Raising kids in a big city can be challenging. The difficulties that typically send parents running for the hills aren’t necessarily the things that have been difficult for me; I revel in the busy-ness, the racial and economic diversity, and even the loud Loyola students and occasional singing drunkard in the alley outside our bedroom late at night. Those things give the neighborhood a lot of character, and I love that there’s a coffee shop, bank, movie theatre, used bookstore, Chinese take-out, dry cleaners, and music store all within half a block of my front door. I don’t mind that we lack a backyard for the kids and dog to run free and the privacy of a single family home: I like our daily forays into the big park along the lake or the small play lots nestled between houses where we run into friends and neighbors and meet new people. And we’re lucky enough to like our condo neighbors and have a great situation where kids can get together and play in their pajamas if they so choose (and they do).
But other things are challenging about raising kids in a city as big as Chicago. Getting them into a good public school takes time, energy, and the resources to know how to navigate a complicated and often frustrating system. Happily, there are quite a few families close by whose kids attend our kids’ magnet school (which is 20-25 minutes away), so the boys do have friends very nearby and we have a great carpool community, but it’s still not the same as walking to school with friends every day. (There are no school buses here for public school kids unless your child has transportation written into an IEP. By the middle school years – and certainly high school – my kids will be on public transportation to and from school.)
Although they have many benefits, by and large, city schools don’t have the resources many other schools have. One reason we chose our kids’ school was because of the strong level of parent support and commitment we saw there. Parents raise tens of thousands of dollars each year for the music program, among other things, and we make an automatic donation to the school’s fund-raising organization every month. The school is amazing and well worth the extra funds and commute – I always say if this were a private school I’d gladly pay the tuition – but once in a while I dream of being at a neighborhood school where the daily logistics would be easier and my kids’ friends wouldn’t live all over the north side.
Despite the day-to-day challenges, there are near-constant reminders of why I love raising my kids in this urban environment. Over the past few days my kids have had a string of really amazing opportunities that remind me of the advantages of our city life. And if you’d like to consider the following to be three-posts-I’ve-been-meaning-to-write all crammed into one, I would support that.
First, on Saturday morning, I took the boys to a family drop-in class at the fabulous Lill Street Art Center. I love Lill Street, and not just because I am obsessed with both First Slice Cafe (where a portion of the proceeds go to the homeless) and the gallery shop inside. My new office is only two blocks from there so they may fear I have actually moved in. I’ve been encouraging the boys to consider taking an art class or camp session but they’ve been reticent, so when I noticed this family drop-in hour for only $10 per person, I signed us up so they’d get more familiar with the place. We all loved it. For an hour, we sat together and let our creative juices flow. The boys made dogs, each in their own way (Lyle’s has a miniature bowl of food and Baxter’s has a huge bone and stands on a rug) and I learned to make a bowl. We used various tools, chatted with another family, and had fun painting on the glaze. We’re looking forward to picking up our work in two weeks. The boys were so enthusiastic about the class that we decided to go back frequently and make Christmas gifts for relatives there this year. They are disappointed that I suggested we go once a month; they’d like to go more often. And I’ll add that it was wonderful to see my two boys engaged in a fine motor task that was so motivating for them. I wanted to take a photo or two here but since my hands were covered with clay it just didn’t seem like a good idea.
On Saturday afternoon we drove Baxter up to Northwestern University, where he is participating in the 4-week L.A.B.S. program (Laboratory Adventures in the Biological Sciences). This is an incredible opportunity for kids interested in science – they wear real lab coats and work in small groups with students in an actual university science lab for two hours a week. The department has a grant to run this program, making it very affordable. I can’t express how much Baxter loves it! I am also pleased with the emphasis on health in their experiments. One week they studied the effects of SPF-30 on cells and last week he ran an experiment on the effects of nicotine on human cells, and he’s been struck by the very obvious results. Yesterday he sat with me and showed me all the work and information in his binder and I was impressed with how much he knows and how much of it I didn’t learn until high school. He goes into the lab with his widest grin. The older he gets, the more I see his strengths in math and science. The dude impresses me.
And finally, today: Baxter’s school band performed at Meritfest, playing three challenging pieces of music on the main stage at Chicago’s Symphony Center with other bands from the city. As my mother-in-law wrote after looking at the photos tonight, “Can’t believe our Baxter is sitting just feet away from podium used by CSO greats like Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti.” My boy asked to iron his own clothes (and quite nearly ironed his entire hand before I jumped in, which proves that mothers are helpful!), strutted into the kitchen proudly this morning, and was incredibly excited to be on that stage in front of a big audience playing his flute. The acoustics were – naturally – beautiful. It was a special day and I was reminded of why we work so hard to raise money for our music program (run by Merit School of Music).
So, yes, there are challenges to raising our kids in an urban environment. But we also live in a world-class city with all kinds of unique opportunities right outside our door. Every time we are involved in one those things I am reminded that our efforts are worth it. Tenfold.