A new study reaches a disturbing conclusion about that All-American institution, the suburb: namely, that suburbs are bad for kids.
Suburbs, especially those that have sprung up since 1950, isolate children from reality, prolong childhood and fail to provide the kind of emotional experiences necessary to prepare kids for adulthood, argues the study by Edward A. Wynnt of the University of Illinois.
This leads, he says, to antisocial and self-destructive conduct, including high suicide rates, drug use, delinquency and introverted behavior.
Sociologist Wynne lays the blame on many of the things that have made suburban living attractive to two gentrations of American: big lawns, shopping centers, safe streets and large, modern schools.
Parents, he says, assume that such things "provide ideal child-rearing environments. Unfortunately, there is no indication that these virtues - beyond a very modest threshold level - have much to do with raising emotionally healthy children."
Children who grow up in suburbs, he adds, " are uniquely isolated from diversity," outside stimulations and most real-life situations, making it hard for them to adjust to later life.
During the last decade, volumes of research have been compiled on the problems of inner-city schools and their failures. But Wynne's study is one of the few to probe suburban schools and, according to University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman, it "is probably the most comprehensive contribution to this discourse.
Wynne, 49, is a confirmed city dweller who used to live in Southwest Washington. He began his research on sururban life when he gave up a career in government and went back to school at the University of California at Berkeley in 1968, the height of the student protest movement.
"I was 36 and the place looked pretty darn good to me," he recalls.
"But those were pretty turbulent times at Berkeley. I started asking myself what's happening and why." Most of the alienated student protesters and drugs users, he found, were from affluent suburbs.
His current "postindustrial suburbs" - those that have been built since 1950 and depend almost exclusively on auto transportation. These communities, he says, "are perhaps the most homogeneous in human history, and, of course are far more 'commonplace' than the much-dericed Goperh Prairie (Ninn of Wineburg," Ohio, of another era.
Post-industrial suburban children, he says, grow up in a world of protected affluence, where they have little contact with older people or those from backgrounds different from their own. They have few home or community responsibilities are few opportunity to solve "common sense" problems or to display emotion.
The directs some of his harshest words at suburban schools, which he says have received little "healthy,broadbased criticism."
"Suburban schools," he states, "give great emphasis to material wealth, comfort and physical health. They often have elaborate facilities for students and they strive to provide well-qualified (and paid) staff and to maintain low teacher-pupil ratio . . . One might assume that suburbanites believe their educational systems must be working well - because,after all, look at all the money they are spending."
But, he adds later, "the basic facts are that high school and much of suburban adolescent life is many able students: that such students are not challegened to learn important skills, or stimulated to care about the group that they are in."
Wynne's main bone of contention with suburban schools is that they are judged by how well they teach basic skill, not how well they prepare students how to become adults.