Do American Suburbs Breed Fear?

Christine observed a fascinating difference between suburban and urban parenting. Several times a week, she has the opportunity to observe the beginning of the day at two different Minnesota public schools, one in a suburban setting and the other in an urban setting.

This is what she observed:

Burnsville (Suburb):
A long line of SUVs and buses dropping kids at school. Not a single child walking to school even though the school is surrounded by residential housing. Crossing guards on the corners standing around with nothing to do.

St. Paul (Urban):
Hundreds (literally) of children walking and biking to school without adult supervision.

My first reaction was, “Yeah, but you are comparing different socioeconomic groups. The parents in the urban area don’t have the resources the parents in the suburbs have, like time and transportation.” She said, “No, the school is in Mac Groveland, one of the wealthier neighborhoods in St. Paul.”

So I looked it up:
Demographics in the suburban Eagle Creek neighborhood

Demographics in the urban Mac Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul

While the incomes are a bit higher in the suburb the net worth is almost the same… hmmm, who do you think has more debt?

What makes this even more interesting is the irrational behavior of the suburban parents. While the suburban neighborhood is one of the safest neighborhoods in America, they waste time and energy waiting in line to drop their kids at the front door of the school. Why don’t they drop them on the corner and make them walk half a block? They’d save 20 minutes and a gallon of gas.

  • Traffic is far heavier near the urban school.
  • Total crime risk near the urban school is 6 times higher than the suburban one.
  • Violent crime risk near the urban school is 5 times higher than in the suburban one.
  • There are 13 times the number of registered sex offenders near the urban school.
  • 95 registered sex offenders live within 5 miles of the urban school – one directly across the street.
  • Only 7 registered sex offenders live within 5 miles of the suburban school.

So why the difference? Why are suburban parents more controlling? Anybody want to take a stab at it?

Malcom Gladwell, where are you?

My best guess is…
More suburban parents watch television news and listen to talk radio and it distorts their perception of risk.

12 thoughts on “Do American Suburbs Breed Fear?”

  1. Interestingly enough, this is something that I’ve been thinking about this past week as I watched my three God-daughters because their parents are on vacation.

    A friend and I even had a conversation about how when we were kids we always used to run around in the streets playing with our friends after school and on the weekends, but if you walk outside my best friend’s house, you will not see one child outside. At first I thought it was just my friend who was over-protective, but I see that it’s every parent in the neighborhood.

    I agree with your hypothesis that suburban parents read more newspapers and watch more TV news than urban parents, thus making them more paranoid.

  2. I agree with what you said. The other factor that came to mind is that suburban people are in the mentality of driving because everything is more spread apart, while the urban people are have the mentality of walking everywhere since everything is closer together.

    But yeah, I agree with the drop kids off one or two blocks away idea. People are interesting. They want to avoid traffic and yet they decide to become part of it while they don’t necessarily have to anyway.

  3. A great observation. I don’t think the whole explanation is safety, though. Like Kelvin said there is a strong driving mentality. There may be some social factors too, not wanting to be the only one walking (even half a block) or walking is associated with poorer people.

    Half my life ago I went to a high school where many students drove and there was not enough room in the parking lot, so students would park in streets. My friend lived by the school and walked (about 5 minutes, most of which was the parking lot). His brother drove. Other students would literally park in his spot in front of his house and walk the rest of the way while he would drive 200 feet and park in the parking lot. I’m sure it was not a safety issue.

  4. I think what you’re observing is a result of the underlying attitudes of those that prefer to live in a more urban setting over those that prefer the more rural areas.

    People living in cities are more likely to trust their fellow city-dwellers to be a kind of surrogate set of eyes and ears to keep their children safe, while a more rural parent will prefer to take matters into their own hands.

    Those that choose or prefer to live in big cities are attracted to something I call the “hive mentality”. They will cite reasons such as: more interaction with people, public transportation, more community events and activities. They are also more likely to prefer community-driven or city-driven amenities, activities and services. That is to say, they are attracted to the sense of belonging to the “hive” of the city and see great benefits of that lifestyle.

    Those that choose or prefer to live in more urban areas are more inclined to view self-reliance and individualism as higher values. “You do your thing and I’ll do mine”. They tend to express these values in terms of more personal freedom, privacy, etc. Instead of looking to community for answers, they tend to want to look inward.

    These differences are highlighted by what you typically see during elections. Urban areas will tend to favor parties and candidates that promote social and government solutions to problems while more rural and suburban areas tend to favor more personal liberty.

    That’s my take on it anyway….

  5. @all

    I think you are right. It goes beyond the safety issue alone. But I still think it is a big part of it. We know people who drive their kids 500ft to the bus stop and then wait there until the bus comes. Not for a Kindergartener but for 5th-7th graders.

    @Rob
    I see exactly what you are saying. But I grew up in a rural area and I was allowed to ride my bike miles away on gravel roads. I would think the strong individualist or parent who values personal liberty would allow their kids a much longer leash than the ones that want government solutions. Maybe I’m wrong. It appears I may be.

    I live in the suburbs, and I want to let my kids walk to the parks and freinds houses by themselves, but I don’t think I will because no one else does. If I did it, my kids will be the only ones travelling alone, and that seems far more risky than in a place where lots of kids are running around.

  6. To all,

    Each point seems very valid to me, and Rob while reading yours I feel you’ve struck close to the heart of the matter – hive versus individualism. Interesting post, we see it all the time yet don’t consider it but in passing unless you’re part of it all. I think it could be also the fact that in the burbs things are more spread out. Used to be a time when they had neighborhoods of “safe houses” for kids, but even that was after my time. To think you’d even need to worry is sad. But I think, too, that the “isolation” feeling of now walking burb streets has parents concerned. Maybe there will come a time when no one has to worry, but Steve your stats on the sex offenders both urban and suburban is alarming.

  7. I think you’re overlooking something else… people in the urban neighborhood are exposed to the same news, etc., as the people in the suburban neighborhood. The difference is that they’ve been around that risk, and grown used to it. The suburban folk, on the other hand, hear about it and it sounds horrible.

    You want an example? I moved from Illinois to California several years ago. My wife, who is from California, thinks tornadoes are scary, and earthquakes are barely worth mentioning. My mother, who is from Illinois, doesn’t even get excited about tornado warnings, but thinks earthquakes are a fearsome event.

    People are simply far more scared of risks they are not normally exposed to… urban parents are exposed to the risks you mentioned and suburban parents, in general, are not.

  8. The urbanites may have what I call “Yearning for Mayberry”. Yes, it may just be that simple. But unless you do a detailed study of those two communities, it will be all guesswork. Suburb living fosters disconnection in several ways by it’s very design.

  9. Very interesting post. I agree with Joe. I am a suburban mom and I drove my daughter to school, we parked down the street and walked to the school from there because I thought it was madness to wait in line with the other cars so that I could drop her off at the door. Now we do school at home. For me the issue was safety, and I think disconnection was an issue, too. I really don’t know my neighbors. I have met a few and gotten to know a couple well, but there are still many I don’t know. I agree with what Steve said – I would love to let my daughter walk to friends houses, and I think my fears are probably overblown, but I don’t want her to be the only child out in the neighborhood. It seems like she would be more of a target. I grew up in the suburbs in another state and I walked to school every day by myself. I made it clear to my mom after the first day of kindergarten that I was perfectly capable of getting myself to school and back on my own. But the streets were flooded with kids walking to school. I don’t know if the neighborhood I grew up in is still that way. I think it is also true that in the suburbs people tend to drive more.

  10. So, the author is attempting to glorify the parents in the urban environment who let their children experience:

    Traffic is far heavier near the urban school. (higher risk of accident)
    Total crime risk near the urban school is 6 times higher than the suburban one. (higher risk of crime)
    Violent crime risk near the urban school is 5 times higher than in the suburban one. (higher risk of violent crime)
    There are 13 times the number of registered sex offenders near the urban school. (13 times the risk of molestation/rape)
    95 registered sex offenders live within 5 miles of the urban school – one directly across the street. (kids within 100 yards of child rapist)
    Only 7 registered sex offenders live within 5 miles of the suburban school. (still 7 too many)

    all of this is ok? so the urban parents deserve some kind of award for exposing their children to this kind of garbage? Ever wonder why so many victims utter the words “You never think it can happen to you….” ? Get a clue.

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