Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | July 20, 2010

What does ‘family friendly’ mean?

Brasserie Jo Boston Couple at the Bar from the Flickr photostream of collonade

It’s a couple at a bar, but it’s still a family-friendly scene

I’m a bit of stickler when it comes to the importance of defining terms and using words correctly. The definitions  of evangelical and fundamentalist featured prominently in my column about a Gilroy church’s proselytizing campaign. The shifting definition of downtown was at the center of my column addressing the controversy in Morgan Hill about the Friday Night Music Series’ venue change. Just the other day on Twitter, I corrected my poker hero, Daniel Negreanu, who tweeted a phrase that he said defined patience but actually defined empathy.

Like I said, I’m a stickler.

Why do I emphasize defining terms? Because sloppy word use is a sign of sloppy thinking. We can’t effectively discuss issues and ideas if we lack common understanding about the terms we’re using. We can’t effectively evaluate ideas to address issues if we’re sloppy thinkers. In short, badly defined terms impede critical thinking.

I was reminded of the importance of well-defined terms at the second of two community meetings that developer Barry Swenson Builder held recently to discuss design options for the two projects the company will be creating in downtown Morgan Hill.

The term in question this time is family friendly. I heard it frequently during the meeting: “Morgan Hill is a family-friendly community;” “We want a family-friendly downtown;” and “No more bars downtown, they’re not family friendly.”

What does the term family friendly mean? It strikes me as so vague as to be nearly useless. Virtually everyone comes from a family, thus, logically, family friendly ought to mean something that appeals to nearly everyone.

I suspect most folks mean appealing to households with elementary-school age or younger children when they use the term. But that ignores households with older kids — middle school, high school or college — and childless households, whether they haven’t had kids yet, never plan to, or are empty nesters with grown children. They’re all families, aren’t they?

The meeting got me thinking about the most family-friendly vacations my family has ever taken: cruises. Cruises qualify because they have something to offer to family members of every age and to every type of family. Families can meet for meals and separate for age-appropriate or interest-specific activities. If you’re interested in blackjack, video games, yoga, dancing, meeting senior citizens, singles of the same sex or the opposite sex, hanging out with fellow teens — you name it — there’s something for you to do, no matter what census form boxes you and your family tick.

Unfortunately, I suspect most folks who use the term family friendly aren’t nearly that inclusive. That’s too bad, because the narrower our definition of family friendly, the worse for our community.

Case in point: Morgan Hill does not appeal to most childless young adults. We lack the kind of housing they want, and we’re short of entertainment that attracts them. Barry Swenson Builder’s plans will develop housing for that unserved market, which will benefit our entire community by creating a stronger economy and an exciting downtown.

I hope Morgan Hill does not allow downtown development plans to be hijacked by narrow, non-inclusive definitions of family friendly.

I’ve been a parent in families that included infants, toddlers, elementary, middle school and high school students, and now our family includes a college student. At every stage, the heads of this household enjoyed occasional child-free meals at fine restaurants, imbibed adult beverages, strolled downtowns that included stores with breakable merchandise that didn’t cater to children, and took in PG-13 and R rated entertainment, all while our children were watched by babysitters when they were too young to be left alone.

If we develop a narrowly defined family-friendly downtown that rolls up its sidewalks at 8 pm, we’re not only missing the revenue and entertainment opportunities presented by families without children, we’re also missing those opportunities presented by the grown-ups in families with kids.

Think about the Bay Area’s vibrant, successful downtowns; for me, Los Gatos often comes to mind, but others, from Burlingame to Palo Alto, are also models. These downtowns feature a wide variety of people visiting an interesting mix of businesses. That mix includes adults patronizing bars with live music and families enjoying candy stores and cupcake shops.

If Morgan Hill residents want a vibrant, successful downtown, we need to be sure we’re appealing to a wide variety of family members. Let’s not constrain ourselves with a fuzzy or narrow definition of family friendly.


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