Hey Brooklyn parents, can we huddle for a moment? We’re getting a bad rap around here, especially those of us in Park Slope. Daryl Lang is not the first person to complain about parents taking their kids everywhere, including bars, nor about the demise of some mythical sense of community. I would think bringing your kids everywhere would actually contribute to a sense of community, but perhaps the fault lines lie in his third complaint, that we parents lack adult social skills. You’ve heard it already: we’re insular, pretentious, entitled. Do we agree? Maybe when it applies to other parents. But just as a self-identified “shy and socially awkward” individual will come across as an arrogant jerk, so can overworked, fatigued parents come across as, well, insular, pretentious, and entitled.
So what to do? Ignore the haters and move on with our lives, letting the fault lines deepen? Is this the price we pay for choosing to raise our kids in the city — which always means raising them in public? Many of us are raising kids here in Brooklyn in reaction to growing up in the suburbs. I know I am. All I ever wanted when I was a kid was to grow up and move to the big city. We’re clinging to our faith that bringing up children in New York is good for them and for us, that our children will benefit from exposure to world-class museums, music, art, ideas, and a kaleidoscope of people from everywhere and anywhere.
Ellen Witzling Roff raised her two kids, Jessica (who’s opening Cafe Verde, a green coffee house, in either Clinton Hill or Ditmas Park/Kensington) and Matthew (who co-owns Southpaw, Franklin Park, and Public Assembly), in Park Slope a generation ago for the same reasons. “The whole urban environment is culturally rich, and you just can’t help but be exposed to different things, different kinds of people. It’s easier because you don’t have to drive to get what you need—you can walk anywhere and your kid learns that he or she can do it, too.”
When Ellen became a mother she didn’t know anyone else in the neighborhood with children. (That may just be the best example of how much Brooklyn has changed in 30 years.) So she put up notices inviting other parents to form a playgroup. First there were three families, then five, and eventually Ellen went on to form a childcare collective. She found herself spending time in the homes of people from different cultures. She helped care for her neighbors’ children, and that’s the biggest difference she sees between old Park Slope and new Park Slope—a somewhat diminished sense of community.
“I think now almost everyone is working,” she says, comparing this to her stay-at-home mom experience. “You don’t have the same connection to the kids. And when you do have time you want to spend it with your child and not with someone else’s because your time is limited, so it’s a different mindset. I don’t think people are more materialistic or less parentally motivated—I think it’s a function of the way you have to live.”
I spent a few years as a stay-at-home mom, and I still had a very different experience from Ellen. I did playdates, usually with just one other mom, and usually more as an excuse to socialize with another isolated adult than as an opportunity to connect with other children. Do we find a deeper sense of community when we tend each other’s children? What about the rest of the community?
Our self-managed, six-unit co-op is its own little community, and I’ve learned my hardest lessons about being a good neighbor from my fellow co-operators. When my son was a wild, late-night, rabble-rousing three-year-old, my downstairs neighbor started ranting about the noise (“It’s like living in a drum!”) We offered feeble excuses, until finally, our neighbor suggested a sit-down with our son. He explained to him (and us) how early he had to get up in the morning, how he needed his sleep. We set ground rules. The pounding stopped at 8:00 p.m. My son and my neighbor are now pals.
Sure, we neighbors still have occasional feuds, but we’re all acutely aware of our dependence on each other, the web that holds us all—and our crumbling building—together. And it’s that sense of dependence, the vulnerability and the strength, that I think we as parents need to recapture, not just with fellow parents but with all of our neighbors. And I think we need to get out some messaging—I’m totally serious about this—to our fellow Brooklynites: we are here, raising our kids in Brooklyn, because by and large, we like our neighbors.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean that our neighbors like us. A few of you might remember the famous Declaration of Co-Dependence. I love this list of rules, except the Community Bookstore has a kids section for a reason, and bars that serve great food (Flatbush Farm) don’t quite count as bars before 8 p.m. So rather than replicate the already perfect I just want to point out something—all of these come down to having adult social skills. As we raise our kids in Brooklyn, we should be a little more cognizant of how much space we claim, and teach our kids this awareness too. This could mean being more aware of pedestrians with places to go when you and your stroller-pushing friend are enjoying a side-by-side amble down the sidewalk, or stopping your toddler from clambering over the legs of laptop freelancers trying to work at Tea Lounge.
There will always be assholes who hate kids because they want to be the only kids in the city, or because we parents remind them of their parents, or whatever. And there will always be genuinely self-absorbed parents with an incurable sense of entitlement. But us sane folks, let’s win the hearts and minds of the majority, people who don’t hate kids but who are sometimes irritated by the little inconveniences brought on by kids in the city. Let’s remember that we’re raising kids here partly to engage in a brotherhood and sisterhood with multitudes, to delve together into the soul of Brooklyn, and to pass it on to new generations.
A Brooklynite for 14 years and parent for 6 1/2 years, Adriana Velez is Communications Coordinator for the Brooklyn Food Coalition and a freelance food writer.