On a recent Sunday afternoon as we were weaving our way through the crowds on our way to see a matinee of Mary Poppins one of my five year old daughters casually asked, “what are XXX live nude girls?” The tourists huddled on the corner around us laughed. Yes, some pre-Disney vestiges of old Times Square do still exist. “Well, um, nude means naked,” I replied. My daughter’s eyes widened as she tried to make sense of this and I braced myself for the inevitable follow up question. Instead she and her sister started laughing. “Naked girls? That’s so silly. Why would girls want to be naked in a theater?” And, I wimped out and pointed across the street excitedly, “Look girls M&M World! Let’s get some for the show!” Naked girls soon forgotten. No where in my “You-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up” speech is there a section for pole dancing. But, still these kinds of questions are inevitable when you live in a walking city like New York.
The biggest cliché one hears when raising kids in the city is that they grow up too fast. People are referring of course to sex and drugs – the Gossip Girl paradigm. But, more to the point is that kids in the city see way more on an average walk to school than any suburban kid sees in a month – or maybe ever. Last year at my daughters’ preschool anxious parents asked our preschool director how best to prepare our kids for the IQ and standardized tests they would be taking for kindergarten admission. Her answer – you live in New York City, everything you do is preparation for those tests. A stroll down Broadway with my 5 year old twin girls is a mini life lesson in social studies, science, history, math and good old fashioned marketing techniques 101. Pass the homeless man living in a box on the church steps, give lesson about poverty, misfortune, being grateful and having compassion. Walk by Fairway Market with its multitude of fruits and vegetables spilling out on to the sidewalk and categorize, weigh them, discuss country of origin. Pop into the pet store to look at the birds and fish and get a quick zoology fix, and then, sheer bliss for my girls, walk by the toy store with the hundreds of Webkinz in the window, all placed at preschool eye level. Go into said store for 20 minutes to pet and ogle and wistfully dream of the Webkinz they may or may not have in their future, while figuring out how many weeks of allowance it will take to save up for the purchase. All of this in a typical ten block walk home from school everyday.
Of course all of this stimulation and visual eye candy has its price. Occasionally there are advertisements which are truly disturbing glaring out of a bus shelter or phone booth. For an entire month my daughters refused to go downtown to my mother’s apartment if it meant we would ride on the West Side Highway. There was an enormous billboard looming over the road for some horror film, and the very sight of it filled them with fear and anxiety. The only thing you can impart to your child in that situation is to close your eyes. Which really isn’t the worst thing to teach. After all, I want my daughters to know that they don’t have to be passive participants in the media barrage that surrounds them.
Yes its exhausting answering all of those questions that come up each and every day as they try and make sense of the diverse world around them. But, its worth it when I see the constant curiosity that this city inspires in them. Because its not just the museums and cultural institutions which make this city such a rich place in which to raise my kids, but the way they’ve learned to navigate the subway and the sandbox, or strut down Broadway commenting on the way the neighborhood has changed in their short lifespan (all those banks!), or stroll along the Hudson River watching the boats go by. I am glad that they’re growing up this way – not faster, but maybe savvier. And positively New Yorkers to the core.