For families living in the nation's capital, D.C. is an urban jungle gym.
The city's cultural events, street festivals, theater, parks, playgrounds and museums—many of them free—are a major draw to the city, not to mention the abundance of jobs in government, nonprofits and lobbying firms.
The District also, however, offers its own set of challenges for parents when it comes to schools, security and housing.
The moms and dads who make the choice to call the city home are “active, engaged parents who want what's best for their kids but are willing to roll up their sleeves to make it happen,” says Alicia Sokol, a Mount Pleasant mom of two boys, ages 7 and 4.
A City of 20-Somethings?
D.C.'s growth and development has been largely fueled by an influx of 20-somethings attracted to one of the country's lowest unemployment rates, demographers say. They come for the jobs, but stay for the vibrant nightlife, outdoor film festivals, food trucks and companionship of other like-minded young adults.
It's no wonder that D.C. has the highest rate of one-person households in the country, according to statistics from the Census Bureau. Upon release of that statistic in 2009, demographer William Frey told the Washington Post, “This sort of rubber-stamps Washington as the nation's mecca for singles.”
But the reality is not so clear-cut.
Though some couples thinking of children move from Washington to its Metro-accessible suburbs, that's not the case for more than 100,000 households who choose to raise a family in the District.
Sokol, for example, said she and her husband were both raised in the suburbs of big cities, but knew they were city people at heart. That's why she sees D.C. as a long-term home for her family.
“We love being close to where the action is,” she says. “... I love that my boys are surrounded by people of all types; you hear people speaking different languages, they eat different foods, some people have two mommies or two daddies, and it's all good. You learn to celebrate the things you share as well as the differences.”
For Katie O'Brien, a Petworth mom of a 8-month-old son, the decision was strategic. She works downtown, and moving to a suburb like Gaithersburg would nearly triple her commute.
“It takes me 20 minutes to get to work,” she says. “I can leave work at 5:30, get home at 5:50 and then still pick up Dean at day care by 6 o'clock.”
City Living Challenges
Raising a family in any city brings its own set of challenges. Finding an affordable home with ample space for children can be difficult; add to that the desire to live in a safe area near work and reputable schools/child care centers, and parents have a tall order to fill.
“It was hard,” O'Brien says. “Four years ago, Petworth wasn't as nice as it is now, but we took a chance and we got really lucky. We live on a safe street a block from the Metro, and the street just happens to have a lot of families on it.”
D.C. has many up-and-coming or established neighborhoods with a family atmosphere, including Capitol Hill, Petworth, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant and Cleveland Park. Parents simply have to do a little extra digging to find the perfect fit. Sokol said she looked at more than 10 houses before finding her current home.
“I don't think we really even appreciated where we landed until we got here,” she says. “We were walking around, and we were like, 'Wow, this is really a great neighborhood.'”
No matter the neighborhood, D.C. parents say security is always a concern. Teaching children about common sense safety tips is important at a younger age than their suburban counterparts, and kids require more supervision than they might in the suburbs.
Another inevitable challenge is finding a high-quality school. As with housing, finding the perfect fit in a school requires creative thinking and analysis between public schools, charter schools, private schools and beyond. Get started early in order to ensure your child finds a quality school that fits her learning style.
Out on the Town
Raising kids in D.C. may have its challenges, but you can't beat the accessibility to tons of family-friendly fun. The Smithsonian museums are free and a short Metro ride away, lots of restaurants happily open their doors to families and most neighborhoods have parent groups (online and/or in-person) to nurture a sense of community.
So much is walkable from your front door; parents can grab the stroller and walk to the zoo or a museum on a whim. Rather than feeling forced to make a day of it, families can pop into a single exhibit or visit an old favorite, D.C. moms say.
“I love living in the city with Dean,” O'Brien says. “I take him to the Building Museum, I take him to the zoo, and he's already been to five Nationals games this season. It's just so convenient.”
D.C.'s neighborhood restaurants and bars open their doors to families who live nearby, too. Petworth Mamas and Papas, a parents' group for newborns O'Brien started when her son was born, meets every Wednesday for a baby happy hour at their favorite neighborhood bar and restaurant.
Other family-friendly happy hours include Wonderland Ballroom (baby happy hour from 5 to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays) and The Reef (kid-friendly happy hour from 5 to 8 p.m. on Fridays). These business owners shut down a section of the bar and create a family-friendly atmosphere, often times with kids' music and pint-sized meals.
“We've been to The Reef a couple times, and what I love about that is they have the music our kids love—disco—and the food the parents love,” Sokol says. “The kids can be running around, blowing off some steam and parents can sit back with a glass of wine or a beer.”
Sokol says living in the city gives parents more of an opportunity to continue doing the things they love while still maintaining a family-friendly ambiance. She and her husband get a babysitter once a week so they can have date night or meet up with friends, and she took both of her kids out to restaurants from an early age.
“You want to do things that are enjoyable to you, too,” she says. “You still want to go out, you still want to enjoy your friends, a cocktail and a nice meal. And it's possible to do that, even in the city.”
One last added benefit to city parenting? O'Brien says her little boy's sleeping habits are the envy of suburban moms.
“Dean's a much better sleeper than other babies, because when he was in utero, he got used to fire engines and loud noises, like music and cars honking. Some people in the suburbs, the whole house has to whisper while the baby's sleeping. It's not like that here,” she laughs.