Communities influence kids, but parents shape communities

Children jumping rope in an urban environment.

Where children grow up influences their opportunities to succeed in life. Are the local schools good learning environments or overcrowded?

Will the people they meet provide good future connections or put them at risk? Is it safe to play alone or do they need constant supervision?

Parents around the world ask these questions and develop strategies to encourage their kids to participate in the positive parts of their community and protect them from the negative ones.

Whether a collectivist mentality prevails like in Norway, or a more individualistic approach is more common, as in the United States, these motivations are universal.

Neglected in research

But OsloMet researcher Ingar Brattbakk says the field of community and neighbourhood "often neglects the effect of parents in research on how children and young people are formed by their neighbourhoods."

Brattbakk, a researcher at the Centre for Welfare and Labour Research (AFI), is opening new research paths into what parents’ strategies mean for urban planning and childhood success.

Good research is based on a review of the existing literature, so that is where Brattbakk is starting.

Most of the studies come from the United States but the results are universal and fascinating: parents’ active choices and actions affect not just their kids, but their neighbourhood and society at large.

However, Brattbakk found that most studies in these fields only think of parents as passive observers of their community.

Income, race, education, and other metrics are generally included, but those metrics only tell part of the story.

Brattbakk’s research will tell the parent’s side of the story.

Parents as active participants

How parents interact with their neighbourhood depends heavily on how they perceive its quality, Brattbakk explains.

Do they trust that the neighbourhood is safe and likely to offer their children positive life experiences? In this case, parents take a strategy of allowing the neighbourhood to help form their kids.

They may encourage kids to meet others and join activities that will encourage growth. In this scenario, parents don’t have to constantly watch out for their kids but can lower their guard and apply more relaxed and responsive parenting strategies.

If the neighbourhood feels less safe to parents, they might spend their time working to improve the community and joining local organisations.

They might still encourage kids to get involved with the positive elements of the community but will keep an eye out to protect them from elements that they feel will have a negative influence.

When things go wrong

The system begins to break down when parents feel that their neighbourhood is dangerous or full of people who will expose their kids to harmful experiences.

In this case, parents enter into what Brattbakk terms a "protective strategy".

They might stay and work to isolate kids against the bad people and activities or send them outside the neighbourhood to places where resources, especially schools, are better.

They might also decide that there is no way to salvage the experience and try to move to a new location.

Norway has a strong social welfare system, but the larger cities are still very divided by income and other indicators of living conditions.

This third strategy is what worries Brattbakk and other social scientists.

When people leave their community, they take with them the resources that could help improve the neighbourhood, leaving everyone else who stays behind even worse off.

This is not just an issue for countries like the United States, where a more individualistic mindset dominates.

It also poses potential problems in countries with a more collectivist parenting style. In Norway, this is often a hard fact to accept.

But in Norway?

Even though a lot of the existing research comes from the United States where many neighbourhoods are more economically segregated than in Norway, Brattbakk says the overall pattern still exists here.

Norway has a strong social welfare system, but the larger cities are still very divided by income and other indicators of living conditions.

In Oslo, for example, the Aker River separates the higher income western half of the city, where the risk of poverty for families with kids is low, from areas on the eastern side where poverty levels are higher.

The low-income threshold, referred to as EU60, is a widely used measure of poverty indicating that a family has less than 60 per cent of the local median income for three years.

In the most affluent neighbourhoods, the share of children growing up in families below EU60 is only 2 per cent, but in the poorest areas the share of kids below this threshold is more than 50 per cent.

This level of segregation falls somewhere between Copenhagen and Stockholm; not as extreme as the US, but much higher than most Norwegians and outside observers think.

In fact, Brattbakk found that many people in Norway are surprised to hear how many families in Oslo struggle to put food on the table.

“Poverty in Oslo is hidden and there is an extra shame that comes from being poor in a country where everyone thinks you have equal opportunity and social support,” stresses Brattbakk.

Finding solutions

All of these findings have implications for urban developers, as well as for education and housing policy in Norway.

"These parental neighbourhood strategies drive moving patterns and segregation of our cities," the OsloMet researcher observes.

Brattbakk’s research has laid out a framework of parental strategies based on existing studies and he plans to continue researching this topic further.

He is especially interested in understanding how widespread and effective these strategies are in the Norwegian context: does moving improve quality of life? Is it easy to change schools in Oslo?

These and more are questions for Brattbakk’s upcoming research. He also hopes other researchers will use it as a framework for future studies.


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A research article from:
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Published: 03/11/2022
Last updated: 08/11/2022
Text: Matthew Davidson
Photo: Shutterstock/NTB