When Los Angeles architect Murray Milne's older daughter came home from her first day at nursery school, she asked her startled family, "Are we poor? I'm the only kid in the class who's sharing a bedroom with my sister."
Though the family was far from destitute, the Milne's Malibu condo, with its spectacular view of the Pacific, was cramped. It suited Milne fine when he was a bachelor, but space was tight with a spouse and two daughters. His "paneled home office" was actually a converted sauna. And his daughter's remark did spur him into designing and building a bigger home.
Three years later, when the family moved into larger quarters, each daughter had her own room separated by a large closet that could be opened to create a six-foot wide passageway between the two rooms. But the girls preferred to continue sharing space, bunking in one room and using the other as a playroom. When the younger daughter was nine, she wanted her own bedroom, but the passageway remained open and the two were constantly in each other's room.
When Santa Barbara architect Brian Cearnal designed a house in 1992 for his then young family, the city, in an effort to limit water usage and growth, would only permit two bedrooms.
Anticipating, correctly as it turned out, that the city would eventually remove the ban, he designed one large bedroom for his two children with two doors so that it could eventually be divided. When a third child was born, he was put in there too. Though two bedrooms for a family of five was unusual, it was a roaring success, Cearnal said. "The room was always a mess, but the kids loved it. [As adults] we underestimate how much kids need to be together. We expect kids to want privacy, but they don't. They feel more secure to be with siblings."
When Cearnal's middle child, a daughter, was 12, she wanted her own space. By then the city had lifted its ban and the wall went up, albeit with some sadness, Cearnal said. It was appropriate to divide the room, but it symbolized the end of a very special chapter in his family's life.
Though unusual, the flexibility Milne and Cearnal designed into their homes allowed the sleeping arrangements of their kids to follow the natural trajectory of child development, from bonding with parents and siblings to the establishment of an independent identity as a teenager.
This is not the thinking that goes into the planning of most family homes, however. As American houses get bigger and families get smaller, the presumption is that each child should have his or her own bedroom, and most houses are designed accordingly. But as the experience of the Milne and Cearnal children so amply demonstrate, most children do not like to be isolated when they are young. And the experience of sharing close quarters with a sibling can help children learn important life skills—how to share and deal with conflict.
How are child development and sharing bedrooms related? To thrive, infants need to form a strong bond with one person—usually a parent—and with other family members as well. Once the bond is made, slightly older children experience "separation anxiety" when apart from parents and siblings. When parents can't get a child to sleep through the night in his or her bedroom, the problem is not bad technique, it's often separation anxiety, said University of Michigan psychology professor Brenda Volling.
Though children sharing a bedroom with their parents is unusual in America, this is how most of the world sleeps, not only sharing the same room but often the same bed, Volling said, adding that mothers in other countries are appalled to hear that Americans expect infants and small children to sleep alone.
Between the ages of two and six, bonding issues continue to be important developmental preoccupations. Children don't necessarily play together, but they still want to be around other family members.
During the "middle childhood years," roughly ages 6 to 12, interacting with others begins in earnest, as children wrestle with becoming "socially competent"—able to play with other kids, acquire basic academic skills of reading and writing, and learn how to resolve conflict.
As sibling rivalry in the household heats up, squabbling may be a constant, but the kids don't want to be alone, they want to be with other people, said Laura Kastner, University of Washington professor of psychiatry and author of "The Launching Years." The squabbling may be hard on the parents, but, Volling added, "evidence suggests that you learn a lot of life skills in dealing with a sibling. A big one is conflict. If you can solve it with a sibling at an early age, it's a good predictor that you can solve it at a later age."
When the kids become teenagers, they want to establish an identity of their own, apart from their family. If they don't already have their own room, they practically demand it, wanting their own space that they can "mark" by plastering the walls with posters of their music idols and rearranging the furniture 99 times until it's just so.
Adolescence does not mark the end of child development; the last step is learning how to get along with other people in an intimate way, and it occurs roughly between the ages of 18 to 25, Kastner said. For many kids, this phase begins as they go off to college and are thrown into an intimate living situation with a total stranger, their college roommate. This has always been a major life adjustment, but it's harder for most American children today because, unlike the families described above, most of them have never shared a bedroom and they lack the skills that come with having shared a small space with another person, said the directors of residence at four large state universities.
"Most families have one or two kids, most houses have two or three bedrooms and most of our students have never shared a room," said Alan Hargrave, director of residence at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., "When they first arrive, the concept of sharing items, knowing boundaries, and requesting permission to share [is foreign]. One person just uses something and the other person has never shared and takes offense. They haven't developed strong skills at compromise and give and take."
Michael Coakley, director of residence at Northern Illinois University and a college residential adminstrator for 24 years, said that roommate conflicts are nothing new, but students today are increasingly less skilled at dealing with them; even telling a roommate they don't like something is hard. "They don't know how to tell the other person, 'I'd feel better if you didn't do X,' so they tend to 'gunnysack' their conflicts until something minor like "you didn't lock the door!" sets off a major flare-up."
The potential for conflict with roommates and the need to negotiate have also gotten more complex. Not only do you have to deal with the other person's irritating habits. Students now bring TV's and stereos to college with the expectation that they can watch their favorite program or play music whenever they want, just as they did in their room back home. When they discover that their roommate may like other programs or want to study, it can be a rude awakening. Even the fact that the other person is around all the time can be a shock for some. In their room at home they didn't have to talk to anyone.
By the end of the first year, the college administrators said that most of the students have figured out a workable arrangement with their roommates, although Jeanine Bessett, director of residence at the University of Michigan, said that the upper classmen that she observes still don't deal with conflict all that well.
Should we all go back to having our kids share bedrooms?
"Nobody will go back to small houses and three kids to a room," Kastner said. "The challenge to parents now is how to provide other opportunities for their children to learn to share and resolve conflict." Her suggestion: "Don't give them 100 percent of what they want, no matter how insistently they beg and plead. When there's only one TV, one computer, one stereo, and one phone line in the house, the kids and the parents have to work out who get to use what when. Our children need to understand that conflict is inevitable and learn how to deal with it rather than to believe that life is conflict free."