“It’s a place where kids never stopped playing outside,” Meagan Francis said of her small midwestern town, St. Joseph, Michigan.
I wanted to test that assertion a bit. “What’s the probability that I’d see kids playing outside if I drove down your street on a late afternoon with good weather?” I asked.
“Oh, 100%!” Meagan replied without hesitation.
Wow… After an hour conversation, Meagan, the author of parenting book The Happiest Mom, convinced me. Neighborhood life seems so effortless there. Certainly, it’s not as vibrant as it was in small towns decades ago due to the same distractions kids have everywhere – video games, the Internet, and myriad structured activities. However, it’s better than pretty much anywhere in cities or suburbs. People are relaxed and tight-knit and family-oriented. It’s the kind of life many of us parents dream about for our kids.
Meagan has five kids, 13, 11, 7, 5, and 2-1/2, and the first four roam their neighborhood fairly freely. The 13- and 11-year-old have few formal restrictions, but the town imposes it’s own natural limitations. “There aren’t a lot of places you can go to in this town,” notes Meagan. “Besides, my sister-in-law teaches at their middle school. She hears a lot from them there and gives me detailed reports.”
The 7- and 5-year-old have good friends at a few nearby houses. One of these is three blocks away, and they’re free to go there on their own.
As a matter of fact, they were there when Meagan and I spoke. Thinking about their trip over there today, Meagan said, “I texted ‘my kids are coming’ to the mom, and a few minutes later, ‘they just got here’ appeared on my phone. I was never a big texter, but I love it for communicating with moms about my kids.” It gets the job done efficiently, cutting out the small talk she and the other mom would feel obliged to exchange if they spoke on the phone.
This is not to say that parents only lurk behind the scenes in their children’s lives in St. Joseph. Meagan’s street is a testament to how they facilitate kids’ neighborhood play. In one family’s front yard, there’s a trampoline. In another, there’s a kiddie pool.
This inviting attitude extends to families without children as well. Meagan’s next door neighbors, who are retirees, let her kids and other neighbor kids play on their front yard anytime, without asking. “People around here aren’t very protective of their space,” says Meagan.
Parents are quite present every day in her neighborhood, creating a “vibe” that, Meagan believes, makes kids and parents very comfortable. “There are a lot of eyeballs around,” she notes. “I see a lot of adults around during the day here, many with kids. There are a lot of stay-at-home moms, and a lot of days, I see work-at-home moms and dads. And I see lots of parents walking their kids and picking them up even in the middle of the day for half-day kindergarten.”
Meagan added, “Also, at 5 o’clock, everybody heads home from work. In the neighborhood we lived in in Chicago – parents didn’t get home until 6 or 7 at night.” So, kids got home later from daycare and activities, and there wasn’t much time for kids to play around their yards and neighborhoods before they went to bed.
This sounds like a wonderful place for kids to grow up, doesn’t it? So, what’s the downside to living in St. Joseph? A big city like Chicago, where Meagan’s family moved from to come to St. Joseph five years ago, offers many more interesting people, places, and things to do for adults.
“When I lived in Chicago, I felt like I was running into interesting people almost every day,” says Meagan. “They’re here, but you just have to look harder.” Also, there are five restaurants for date nights in St. Joseph, as opposed to thousands in Chicago. “I find the lack of variety here is OK, you get more creative with the way you have fun. Now, we invite people to our house more and we cook,” says Meagan. “Or sometimes we just drive to Chicago [90 miles away]. It’s not a big deal because we’re only doing it once a month anyway.”
“There’s a misconception that all the interesting things to do are in the city,” notes Meagan. “There are definitely more things to do, but not necessarily more quality things to do. More places to eat doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better. There’s a time in your life when you want to experience everything and sample everything. But I’m totally OK just settling into the life we have now and making the most of it.”
Meagan relates the story of how she and her husband decided to move from Chicago to St. Joseph. First, they decided to move out of the city to avoid the crazy driving parents do there to send their children to various magnet schools. “So, we starting looking for an affordable suburb with a nice family vibe, but these were so far outside the city anyway, and it cost so much more, we were like, ‘Let’s just go to Michigan!'”
Having her brother’s family there in St. Joseph, as well as a good high school friend, made the move there from Chicago an awful lot easier. “When we first moved here, we spent an awful lot of time with my brother and his family. We kinda had a built-in community before we got here. That was nice.”
“I think the story for me,” she adds, “is giving up on the idea that there’s always something better around the corner. Living close to my brother’s family and my good friend, and having a great life for my kids . . . that’s really worth giving up all that other stuff.”