Do kids need their space?

Special to The Times

OH, those little sisters can be pesky. Just ask Avery Lopez, 7, who shares a bedroom with one. She and Sophia, 5, sometimes squabble over toys or who won a game. “When she’s in the room,” Avery declares, “she’s loud.”

But both sisters say they would rather share than separate. “If I had my own room,” Avery says, “it won’t be as fun.”

The sentiment is sweet -- and increasingly old-fashioned. These days, the assumption is that most children -- and by extension, their parents -- prefer private sleeping quarters for every kid in the house. The National Assn. of Home Builders says new houses averaged 2,433 square feet in 2005, 38% larger than 20 years ago, an increase partly attributed to the demand for more bedrooms. In 2004, the most recent year for which statistics were available, 37% of new homes were built with four or more bedrooms, compared with 18% in 1985.

“Nobody wants to double up kids if they can afford not to,” says Steve Melman, director of economic services for the builders group, adding that separate bedrooms not only provide kids with privacy but also make their parents feel better, confirming their image as good providers.

The irony, experts in child psychology and social development say, is that sharing a bedroom may not be such an awful thing. In fact, it may be better for some children, in some circumstances. They can learn valuable skills, including the ability to share, compromise and develop a sense of closeness with others.


“A strong argument could be made for shared living arrangements based on how peer relations facilitate social, moral and intellectual development,” says Martin Ford, senior associate dean in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and an expert in child social development.

He says that a private bedroom may help some children develop independent living and autonomous coping skills, but the prevailing wisdom is that even in homes with bedrooms galore, some children just might be better off sharing.

“Parents would be wise to observe their children, talk with their children, and do some informal experimentation to try to address what kind of living circumstances would best match their child’s personality and developmental needs,” he says.

Claire B. Kopp, a developmental psychologist and professor at Claremont Graduate University whose research focuses on how young children manage emotions, says room-sharing works best when siblings are close in age. If their developmental levels are too disparate, problems may arise.

A toddler, for example, will not appreciate an older brother’s need to protect the personal nature of some possessions -- perhaps a treasured toy or game -- that reinforces his sense of who he is and what he likes.

Navigate those waters, though, and children can learn plenty, including “dorm skills” that make the transition to college life easier, says pediatric and family psychologist Peter Goldenthal, author of “Beyond Sibling Rivalry.” Parents should allow children to personalize their part of the room with bulletin boards and posters, and perhaps use decorative curtains or portable partitions to create some semblance of privacy. Goldenthal also likes bunk beds for the instant nooks they create.

“And you should never ask a kid to share a dresser drawer,” he says.

Space is hardly that tight for Avery and Sophia Lopez, who share a large room on the third floor of a South Pasadena town home -- quarters that the builder probably envisioned as a rumpus room, says their mother, Jeannie Park. Rather than put one of the girls in a third bedroom that’s much smaller than the others, Park thought it was logical to put both girls in one large room.

“I come from a family culture where lots of relatives share rooms, so it wasn’t a radical proposition for me,” says Park, a Korean American. “It can lead to a lot of fights and conflicts, and sometimes I do wonder about the trade-offs, but I do actually think they’re closer than other sisters their age.”

Clearly, many other parents aren’t convinced. Barb Nagle, president of San Diego-based Marketscape Research and Consulting, which conducts consumer focus group studies for homebuilders, points to the construction of six-bedroom homes in Santa Clarita as proof.

“They’re electing to go to more bedrooms,” she says, “even if they have to sacrifice in other areas.”

For some families, the need for a home office is driving the decision. According to a 2005 survey by the American Institute of Architects, nearly half of the 600 architectural firms that were polled said demand for home offices was rising. And where the office goes in, the children often go out.

Kerry Stout’s two boys doubled up in their three-bedroom Long Beach tract house because she wanted a home office. The sharing seemed like it would be easy because Jack, 9, and Luke, 7, have fun together. Too much fun, it turned out.

Every night, as Stout attempted to read a bedtime story, the boys revved up and acted as though they had sprung from the pages of “Where the Wild Things Are.”

“They knew it pushed my buttons,” Stout says. “First one would poke the other, and then they’d giggle.” As the horseplay escalated, Stout would read louder and louder, with more and more emphasis, in hopes of getting the boys back into the book, but that just fueled their enthusiasm. “Before we knew it, they’d be jumping on their beds.”

So about a month ago, Stout, who is finishing graduate work, squeezed her computer into an armoire in the master bedroom and put the boys in separate bedrooms. Every Friday night the brothers get to bunk in Jack’s room, where they watch a movie together.

Sharing isn’t so jolly for Apryl Brown, but for different reasons. She and her husband moved their family into a three-bedroom house in Rancho Cucamonga with the hope of giving sons, Isaac, 15, and Tahaan, 11, their own bedrooms. But along came twins, Bryce and Brooklynne, now 19 months, so the plan for the older boys changed.

“They hate sharing a room,” Brown says. “When they were younger, it was OK, but my 15-year-old wants more privacy.”

Brown sympathizes. She remembers what it was like to share a bedroom when she was growing up, so the family is on the hunt for another home with four bedrooms, not five. The twins, Brown says, can share -- at least for now.

Dawn Bonker can be reached at



Shared ground

Child psychology and parenting experts say siblings can benefit from sharing a bedroom -- if the circumstances are right. Among the considerations:


Age: “If children are in different stages of development, there are problems with sticking to agreements and fewer benefits to accrue to the older child,” says Lawrence Balter, professor of applied psychology and codirector of the School Psychology Program at New York University. The problems can be acute if a younger sibling needs to nap when the other sibling wants to play with friends, or if one sibling is a toddler who simply doesn’t understand the concepts of personal possessions and private space.

Compatibility: Balter says problems can stem from basic compatibility issues. What happens when one sibling is orderly and neat but the other is messy? What if bedtimes vary? Developmental psychologist Claire B. Kopp also advises parents to consider sleeping patterns. An irritable boy who has difficulty sleeping may unwittingly disturb his easygoing brother; then again, the latter’s presence may help to calm his brother. It just depends. Blended families “trying to do this ‘Brady Bunch’ thing” may find the conflicts too numerous to overcome, says pediatric and family psychologist Peter Goldenthal.

Privacy: In general, the older the child, the more he or she values personal possessions as well as personal space, either to share with friends or to be alone, Kopp says. Sharing a bedroom becomes more problematic if children don’t have another place, such as a living room or yard, that they can temporarily call their own. Having a separate space “cultivates a sense of independence,” Balter says.

Skills: Obviously, a child doesn’t have to share a space with a sibling to develop a sense of closeness or learn to share, Balter says. If siblings want to be together, they can have a sleepover.

Fights: Bickering is inevitable, says parenting coach Nancy Samalin, author of “Loving Each One Best,” which deals with sibling issues. As long as the squabbles are of the ordinary and low-grade variety, parents should steer clear and tell children they need to resolve the conflict themselves.

-- Dawn Bonker