LIVING IN A CITY WITH kids can be like not living in a city at all. I’m convinced that my friends who opted for smaller towns envy my urban existence only because they breeze into Dallas on the weekend-without their children. They have their hair cut in jazzy blow-dry salons. (I get mine cut free at the neighborhood barber shop because the barber knows he’s robbing me at three dollars a head for two small boys, and because I like to hear about fishing in Mt. Vernon.) They buy Bazaar things at Colette Brezin and Marie Leavell and have facial profiles done at Neiman’s by Laslo consultants. (I shop in Texarkana while we’re visiting grandmother and still believe in Noxema.) They import Dallas decorators and landscape architects. (We’re still living in what real estate agents euphemistically called acute redo three years ag0—unredone. ) They regret that their children aren’t growing up in such a “stimulating urban environment,” while I read Rachel Carson’s Sense of Wonder and wish that we lived in the Big Thicket.

And then about two years ago some enterprising mothers compiled a Children’s Guide to Dallas that reassures me that there are creative ways to live in and love the city—with kids—that have little to do with Highland Park-yellow shutters, platform shoes, or dinner at Daddy’s Money.

Houston mothers followed with an even better Children’s Guide to Houston, and Fort Worth bested both cities with Fun in Fort Worth, a children’s guide in calendar form so inclusive and cleverly put together that we were tempted to move. All three guides not only tell you what, where and when; they also give suggested activities and books to read before and after. Valuable notes in the Dallas and Houston guides give safety tips, dress of the day, and what attention span can be anticipated.

With clues such as shark’s teeth and Indian trails and landmarks like the Trinity River, a settler’s cabin. and a modern theater, The Children’s Guide to Dallas ($2.25, published by the Montessori Academy, 14545 Noell Road, Dallas, Texas), lures you into an exploration of the city that strips away some of the cold commercial facade.

Despite the constant growth of concrete in Dallas, there are still sights that link Dallas with its past. And even when the sights are lost under the pavement, it’s still nice to travel Preston Road with kids if you know that it was once an Indian Trace and later, the Chisholm Trail. The “Only in Texas” chapter of the guide takes you from Dallas’ humble beginnings in the John Neely Bryan log cabin built in 1843 to the Millermore mansion constructed only 12 years later . The trip to Millermore in City Park is more interesting now that three more restored buildings have been added to the complex: an 1875 train station, a small railroad worker’s section house built in 1880, and an old traveling salesmen’s hotel dating back to 1898.

For another “Only in Texas” experience, the guide recommends the Mesquite Rodeo. Television cowboys can never compete with this adventure. If you saved your old Texas Monthlys add Gary Cartwright’s “The Death of the Marlboro Man” [TM. September, 1973] to the reading list for your older children.

If your children aren’t content with the squirrels and occasional toads that still frequent Dallas backyards, bigger game watching requires some real effort. The guide is a bit outdated on animals (try Lion Country Safari in Grand Prairie or Seven Seas in Arlington; World of Animals is defunct) and it unfortunately considers the Marsalis Zoo too obvious for a whole page. The Zoo is never as far away as we think it is, and it reaIly should be done in many smaIl visits rather than in one “swear we won’t do that again,” exhausting expedition. Nature trails, aviaries, and birdwatching spots mentioned in the guide offer a relaxing alternative to the more crowded playground areas in public parks. Note October on your calendar as butterfly watching month. Those lovely black and gold Monarchs frequently flock through DaIlas covering whole trees on their way to South America.

Several of the featured attractions in the guide may be worked into the family routine. A visit to the farmer’s market every two weeks during peak season restores our faith in mankind and keeps our table well supplied. Last summer our three-year-old struck up a conversation with a farmer from Myrtle Springs and earned a quarter packing black-eyed peas before we missed him. One farmer at the Dallas market plants unusual vegetables and herbs at the request of her regular customers. You might even arrange a family trip to one of the farms.

Eleven pages of the guide are devoted to “Terrific Tours”—sheer delight for the Brownie leader or Den mother, but an anathema to me. School-type field trips were of dubious value in my education, probably because by the time we were deemed manageable in groups of 30 at the City Sanitation and Sewage Treatment plant, who sat with whom on the bus was more important. I really don’t like to see huge vats of anything. A tour of the malt vats at Heinekens’ Brewery in Amsterdam a few years ago almost ended my beer drinking days. However, if you’d like to fish a six year old from a vat of chocolate at the Peter Paul candy factory in Dallas, the guide tells you how.

In spite of its waspy image, Dallas, like any American city of its size, is a blend of many cultures. An occasional “Buenos dias” from your neighbor’s live-in maid won’t necessarily make this aspect of city life apparent to your children. The guide recommends a visit to the Luna Tortilla Factory or a walk along McKinney where small shops have signs in Spanish or possibly a Cinco de Mayo celebration at Pikes Park.

The sizeable European population is neglected in the guide, so add an occasional visit to Kuby’s Sausage House if you’d like to hear five different European languages shouted simultaneously over their spectacular meat counter. All sorts of European candies and magazines are available at Kuby’s too. For the more energetic, plan a visit to the Ennis Polka Fest (Czech) in Mayor try a little foot stomping at the Sokol Athletic Center in Greenville, a Czechoslovakian dancing spot.

The remainder of the guide is devoted to seasonal events, sports and excellent day trips from Dallas.

Houston, like Dallas, has so many artificial attractions for children that it takes a little sifting to find sights that are truly indigenous to the city. (I’m not ready to accept Astroworld as a city landmark.) Patterned after the Dallas guide, the “Only in Texas” portion of The Children’s Guide to Houston ($3.25, published by Dominican Montessori School, The Little School House and Memorial Hall Parent Teacher organization, 5080 Braes Valley, Houston, Texas) explores Allen’s landing where Houston began, Market Square, the restored buildings of the Harris County Heritage Society (a “touching” museum has been added to relieve some of the frustration of peeping into roped-off rooms), Varner-Hogg State Park, and Battleship Texas. The descriptions of what you’ll do and see are rather dry and sketchy, but the reading list and, for the super-mom, a visit to the Texas Room of the Houston Public Library would probably provide enough anecdotes to keep such an outing from being just a history lesson.

This guide gives ample information about indoor heated rodeos and baseball games, fishing excursions where a catch is guaranteed, Sea-A-Rama and Astroworld, some of which may offend your moral or esthetic sense, but are nonetheless part of the pleasure of being a child in Houston. I think I’d want to spend many more hours in Hermann Park or see the foreign ships unloading in the Port of Houston, just to give my children some sense of their hometown beyond the neighborhood shopping center.

Houston Museums are noted in the section on “Terrific Tours.” The Houston Museum of Fine Arts seems to be particularly tuned-in to children. You might want to check into the “Art after School” or Saturday art classes for children four years and up. A bizarre museum you may or may not want to visit (my boys have devised enough tortures without this exposure) is the Weatherby Arms Museum. It features a dungeon, antique military dress, and medieval torture artifacts. The guide labels it “excellent,” but advises some advance preparation for the more frightening exhibits.

Ethnic celebrations, children’s theater, wildflower trails, and short trips to Galveston and Freeport are included in the guide. San Antonio and Austin are given two pages as day trips from Houston. Both cities deserve an entire guidebook of their own. (San Antonio can expect one in the Spring compiled by the St. Mary’s Hall Montessori mothers.)

Twelve months of things to do with your children in Fort Worth are artistically bound into a brightly colored spiral desk calendar, Fun in Fort Worth ($3.95, published by the Montessori Children’s House, 3420 Clayton Road East, Fort Worth, Texas 76116), with spaces left on each page for your specific plans.

Each month focuses on a different aspect of Fort Worth life. January is “What are Cowboys Really Like?” The guide recommends a visit to Amon Carter Museum of Western Art where children can study the faces of cowboys, learn a little Texana, speculate on the function of a museum, and perhaps take home a post card picture of a favorite painting or sculpture. The paintings and sculpture come alive the next week with a visit to the Southwest Exposition and Fat Stock Show. The guide continually reminds parents with dulled senses of the sensory nature of these experiences. Children will hear auctioneers, smell barnyard odors, fresh hay, and perfumed cattle and perhaps feel the soft fur or rough hides of many animals. The rodeo page gives enough rodeo history and lore to make any parent a passable rodeo expert. Still another outing in January takes you to the Boot and Saddle Makers shops. The final page lists other rodeos, museums, and pioneer cemeteries in the area, nine books to read, three related subjects to learn about, and nine play activities that won’t cost you a thing.

The following months are equally thorough. February is “What is a Museum?” (The guide is recent enough to include the Kimbell.) March is ” Animals are my Friends.” (This is the only guide that actually prints a map of the Zoo to assist you in planning a series of short visits.) April is “I Love to be Outdoors.” Besides trips to the Fort Worth Nature Center, Botanic Gardens, and a day on the Trinity, the guide outlines a backyard safari with insect drawings to aid your explorers in identifying their prey.

The August portion, “Buildings,” was particularly interesting to me, since with no prompting from their unskilled parents, our boys are tool and construction equipment freaks. Many children insist on favorite toys at bedtime; my son slept with a hammer and four real screwdrivers (the hatchet was denied) for at least six months following his second birthday. I have learned to detour by construction sites on my way to the grocery store and have ventured the wrong way down one way streets in hot pursuit of cranes or bulldozers. The guide makes it so much easier and worthwhile. One excursion sends you on a treasure-hunt search for unusual buildings in and around the Ft. Worth area with architectural features and historical background as clues.

The remainder of the guide covers the performing arts, trips out of town (bet you haven’t been to Weatherford or Cleburne with the kids), “My Community” and finally “My Favorite Holiday,” a Christmas they won’t forget.

All three guides are incomplete since these cities are changing so rapidly; but when you’ve exhausted these suggestions and read TM’s 382-page Guide to Houston you’ll be ready to explore on your own and let the kids write a new guide.