Suburbs May Be Healthy for Growing Things but Not Necessarily for Children, Says Professor Wynne
“I’ve used government statistics and the kind of perspective an anthropologist uses, paying a lot of attention to human contacts within tribes, cultures and native villages, “says Edward A. Wynne, an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois’ Chicago Circle campus. But the native village Wynne is referring to isn’t in Samoa. It’s the home where 39 percent of all Americans live—the modern suburb. Wynne, 49, charges in his book, Growing Up Suburban, that the amenities that make suburbs attractive to parents—safe streets, modern schools, big lawns and shopping centers—do little to help a child become an emotionally sound adult.
Wynne himself grew up in Brooklyn, attended a Catholic grade school and a public technical high school before getting a law degree at Brooklyn Law School. After working as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board and the Textile Workers Union, he shifted his interest to education. While studying for his doctorate at Berkeley (where his first wife and three grown children still reside), he began to think about suburban isolation. Wynne, his second wife, Judy, 43, and their 2½-year-old son, Ted, are confirmed city dwellers. He walks the four blocks from his Chicago townhouse to the campus. Wynne recently explained his thesis to Lynne Baranski of PEOPLE.
Are you critical of all suburbs?
No, only of the white-collar suburb that developed after World War II and that places heavy reliance on the automobile for shopping and socializing. This is a suburb where, because of zoning codes and prices, residents are not only of somewhat similar backgrounds but also at the same stage in their life cycle—either rearing children, retired or newly married. As a result, there is isolation from diversity.
How does this homogeneity affect children?
It fails to provide stimulation needed by children to develop what I call common sense. That is learned when a child is presented with demands from different kinds of people. In a suburb there are not enough occasions for various kinds of human contact—be it friendly or hostile.
What are some examples of this lack of common sense?
A girl doesn’t have common sense if she gets pregnant, but it’s a fact that the proportion of white females aged 15 to 19 bearing illegitimate children has gone up 130 percent in the past 25 years. Because of contraceptives and abortions, the rate should have gone down.
What about drug use?
A study of San Mateo County, Calif., which has the second highest income level in the state, shows that 30 percent of 12th-grade boys use marijuana 50 or more times a year. Fifteen years ago, if you told anyone that this beautiful place with these grand schools would have a level of drug use which begins to compare with the worst in the city, no one would have believed you.
And violent crimes?
In the past 20 years the homicide rate among white males aged 15 to 19 has gone up more than 300 percent and the rate of suicide is up 220 percent. Since an increasing proportion of whites have moved to the suburbs, it seems pretty unlikely that all of this disorder is happening in the cities.
Why, then, are the suburbs attractive?
Suburbs were created in part so that parents could feel that their children would not be harassed and their belongings would not be stolen. But then how does a kid learn that there are places where he has to be careful?
Does this emphasis on safety prolong childhood?
Sure. A kid acquires the common sense he needs to be a successful adult by being in situations that force him to learn. In some suburbs a kid’s life is so controlled there is no room for experimentation. In the city just going to the public library three blocks away can be an adventure.
With all the scheduling and planning, do suburban children get bored?
The time between getting out of the playpen and owning their own car is a boring period for them. Kids whose lives are planned by school and parents are bound to be bored. In the case of a 16-year-old, we have someone who is physically an adult, who can procreate, who has the emotional potential to act like an adult—but who is treated like a dependent child.
What about “hanging out,” which is what city kids do when they are bored?
City kids who hang out sometimes do wrong things. That’s notorious. But at least they’re under the eyes of adults in a candy store, a pool hall. There is general supervision and they learn how far they can go. Suburban hanging out is in cars, with obviously less adult supervision.
Is there a daytime matriarchy that occurs when fathers leave for work?
There is obviously an absence of male role models. Most of the adults a child sees are nonworking women. This tends to give kids a warped view of the world.
How do suburban kids view their fathers?
Fathers are identified by hobbies—”My father is into tennis” or “My father is into sailing.” You can say a guy is a broker or advertising executive, but those jobs are too abstract. What a child needs to see are jobs that he can imagine himself doing. It’s not only that these kids never see their own parents work. They rarely see anyone work.
How does this differ from the city?
In the city, a kid sees policemen, shop owners, bus drivers. Not that suburban kids don’t see this, but the key is frequency. For example, in the city there are more houses and many are older. On my own block we’ve seen five different types of construction repairs in just four months. My son can’t understand what I do, but at least he sees what some people do.
How do you feel about suburbs where there is a great turnover of families?
In a suburb with a high level of mobility, it’s very hard for a child to have a trusting relationship outside the family. In a temporary relationship you can lie to someone and they’ll never find out. Kids learn not to care a lot about people, not to depend on people.
Do parents expect less help from their children after moving to the suburbs?
Adults want a lot of household appliances to cut down on chores, like dishwashers and trash compactors. Then it turns out there’s nothing much for a kid to do to help his family. They’re not asked to do much except be students.
Are city schools better than suburban?
Not necessarily. But they do provide types of learning besides the academic. For one thing, there’s diversity among students. An affluent kid sits next to poorer kids who are under pressure to make money. He’ll learn how different types of people feel and think.
Do suburban children have a distorted view of the outside world?
They have an unrealistic attitude about the styles and conduct of minority groups. Either they are excessively afraid or they’re excessively idealistic and romantic. In either case, this isn’t very helpful to minority groups.
If you were a suburban parent, how would you judge a school?
A pretty good clue is the level of school spirit: Is there a school song? Do people come to graduation? Dances? Athletic events? This is a sign of human relations within the school, whether people are close enough to learn from each other. And I’d want to know if there is a code of discipline. Is it understandable? Is it enforced?
What can suburban parents do to help their children?
They can intensify relationships with neighbors who live within walking distance. Develop hobbies the kids can realistically share. Encourage the kids to have extracurricular activities, get a job, do chores around the house. And help them to have the ability to live and work with others, rather than withdraw.
Do you think people will begin to move back to the cities?
It’s harder and harder to live in the city environment. I think many people who left the city didn’t do it so much out of love for the suburbs as out of frustration with the city.