Smart Growth = Smart Parenting, Part Two

I’m a parent so, not surprisingly, I’m always on the lookout for intersections between that and my work in community design. The last time I considered the issue, I was thinking at the level of the neighborhood and exploring how walkable, mixed-use, mixed-product environments help parents combat a host of contemporary child-rearing ills. That post hit home for a lot of people and, since that time, my fellow ‘Shaker, Hazel Borys, has dug in further with her recent TED Talk, “Confessions of a Former Sprawl Addict.”

Today I move from the neighborhood to the house and wonder: In what ways are evolving trends in home buying impacting our kids — and our responsibility for raising them?

The issue at hand? The average size of the American home is shrinking. Not for everyone or in every circumstance but, in 2007 and after decades of upward creep, a distinct turning point occurred. 150 square feet subsequently disappeared over three years, with almost 200 more expected by 2015.

In a report in which they declared “the era of the McMansion is over,” real estate firm Trulia detailed how, as of 2010, more than half of the homebuying market now wanted a house under 2,600 feet, and more than a third wanted one below 2,000.

Not because Smart Growthers forced anyone to do anything, mind you, but through free market choices reflecting shifting priorities. Among them, according to the National Association of Realtors, is a growing desire for walkable, convenient neighborhoods mixing houses, stores, parks and businesses.

When presented with the choice of getting a desirable neighborhood or a larger house, 88% prioritized the neighborhood. Which means it’s getting increasingly common for people to concede square footage in order to gain other things they value.

The net result of all that is less space, fewer rooms, different rooms. Which brings us back to kids because, over the past 30 years or so, a bedroom for every child has become not just the gold standard but a testament to one’s good parenting. Now, as people increasingly opt for better, more walkable neighborhoods over larger, isolated homes, that ideal’s going to come under stress. In short, a certain number of bedrooms will be lost in the transaction.

What kinds of parents will we be if, God forbid, our children are forced to share bedrooms?

As it turns out, pretty good ones. Because, when they do, a number of positive things can happen. Consider:

Me? Share space with him? But I’m entitled to my own lair.

They learn to share and cooperate. The one certainty about your child’s life ahead is that it will be filled with interpersonal challenges. There will be no shortage of difficult people and circumstances and countless days filled with situations that require collaborative decision making. Learning the skills of negotiation, compromise and sacrifice now will serve them well in the long run.

They find ways to solve problems through the help of someone other than… you. That’s right. You’re not always going to be there. When you’re not, they need to know how to leverage other people and resources to navigate problems. An easily accessible sibling is like training wheels towards self-reliance.

They’re more inclined to entertain themselves, which plays a huge role in how they develop their interpersonal skills, broaden their creativity, and master a talent painfully lacking in our modern world: the ability to self-edit.

They forge stronger family bonds. While children may prefer the easy road, the hard work of relationship building breeds lasting respect and commitment. Closer siblings are more inclined to model behavior for each other, raise the bar on performance, and hold each other to established family standards.

It’s got enough going for it that some folks are doing it by choice. But before anyone suggests that I’m making a hard and fast assertion that children need to share bedrooms, let me be clear. Just like with one’s decision to buy a certain house, the manner in which we raise our kids is not cut-and-dried. It’s complicated and nuanced, and requires consideration of countless competing factors and priorities. Your unique context is ultimately what rules.

That said, though, one thing is still certain. We’re not living up to our job description as parents when we blindly accept popular standards like “one room per child” without examining whether or not we’re actually doing them any favors.

–Scott Doyon

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  1. citylover says

    I couldn’t agree with you more. In my family, there were 4 of us growing up in one bedroom in a family of 8. All four of us are university graduates. But that is not the point. What the point is, however, is that we are all, even in our 50’s, active supporters of each others’ lives. We didn’t have our parents to depend on as they passed away a while ago, but we have always had each other.

    My children, who got their own rooms, because I was sure this was the right thing to do, are no where near as connected and supportive of each other as my siblings and I have been.

    In today’s world where every child has their own technology that allows them to navigate a world without personal connections, the time is right for children to at least share some space together. It doesn’t hurt. Really.

    PS I am also in support of walkable communities where many amenities are available on foot. How else is a child to learn about the lives of others and potential careers to be had?

  2. It’s not just dependent on parenting style but who youa re parenting. My kids are 5 years apart and opposite gender. It was one thing for them to share a room when they were 2 and 7 or 5 and 10, and quite another when they are 10 and 15 — remember they are a boy and a girl. Going thru puberty without any privacy is an issue.

  3. Absolutely, Lucy. Clearly there is no one-size-fits-all in parenting. What’s key I think is ensuring that what might be a perfectly reasonable solution in many instances not be discounted outright for the wrong reasons. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Wesley Kirkman says

    We make do with what we have available to us.

    I am positive there were family structures just as yours in the 50s when, according to the graph Scott uses, homes were an average of 1,000 sf. I think if those siblings grew up sharing their room, they make do when continuing to do so. There may be issues in those teenage years, but when isn’t there? However, I seriously doubt a child will be traumatized for life by not having their own room. This is just a view from a point of the privileged; in this world there are entire families that share one room. I’m not saying that is ideal, just trying to splash some reality on your statement Lucy.

    If you don’t want to put your children in the same room and you have the means, then that is your decision. But please don’t say anyone in your situation must follow your path; I certainly won’t be. I may feel different when my daughter is approaching teenage years, but I doubt I’ll give up living close to downtown to move into a three-bedroom home (since I don’t foresee affording a downtown 3-bedroom). Just like Scott was saying, everyone’s situation is unique, whatever it may be.

  5. Besides, small dwellings have enormous environmental benefits. “Even modest decreases in home size are likely to produce important environmental outcomes;”

  6. One of my favorite pediatric experts, Dr. William Sears, writes extensively on the benefits of physical proximity within the family home, including co-sleeping. “Trust” is a key element that such family closeness creates, improving communication, problem solving, honesty, etc. Our boys have separate bedrooms available to them, but chose to sleep on bunks in one, and use the second for recreation and school work. Scott, with any luck, they’ll build common interests, like writing or playing guitar, founded in those nighttime conversations. Thanks for the article.


  1. […] environments and child-rearing, first at the level of the neighborhood and then, later, at the level of the house. Those posts reflect my steadfast belief that, while our modern consumer society happily provides […]

  2. […] patterns begin to shift. My two part series — “Smart Growth = Smart Parenting” and “Smart Growth = Smart Parenting, Part 2” — examined parenting at both the level of the neighborhood and the level of the house and […]

  3. […] heard my fellow Placeshaker, Scott Doyon, say Smart Growth = Smart Parenting. More than once, actually. As well as how living in a walkable neighbourhood may shape our children. I’ve […]

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