CRESCO, IOWA — On a late summer day in Iowa - one of those days when some locals swear they can actually hear the corn grow - Gretchen Laub and her teenage daughter, Sarah, splatter almost as much paint on themselves as they do on the old garage they're converting into a cottage rental.
The shared activity - based on a foundation of hard work and self-sufficiency - is important to Ms. Laub, who is singlehandedly raising four adopted children here in the Iowa town where she grew up.
"I feel safe with my kids here," she says of Cresco, a community of 3,700 where the biggest agenda item at a recent City Council meeting was an update on how well Howard County's only stoplight was working. "And my kids feel safe."
That feeling of security - along with the bedrock values of America's rural heartland - is a major reason Iowa has been tagged the best state in America to raise children.
"From the governor on down and from parents on up, we found Iowa to be a place where they really work on issues related to children," says David Levy of the Children's Rights Council, a national child-advocacy organization in Washington that has put Iowa at or near the top of its ranking for five consecutive years.
In some ways, Iowa is no different from other states. Median household income is about
$33,000, pretty close to the national average. Mothers here are no less likely to work outside the home than are moms elsewhere.
Rather, Iowa's child-friendly status apparently stems in large part from its clear-cut value system and its overwhelmingly rural character. A farm state dotted with places just like Cresco, Iowa doesn't have a city bigger than 200,000 people (about one-fifth the size of Dallas).
Besides having a low crime rate, Iowa boasts relatively few teenage pregnancies, low infant-mortality rates, low incidences of drug- and alcohol-related deaths, and high rates of high-school graduation. Its top ranking by the Children's Right Council also took into account low divorce rates and low numbers of unwed births, single-parent households, and children in poverty.
The fact that Iowa and other Heartland states routinely rank as the best places to raise children comes as no surprise to many.
Midwest communities often have well-established "pristine value systems" marked by accepted behavioral limits and social controls, says Michael Marsden, a dean at Northern Michigan University in Marquette and author of several studies on American regional cultures.
"If you have strong community values and support systems, other social issues are muted," Mr. Marsden says, referring to the criteria used in the recent survey. In addition, Iowa's value system gives kids a strong foundation for their ideas and goals, he adds. "The value system serves as an anvil against which to test and shape their ideas."
Some sociologists argue that small towns can suffocate young adults - depriving them of the diversity of culture and opportunity in larger cities. But Cresco can point to a host of home-grown heroes who were weaned on its small-town values.
They include the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize; five Navy admirals; the nation's first flight attendant; and George Champlin, the man who Crescoans say gave Cheerios their name during his days at cereal giant General Mills.
For his part, crop geneticist Norman Borlaug - who won the Nobel Prize for developing several disease-resistant varieties of wheat and introducing them into developing nations - credits growing up in Howard County for much of his success. "The work ethic, the family and community ties - these were the things that carried you through," says Mr. Borlaug. "People are very supportive of each other."
This support network can benefit child-rearing in a number of ways. For one, Marsden says, criminals don't stay in small communities: "There are too many social controls." He cites how many small-town newspapers publish weekly "police blotter" reports in which even the most inconsequential of public transgressions - such as minor vandalism and traffic offenses - are chronicled for all to read.
"People often avoid trouble because they don't want to see their name on the police report in the paper," he adds.
As though to illustrate Marsden's point, Laub says one of the advantages to living in Cresco is the fact that everyone knows everyone else. "If my kids do anything wrong," she says, "they know ... it won't be long before I hear about it."
Busy, busy, busy
Even without disciplinary troubles, though, Laub has plenty to do. She's a teacher. She helps her children be as involved as they can in community activities such as school projects, 4-H club, and volunteering. She recently spent an afternoon baking a batch of muffins for an elderly nursing home resident Sarah has been tending to. And not too long ago, Sarah was voted Howard County Fair Queen, then participated in the contest for State Fair Queen in Des Moines.
"I'm kind of glad she didn't get it," Laub confesses. "That would have been a lot of work."
Not surprisingly, child-care experts say that such a high level of parental involvement is a major factor in developing a healthy, nurturing environment.
"Children do better when their parents get involved," Levy says.