This world is often a tough place for us parents.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the three years since I became a mother. Back when she was an infant, I used to take my daughter for long walks in the stroller. I got extremely frustrated when I found that none of the local malls had automatic doors that enabled me to push my stroller in to shop. It’s such a simple thing—why didn’t anyone think moms wanted to shop, too?
I’ve heard it said that the Reno/Sparks/Tahoe area is family-friendly, and I think that in some respects that’s true, especially in July, when Artown offers a number of free activities for parents with young children. When I asked a few friends about their experiences raising children here, they seemed incredulous that I might think otherwise. After all, parks and playgrounds abound here, don’t they? And what about the programs at the libraries? The Discovery Museum? Aces Ballpark?
But then again, Nevada ranks 40th among all states for child well-being, according to Zero to Three, the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families. And cities around Nevada rank very low for family friendliness; Las Vegas was the only Nevada city to even crack the Top 100 Best Cities to Raise a Family in a recent survey by Children’s Health magazine (just barely—it was No. 100).
From stroller-friendly doors, to kids’ meals that aren’t loaded with fat, to restaurant high chairs and booster seats that aren’t broken, to activities priced and scheduled to accommodate families, there’s a multitude of things that Northern Nevada communities and businesses could do to make this area more family friendly:
1) Accommodate families’ schedules: Last summer, when my daughter was two, I began looking for some toddler swimming lessons. After scouring parks and rec listings, I found few options; most of them took place between 9 and 11 a.m. on weekdays, which was impossible for me, a working mother. I found exactly one Saturday class scheduled to begin in August. Registration didn’t open until two weeks prior, at 9 a.m. When I called the number at the city of Sparks to register her for it, at 9:15, I found it was already full.
Zero to Three says that 32 percent of Nevada’s children live with a single parent, and 65 percent of Nevada’s children under 6 live with working parents. If you want to encourage families to participate in family-friendly activities, scheduling more during evenings and weekends might help.
2) Consider cost: The swim class option I found is a private swim school with evening and weekend hours. But as Cindy Johnson, president of the Reno Association for the Education of Young Children, points out, “Things like that school are wonderful, but there are a lot of parents in our community who can’t afford them.”
Affordability of family-friendly activities is certainly a concern. Zero to Three says that 45 percent of Nevada’s infants and toddlers live in low-income families. If Northern Nevada communities and businesses want to improve their access for families with young children, pricing right is a great first step.
Then there’s your average restaurant kid’s meal, which here in the Reno/Sparks area ranges from $4 to $7 at restaurants like Chili’s, Applebee’s, Red Robin, Olive Garden, and P.F. Chang’s sampled. Tahoe restaurants are even less accommodating, with kids’ meals starting around $8 for Steamer’s, The Beacon and Spindleshanks sampled. When you consider families with more than one child, and how the outsized portions leave much of the plate uneaten, that’s a considerable amount of money thrown away.
3) Consider kids’ health: My sampling of several local parks reveals broken playground equipment, lack of shade, and slides that absorb too much heat and make sliding down them an exercise in scorched little bottoms.
And then there’s the food.
In a sampling of a 12 chain and independently owned restaurants in Reno, Sparks and Lake Tahoe, I found remarkably limited children’s food options. Kids’ menus rarely veer from spaghetti, Kraft macaroni and cheese, corn dogs, mini-pizzas, hamburgers, chicken nuggets/tenders and grilled cheese.
According to a 2008 study by The Center for Science in the Public Interest, of the 1,474 kids’ meals from national chain restaurants analyzed, 93 percent had more calories and 45 percent had more saturated fat and trans fats than kids need.
Why not offer half orders of regular menu items? Why assume kids don’t want variety?
The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that Americans eat out more now than ever before, with restaurant meals providing more than one-third of our calories. Why not make them good ones? I applaud the occasional restaurant—thank you, BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse—that offers veggies and dip as a side item option.
Then, let’s talk about restaurant safety—broken high chair safety belts, booster seats that don’t firmly attach to chairs and diaper-changing tables with broken or missing straps (if they’re even present, and many times they’re not).
“I think it’s important to take kids out,” says Jackie Reilly, Child & Youth Development Specialist at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. “It helps them learn etiquette and social behaviors. Restaurants are so consumer-driven, if enough folks complained, maybe they’d do something different.”
So heads up, parks and rec departments, restaurants and any other business catering to kids and their parents: Consider the child experience. Make safety a priority. Offer a variety of healthy, affordable options, in portion sizes appropriate for young children, and cater to their unique seating and dining needs.
Here’s a brief (and by no means all-inclusive) list of organizations and businesses deemed friendly to families of young children:
Silver Bear Swim School ( www.silverbearswim.com ): With two locations, in Reno and Sparks, the swim school offers swim classes for kids of all ages, at times convenient to working parents.
Scheels ( www.scheelssports.com ): My family has spent many a cold day playing at Scheels. From the Ferris wheel to the giant fish tanks, clean indoor playground, family restrooms and stroller-friendly automatic doors, it’s a safe haven for families.
P.F. Chang’s ( www.pfchangs.com ): This chain restaurant was ranked among Parents magazine’s Top 10 Best Family Restaurants, for its innovative menu of offerings for kids, which include honey chicken, lo mein, and veggie-rich “Baby Buddha’s Feast.” They even have kids’ chopsticks.
Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum ( www.nvdm.org ): Easily one of the best things this area has done for families in the last decade. Now with extended summer hours. (I might argue that the weekend hours could be longer—naptimes interfere with prime business hours—but I can make an exception now and then.)
Melio Gaspari Water Play Park ( www.co.washoe.nv.us/index/display_outreach.html~details=9430 ): At just $3 per person (free for kids under 3), your child can frolic in the water with zero chance of drowning. Parents are welcome to bring a picnic to enjoy on the surrounding grass or shaded tables.
The Playroom ( theplayroominfo.com ): Bring your little ones, from birth to age 8, for unlimited play all day for just $8 ($7 additional siblings). Bring food or find snacks there, along with safe, age-appropriate play areas, and places for tired parents to sit and relax while they wait.
The Mommies Network ( www.themommiesnetwork.org ): A 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to helping moms find support and friendship in their local communities.
Nevada Association for the Education of Young Children ( www.nevaeyc.org ): Among other things, sponsors the Week of the Young Child in April, featuring a host of free activities for families with young children.