How can we instill social values in our kids? That’s a question Rob and I struggle with constantly. In its least subtle form, the inculcation can begin as early as eighteenth months, as we’ve learned this election season (“No, sweetie, we don’t clap forthat man.”) At three or four we can toss in a little more complexity (“We don’t say Indian, we say First Nations”) though no greater nuance (“That kind of car makes the trees cry.”)

Before you judge us too harshly for our brainwashing, let me say a few things in our self-defense. First, the “we” in all the above examples was actually me, so you can let Rob off the hook. Second, my long-held personal and intellectual justification for bringing kids into this already overcrowded world is that if the people who worry about the world’s problems are the ones who stop having children, we’re going to lose one of the most promising sources of would-be world-changers; the decision to have kids is for me inextricable from my commitment to building a better world with and for them.

A far more convincing defense is that my clumsy and heavy-handed efforts at passing on the leftie gospel amount to little when compared with the daily, granular and accumulating impact of the milieu in which children are raised. A community of cultured, socially minded, personally decent people is the best way to grow kids into a constructive social role — or so I was persuaded while reading Morningside Heights, Cheryl Mendelson’s picture of Upper West Side Manhattanites.

The novel centers on Anne, a former pianist and mother of three, and her husband, Charles, a second-string soloist at the Metropolitan Opera. As their neighborhood of Morningside Heights gentrifies, they soon find themselves pushed towards suburban exile from their beloved Manhattan, and struggle to reconcile their urban lifestyle with their financial means. We also follow Charles’ best friend, Morris, in his quest for recognition by his fellow scientists, and Anne’s best friend, Merrit, as she grieves over her rapidly diminishing prospects for marriage and family.

The juxtaposition of Morris and Merrit’s single lives with Anne and Charles’ family existence argues for the superiority of family bliss, but the kind of family bliss Mendelson portrays is located firmly and passionately within specific community ideals:

[Charles] abominated cars and grassy yards, could not comprehend why anyone would want a country home when the world provided perfectly good hotels. Buses and subways were how civilized people went about their business, and trains and planes were always preferable to cars. But most of all, what template of life would be visible to his children in some leafy town on the Hudson Line? Beneficent institutions and the kind of human beings who peopled them would be odd, absent ideals, not powerful living realities as they were here in Morningside Heights. What would life feel like in a world that did not set the pursuit of music or art or science or knowledge or justice and goodness at its core? What would the children become in a world in which their parents were eccentrics, startling individuals, rather than members of a modestly coherent society in which their tastes and temperaments were readable to others, even if uncongenial?

Even those who doubt that upper West Side Manhattan represents the apotheosis of family or community life may be gratified to find the relationship between family and community treated with serious attention. I myself have been starved for engaging, insightful novels about the experience of mothering young children; I’ve concluded that they’re scarce because mothers don’t have much time for novel-writing until the demands of mothering young kids, and its attendant puzzles, have passed from immediate view. But Michael Wells at Bailey/Coy came through for me once again when he predicted that Mendelson might be just what I’ve been craving.

Mendelson’s implicit solution to the dilemma of inculcating social values in kids — raise them in the rapturous world of Upper West Side Manhattan, but make sure you get a hell of a deal on real estate — does bear some relevance to those of us raising our kids in the provinces. In Vancouver, no less than Manhattan, real estate is destiny: it becomes ever-harder to pay for a family home in the city while earning a socially- or culturally-minded living. But urban living isn’t just about convenient shopping, short commutes or (in Vancouver anyhow) beach access: it’s about the density of cultural opportunities, the density of pedestrian (as opposed to vehicular) experience, and most crucially, the density of human relationships that’s possible when people with shared values also share a neighborhood.

The opportunity to raise our kids in a community of people who both speak and live the values of political engagement, creative expression, knowledge creation and spiritual presence is surely a better influence on them than my efforts at a crafted, controlled political message. Hmmm….supporting social engagement by holding space for community rather than delivering a pre-fab message…why does that sound familiar?