitalization and that children in urban settings wear helmets more often.  A few years ago, Sarah Goodrum and her colleagues found that violent crimes committed under the influence of drugs were as likely to occur in Affoumado -- Girls Doing Cartwheel at Alamo Squarerural settings as they were in urban ones.  In 1999 Dinessh Singh found that urban and rural parents were equally as likely to help their children with a difficult task by using specific language, by assisting the child in a positive manner without resorting to negativity, and by mirroring the child’s attempts to gain information by looking at the parent.  Furthermore, mothers in rural and urban settings were equally as likely to be depressed, anxious, or to have another major mental health diagnosis.

Other studies have offered more decisive evidence, however.  In 2003 Kim Menard observed that sexual abuse rates were higher in rural counties than in urban ones.  Another study provided evidence that after divorce, children in rural settings were less likely to have health insurance than children in urban settings.  In her 2002 dissertation study, Susan Taylor found that parents in rural settings set lower educational expectations for their children who, conversely, had lower academic aspirations than their urban and suburban counterparts.

Urban childhood isn’t all rosy, however.  Children from urban settings are exposed to more aggression at school and their friends don’t tend to be as supportive as compared to what children report in rural schools, showed a finding reported by Timothy Hope in 1998.  Furthermore, the quality of family life seems to be a bit more important for city kids because when the home environment is in turmoil, urban children tend to have more difficulties at both home and school.  Rural children, on the other hand, typically only have problems at home and school when the home and school environments are in crisis. 

Affoumado -- Mom and Daughter at F LineThere’s one unifying theme, however, that I’d like to offer as a take-home message:  most of these differences are moot when one considers the role of economic differences.  More than urbanization, poverty creates more problems than anything else.  Parents who are stressed by economics are more likely to use harsh discipline, tend to be less warm, ask their children less about their whereabouts and friends, and generally place less emphasis on their relationships with their children.  Under these circumstances, the opportunities for children to get into trouble increase notably, regardless of whether they join a neighborhood gang or ride around in a pick-up looking for fights. 

So let’s review – bikes bad, moms equally likely to have a mental health diagnosis, urban kids need their parents, health insurance good.  It seems like the research is all over the place.  Likely, that’s because families are quite different from one another.  Some children respond to the worst life events with only limited long-term effects while other children fail to thrive in the most supportive of environments. As I tell my students, it depends.  Whether the city or the farm is better depends on the child; it depends on the parents and the relationship between the parents; and it depends on economics.  In the long run, it’s probably more important to focus on what happens inside the home than to fret about whether the family room looks out over an urban skyline or a corn field.  It depends...it depends...it depends.

 

About the Author:  Although many things depend on others, Jeff Cookston is a father, husband, and Associate Professor of developmental psychology at San Francisco State University. 
 

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