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Madison Monday

Madison Monday: Growing up downtown

By January 28, 20134 Comments

Winter weekends are long weekends, especially when it’s bitterly cold outside. I’ll confess that I have no idea how people survive in more Arctic climates like Minnesota and Wisconsin. I have to assume that the months of unrelenting cold in those places have a deep and lasting effect on the psychological makeup of the residents. I can only imagine a kind of collective despair that begins to permeate the very fabric of their being.

In Madison, this kind of weather doesn’t last for long, but sometimes it makes this country girl wonder about the wisdom of raising children in an “urban” environment like downtown. Over the course of a long winter weekend, I find myself wondering, where do you go as a child growing up downtown when you need the space to give your imagination free reign?

The dirt pile and the creek

I grew up on nine acres of a converted hay field two miles outside of the nearest town in Boone County, Kentucky. We were very lucky in that during my first year of kindergarten, a family built a house across the road from us, and their oldest son was my age. Without this lucky circumstance, me and my siblings would have had to been driven to visit most any other kids, let alone places like a store or the mall.

crayfishSo it was that me and my sister, along with the two brothers who had moved in next door, set out to explore and conquer the wilderness around us. We built a colossally magnificent fort out of the dirt pile left over from the construction of their house. We headed as far downstream as we could travel in one day along the creek that ran by both our houses in search of its source, discovering in the process an impressive cliff and waterfall. We caught crawfish, had iron weed sword fights, and occasionally, flung a dried cow patty in each other’s direction. We played indoors some–the boys had a pool table and a ping pong table in their basement–but it seems these were very much the least attractive options available. All in all, it was better to be outside.

Our grandmother lived in a house in the downtown of that closest town, as small as it was, and so sometimes, my sister and I had brief exposures to that life. We were allowed to walk two blocks down to the corner store to buy candy, and sometimes to ride our bikes around our church parking lot. Wandering around the very small downtown was exciting, certainly, but it didn’t really compare to the joy of a large backyard and twisting paths through the woods.

The mocha and the coffee shop

My daughter, on the other hand, has spent the whole of her life growing up in the urban metropolis of downtown Madison. Her idea of a pleasant Saturday is to spend some time hanging out in the coffee shop, ideally drinking a mocha, though her father and I are not always as obliging in this pursuit as she would like. And though I spent some time as a child wandering small town streets, I still find myself wondering–what do children do with such very small backyards? What do they do without the safe privacy of the woods in which to escape from adults?

It’s difficult not to conflate the differences between growing up in the country and the city with the differences between growing up in a whole other era of parenting and childhood. My grandmother’s house in downtown Burlington was two miles down a twisting country road from our house, but my parents would let both my sister and I ride our bikes there alone once we reached a certain age. When on one of our creek-exploration expeditions, we would be out of any range of our homes for whole days at a time (with no cell phones, of course), and our parents were largely unconcerned about our welfare.  My childhood predates the prevailing sense among parents today that it is unsafe to let your child out of your sight, regardless of whether you’re in the city or the country.

When I met my husband and step-daughter, they were already quite committed downtowners. I had bought a house in downtown Madison as a single woman, without much thought to whether it was a nice place for children. When my husband and step-daughter moved in with me almost three years ago, I told myself there were many benefits for a child to growing up in a place like Madison that balanced out my own sense of the benefits of country living. Now, our daughter is eleven, and on long winter weekends, I can’t help but wonder if that’s actually true.

Of course, in winter, the appeal of going outside is greatly reduced regardless of whether you’re in the city or the country. But when I was young, even when it was cold I remember how satisfying it was to escape outside. A snowfall raised especially exciting possibilities for sledding and snowmen, of course, but also for trekking into the pristine whiteness of the woods. Whatever the season, the woods around our house were always a haven, a place where as a child I could get away.

But perhaps, in the end, it’s not really about city versus country, or one era of parenting versus another. What I remember most about growing up is wanting to get away from everyone; I had an older sister and a younger brother from whom I often wanted to escape, in addition to my parents. My step-daughter is an only child, and what she often seems to want most is to be around other people. So perhaps I assume she’s missing out on something that wouldn’t have been particularly important to her anyway. And perhaps simply moving to the country is not enough to make your children into country people if that is simply not who they are.

So, though it may not sound like it, this post is a question posed to all of you. Can you find the space to be alone as a downtown kid? Is that even something that matters to anyone besides me? Do the costs and benefits all wash out in the end? Or are long, winter weekends the same regardless of where you happen to live?


  • Cheyenne says:

    I grew up in a fairly insular town (not far at all from large cities) with a river nearby and woods in the backyard, and that fuelled my imagination. I think kids in urban areas just find other things to fuel their imagination, but even occasional trips to parks could be enough to give them that sense of space and adventure. It’s an interesting debate, for sure… but I agree with you that finding that space would be beneficial to any kid, if they can.

    • Robyn Ryle says:

      Cheyenne, I read something online a while back about how to make your child into a writer (assuming you want to punish them in that way). One of the things was to give them boring chores which would allow their mind to wander. I’m thinking I might give my step-daughter a lot of weeding to do come spring and summer!

  • I grew up in Downtown Madison and I have to say, dear friend, you’ve missed something. From my house on West Main I was 1/2 a mile from the old Lide White Memorial Boys and Girls Club (now located on the hilltop). That was my primary after school destination for socialization and physical activity. Most weekends were spent in the Cherokee Triangle area of Louisville with my dad, so there was a huge disparity between my two towns. In the summer, however, I roamed the land. From your house to the banks of the Ohio is probably no more than 1,000 feet. That alone should be enough to spark the imagination of a wondrous child (as yours is). But if that’s not insulated enough, just 1.2 miles away there is an old train tunnel going over Crooked Creek. With 5 minutes of [CAREFUL, HELMETED] bike riding your daughter could be in a land that time forgot. In the summer the creek often dries up to a trickle or less and can be explored for hours on end. Following the tributary up the side of Hanging Rock hill leads to a rocky area that belies the general flatness of our region and likens itself more to the mountains of Tennessee and Virginia. Trust me, as a former Downtown River Rat©, there are plenty of places where a kid can be alone with their imagination and Nature.

    • Robyn Ryle says:

      I believe you, Eli. Maybe if we took Grace to those places, she’d want to go there herself. How old do you think you were when you went those places by yourself? Would you let an 11 year old go there alone?

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