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Ariel Gore

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What Kind of Stability Do Kids Need?

Posted: 08/09/11 01:11 PM ET

When I had my son at age 37, I figured I could give him the stability I could never give my daughter, born when I was still a teenager.

When she was born, I had an army-surplus backpack and my passport. "Poor little Gypsy baby," the nurses whispered as I left the hospital with her.

This time I had a home, a place I'd been for 10 years. I had an advanced degree, a job, a reliable car -- even a partner in parenting. I was a real grown up.

But life pulled the grown-up rug out from under us -- as life will do from time to time -- and we let go of that house, among other things. A few years later, as another life in another new city glistens on the horizon, I have to admit that my 4-year-old son knows nothing more about the stability of staying put than my daughter did.

"Did you hate moving when you were little?" I ask her now, kind of sheepishly. "Did you hate changing schools?'

She's 21, so I figure she might have some perspective. She just smiles. "I liked it. I liked being the new kid -- from someplace special."

But surely moving is traumatic for most kids?

"How important is it to grow up in one place?" I ask my friend Tonia Caselman. She has a Ph.D. in child development, so I figure she should know.

But she shrugs. "Consistency is important. Stability is important. But that doesn't necessarily mean not moving. I've read studies that show family organization is more telling. Can the kids find what they need in the home? Do they know what to expect?"

It's funny. My son is a double Virgo, sign of the librarian. True to his stars, he's a big fan of personal hygiene and, yes, of being able to find what he needs in the home. He's a child who wants to know that the piggy bank is on the shelf where it belongs; that the Lego pieces are sorted into their proper bags by color and size.

The last time we moved, he was excited to discover the new varieties of flowers in the garden, excited to arrange his old toys in his new room and build a coop for the chickens. But, alas, all was not well in the land of preschooler transitions: It seemed we'd lost a DVD in the move.

My son paced the living room in his super hero pajamas, lamenting our lack. "We lost Mary Poppins." He shook his head as he paced. "We lost..."

As we consider packing up again, I wonder if better organization will make it all OK. If I can just keep track of all those DVDs.

In the memoir writing classes I teach, I've noticed that the archetype of the bohemian mother is at turns a symbol of refuge and a point of lifelong resentment. For years I couldn't figure out what made the difference. Was it just the idea of the easygoing mother that kids from over-structured households longed for? The friend's hippie mom was a refuge; one's own mom was just an irritating stoner? Maybe the idea of freedom is more appealing than the reality of movement. Or was it just that some children needed more familiarity, and some needed more novelty?

Well, yes and yes and yes.

But after reading hundreds of memoirs and memoir-drafts, I've noticed this important distinction, too: Is a family's boho lifestyle indicative of an overall flakiness? Or is it just, well, what it is? I mean, whole cultures have thrived as nomads. And as my friend Tonia says, sometimes it depends on whether the family is going to something or always running from.

A 2003 study of military families, who move every two to three years on average, found that family cohesiveness and children's relationships with their mothers were far more important to a kid's adjustment than their family's "rate of mobility"--i.e. the number of moves in a lifetime divided by a child's age.

There are different kinds of stability, after all.

I'll never know if my kids would have been better off planted in one place to grow roots like great oak trees. But I can offer my son what my daughter claims I always offered her: The stability of love; the stability of dinner on the table, even if it was pasta marinara again; the stability of a home, whether a city apartment, a house with a mortgage, or a turquoise-painted travel trailer; the stability of a mother who says, "I've got your back wherever we find ourselves."

And yes, look here, I found Mary Poppins.

 

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