Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Love and Hate in the Suburbs

I have a complicated, consuming, and often contradictory love-hate relationship with the suburbs.

On one hand, I love living in a city that is well planned, with lots of green space for parks, walking/running/biking trails, a top-notch Aquatic and Recreation Center complete with a spray ground, and zoning that allows family neighborhoods and family-oriented businesses to peacefully co-exist with one another. Coppell is clean, neat, and has some of the most well-manicured medians I've ever seen.

I like our roads--they are nice and smooth and easy to drive over, unlike the ones I grew up with with potholes the size of watermelons and a city that promised to repair them but never found the funds to do so.

The public schools are excellent--some of the best in the state--made so through high property taxes, endless fundraisers, teachers with a commitment to excellence and access to the best educational tools available, and an army of willing and enthusiastic parent volunteers.

There are a dazzling array of activities for children to be involved in--almost every sport imaginable, dance, gymnastics, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, a music conservatory, chess clubs, computer classes, crafting classes, and children's yoga, to name a few. My little city also features multiple preschool programs and even a drop-in child care center. Usually there is no need to leave the city limits to find ways to engage, entertain, and and exercise the bodies and minds of the large population of children who reside here.

The crime rate is very low. I feel very safe walking down the street with my children. Most crimes are property crimes like theft and burglary; violent crime is rare. There are no neighborhoods in Coppell I hesitate to enter because it is a "bad part of town."

So what is not to love about my suburb? Plenty.

If "Keeping up with the Joneses" was an Olympic sport, the collective residents of Coppell could win the gold medal. A missionary returning to America noticed that for many families, a home isn't just a safe and warm place to reside, but is a way for people to make statements to each other about their wealth. I think this sums up what I see as I look around at the majority of homes in the area (Note: I do not exclude my own).

This is a place where people install dazzling crystal chandeliers and flat-screen plasma TVs in their over sized laundry rooms to make the drudgery of washing their families' abundant wardrobes more bearable. Many people engage in "competitive upgrading." If their neighbors and friends get _____________ (marble flooring, artisan custom cabinets, outdoor kitchen with Viking appliances, etc.), there is an immediate feeling of dissatisfaction and calls to their contractors to have same installed in their homes and yards.

Even families with great incomes take out second mortgages and go into consumer debt for more stuff. Often people with homes 3000+ square feet cannot get either car in their garage because it is so stuffed with Christmas decorations, sports paraphernalia, off-season clothes, electronics equipment, or any number of miscellaneous items. Many people solve their "space problem" by going further into debt with a larger home, which is usually eventually filled to the brim once again with new stuff.

There is a lot of "competitive parenting" going on, as well. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in your children's achievements. If Mika and Macy get a good report card, score the lead in the school play, or assist their team in winning the basketball championship, I'm gonna be talking about it!

But it seems that things have gotten completely out of balance. There is an obsession with enrolling each child in multiple activities, excelling in them, talking about them constantly, and sizing up other children based on their skills/abilities relative to their own child. There is a rush to have children not only participating in, but performing masterfully in sports at younger and younger ages and even to "specialize" in a certain sport. I have been subtly warned that having my children less involved than their peers is depriving them of important benefits and experiences. Some say my girls (ages 4 and 6) may even resent me for not giving them the chance to try out every conceivable activity so they can find their "niche" by age eight (or ten at the latest).

Vacations are even competitive. There is so much talk about "where are you going? where are you staying? What activities are you going to do?" It seems as though if there is not a major vacation on the horizon to talk about, a person feels left out of many conversations. I even heard one mom remark that "even though we are deeply in debt and can't afford it, we are going to take a family vacation this summer. I can't stand the thought of my children going back to school in the Fall and being embarrassed and ashamed when asked where they went on vacation, and they have to say they stayed home."

My primary concern in making these observations about myself and some of my fellow suburbanites is to focus on where our hearts are. Let me be clear: I'm NOT saying there is anything wrong with a spacious, well-decorated home, a nice vacation, or children's involvement in extra-curricular activities. However, I have noticed that in our own family, when all our finances and all our time are completely absorbed with these things, we have fewer resources with which to bless and serve others and scant time for spiritual development.

I question whether I am giving my children every "worldly" advantage that comes from a generous salary, a lovely home filled with toys, electronics, and closets stuffed with clothes, top-rated schools, and multiple physical/academic/developmental/musical enrichment opportunities, while neglecting other things, such as a heart for others less fortunate, compassion, humility, respect, and a desire to love and serve God? I give the latter a lot of lip service, but my time, money, and best efforts naturally tend to gravitate towards the former.

It is HARD to live a balanced life in Coppell; it is a struggle for me every day! I hear conflicting voices in my head: "buy me!" "you need this to be happy!" "you and your family deserve the best!" And then there is the voice of Jesus, who gently whispers to my spirit, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you." (Matthew 6:33)


  1. Wow. So well stated. I bought a nice home in a safe neighborhood and want to put my kids in private school to escape the horrors I see as a police officer. You, Jen Hatmaker and Jesus need to stop jacking with my heart, my mind and my plan. ;-)

  2. Amen! That was well said Kelly!! One of our church leaders was cautioning on the same subject and said, "I have been doing this for x-number of years and have yet to see any of the youth go pro in the sports area." He was really emphasizing the importance of doing less and focusing more on family, etc. Great article.

  3. Amy,

    I have to say, I think that Mormons really do a great job of making faith and family a priority. I still remember coming to ya'lls house for Family Home Evening--I love that you have a special time each week to come together and delve into spiritual matters as a family. Your children are so precious and wonderful, and I think you and Kyle are awesome parents!

  4. It is so interesting to read your thoughts. I grew up in those suburbs and left home by 16 because my parents were so dysfunctional with each other I just couldn't do it anymore. We don't even celebrate Christmas any more other than to get together for dinner and my entire family is happier. It took a divorce to see what you are seeing now as your children are small. Listen to your heart for it speaks the word of God.

    As a parent in my own family, we now live a voluntary simplicity lifestyle and frequently hear how good, compassionate, and responsible our son is. I do not say this to brag, but more to show that often it is those "advantages" you think you are giving your child that often hinder them. Kids want parents who love them, that is the biggest advantage anyone can give.

    Keep thinking and writing. It will often lead you to things you never thought of and I would love to follow you there!