What Kids Want Most in a House Is Not in the House

In 1974, when I was 12 and my sister was 15, my family moved. We left our house on Rose Leaf Road in suburban Pittsburgh, PA for a larger, more luxurious home on Stancey Road. These days, as my wife and I are househunting in and around Palo Alto, CA, I often think back to that move and how it affected me. Any real estate agent or knowledgeable home buyer would look at those two houses and agree with my parents that the Stancey house was better than the Rose Leaf house. It had larger rooms and more of them. It had a more open layout. It was constructed better. It had better “finishes.” The Stancey house was also a “good buy.” It was surrounded by houses of even higher value, and the development in which it was situated was newer and trendier.

Unfortunately for my parents, none of those things mattered to me. Only after we moved did I realize that the Stancey house was absolutely, positively worse from my point of view. You see, the block that the Rose Leaf house was on was full of kids who played outside almost every day. That picture below shows me and my buddies (yes, there were a lot of girls there, too) posing on the yard in the back yard of our Rose Leaf house.

Mike and buddies

I’m at the bottom left. That road in the background was the site of countless pickup softball and two-hand-tag football games. The yard on the other side of that road was the Weiss’, where we played “kill the guy with the ball.” Down the street was the woods where we had our tree shack.

The block where the Stancey house was had a number of kids around my age, but fewer of them. The main problem, though, was that they didn’t play outside. It’s hard for me to put my finger on why, except that it does seem that in general, blocks with nicer houses tend to have kids playing outside less. Stancey just wasn’t a “community” the way Rose Leaf was. I ended up sitting in the big family room watching TV every afternoon after school, eating saltine crackers and drinking soda.

Anyway, my point is that my family’s move in 1974 may have looked good to my parents and our realtor, but it was bad for me.

The lesson from this experience is that what kids value in a home has little, if anything, in common with what parents usually value. Fundamentally, kids value the neighborhood around the house far more, and parents value the house itself more. The one thing they both seem to agree somewhat on is yard.

Many parents of today may disagree with me, claiming that their kids care a lot about internal house features like their own bedroom or their house’s family room. I would argue that in most of these cases, they care about these internal house factors because they never lived in a house whose neighborhood was alive with kids. At the Stancey house, I really got into our family room because I spent a ton of time there. However, because I knew what it was like to live in a neighborhood with lots of kids playing outside, I never thought our family room was more important than our neighborhood.

Unfortunately, because most kids today have never experienced a neighborhood like I had at Rose Leaf, they have no idea of the positive impact it could have on their lives. So, parents keep buying houses based on the house, not the neighborhood.

In a later post, I’ll talk about how this experience has affected my wife’s and my house hunt in Palo Alto, CA.

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4 Responses to What Kids Want Most in a House Is Not in the House

  1. Perla Ni says:

    I grew up in Shanghai in a house that had no indoor plumbing, where we had 4 bedrooms for 8 people, and no heat or air conditioning. I didn’t mind any of those things.

    The house was on a street where on our block, we had 20 kids under the age of 10. It was a pedestrian only street and me and my friends played on the street every day – hide and seek, riding our bikes, soccer, dolls, you name it.

    It was the best time in my childhood.

  2. Mark Humphries says:

    One of the best things about playing with other kids without immediate parental influence is that the child gets to experience different personalities and family situations without the inevitable commentary and/or body language from the parent. On Milmada Drive in La Canada (southern California) during the late 1970s I learned about braggarts, bullies, good samaritans, Christians, atheists, adopted kids, kids with divorced parents, aggressors, happy-go-lucky types, etc. etc. in a much deeper way than I did while in class. More importantly, I learned it on my own — the parents rarely interfered. The learning took place during countless games of touch football (in the street itself), over-the-line baseball (in the Fitzgerald’s front yard) and one-on-one basketball (in our driveway). The games most often started when my friends and I simply wandered outside to see who else wanted to play. If what I’m reading is true, it’s sad that many children today will not receive these valuable formative experiences.

  3. Kneidalach says:

    Palo Alto is a great place to raise kids. It’s relatively safe, it’s friendly, there are playgrounds everywhere, parks, schools, etc.
    I think once you pick a place that is convinient, you can find the playgrounds nearby, friendly neighbors, etc.
    Size of the house does not matter to the kid at all. What does matter is freedom of movement.
    Can I go to the park with some friends, mommy?
    Can Sam come to play with me?
    Daddy, I want to go to Walter Hays playground with the ropes.
    We’re going to catch some lizards with Colum.

  4. pamela says:

    I am raising 4 kids in Palo Alto. I love it here. Our school feels like a neighborhood, as does my area near Peers Park. Our house is not large, but is is kid friendly, as is the area. Welcome to Palo Alto.