No City for Little Boys

By April 21, 2013 no comments Permalink

We live in New York City by choice. The idea was that it would be an informative experience for our children. City kids are hip and cultured and privileged to a purview that inspires worldliness. For the most part, I agree with those points, but I’m starting to think that, ultimately, this is not the best place for little boys to be raised.

As an English instructor in various capacities, I’m exposed to many of the city’s youth, from middle school through college. I’ve always been struck by the gender inequality in the middle school classrooms I visit. The girls are just (in general, and with exceptions) notably better students and better behaved. After years of teaching and now parenting, I’m less surprised by the glaring lack of men in my college classrooms. I only need to look at my own 6-year-old son for an explanation.

I’m lucky to spend a lot of time with him. I see him in his classroom often and in the schoolyard almost daily. I also help coach the first-grade basketball league Saturdays at his school. I’m not a clinician, but I feel safe assigning an enormous portion of the boys his age with what I call “A.I.T.P.,” which stands for “Ants in the Pants.” They are, for the most part, restless little fellows with a tough time keeping still. Unofficially, they need to be told an average of 3.7 times to do something before it registers and 5.2 times before they comply. And these are not the many boys with the official acronyms from official assessments. This is pretty much all of them, and although many girls seem to find it easier, some have the same problem.

Is this collective case of A.I.T.P. among my son and his peers worse than with suburban or rural kids of the same age? I think so, and I think I know why. Little children, and most especially little boy children like my little boy, need to move their bodies, to explore and wrestle and chase each other around. They need a certain amount of freedom. They need to shake said ants out of said pants. The realities of city life just do not allow for this.

It starts in the schools. There are close to 30 kids in my son’s class. They sit on a rug and listen quietly or work quietly at their desks almost all day. They must be silent in the halls. They get gym once a week. Recess is the time left after eating lunch. After school, the schoolyard is pandemonium. When the kids are released, it feels like the last day of school, every day. Over 900 children attend this school (five years ago it was 450). Our school is not unique. My wife works at a nearby school where there are 11 second-grade classes. Her classroom is in an annex, a long trailer portioned through the schoolyard to accommodate the urban population boom. Schoolyards everywhere are simply overcrowded after school, which makes space precious. My son simply can’t burn off all the stored-up energy before we get home, which is where the problem is exacerbated.

Our one-floor-of-a-brownstone apartment is just too small for a family of four. We are fortunate to have two children and three bedrooms, though the rest of our living space is limited. There is little room for movement, and any movement is mitigated by the fact that we have neighbors downstairs who don’t want to live below the circus. “Please stop jumping,” is the sentence I repeat more than any other while at home (followed closely by “Do we have any more wine?”). Like most of our peers, we have no outdoor space safe for children, nor a basement or even a room dedicated to games. We do have a front door and weekends, but what’s outside our door isn’t much better.

There are not a lot of easy options for parents and their young children in the city. Most schoolyards are closed on the weekends. Many neighborhood parks are open concrete, with tiny playgrounds bursting with toddlers through teens. The big city parks, for most, require a hike beyond physical means of a child or a time-consuming trip via public transportation. People do it, but having an active small child along severely complicates matters. Riding bikes on the sidewalks or bike lanes is too perilous for my son. Simply walking around can be scary. On three separate occasions, he has bolted across a busy street. Once in the park, he can run till near collapse, but there’s nowhere for him to explore on his own. Neither in the park nor on our way there can I let him out of my sight for a second.

The reality is that whether it’s at school, home or in the open space, lots of little city boys just don’t get the physical activity their restless bodies need. I’m focused on my boy, but the same is surely true for many girls as well. The results to me are obvious: a city of little boys with A.I.T.P. who become grown men affected by it. I wonder if it’s worth it.

Published on The New York Times: No City for Little Boys

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