Part 1: Interior Space

I recently visited a friend’s new home. They have just finished renovating a beautiful, turn-of-the-century house. As I was given the tour, I realized that there were two beds in one of the children’s bedrooms. “Getting ready for another one?” I asked, half joking. “No, our girls share a room,” they responded. Puzzled, I wanted to know why the girls were sharing since there were enough bedrooms for each to have their own room. Turns out, the decision was intentional. They want their daughters to grow up with the idea that a house and its items are to be shared. They don’t want the girls thinking, ‘this is my space and my things’ and ‘that is your space and your things.’

This experience struck a cord with me and I’ve been thinking about ‘space’ ever since. MJ and I are not ready to move our two girls into the same room, but I certainly respect our friends’ decision. I congratulate them on making their home a place that reflects their values.

A favourite author of mine on the subject of design is architect, Sarah Susanka. In 1998, she wrote her first book, The Not So Big House. Since then, she has expanded the ‘not-so-big’ series to include several more books. Susanka posits that your home should to be reflective of how you live or want to live. Her philosophy emphasizes that each square foot of your home should be useful to you. You may want to reconsider your formal dining room, for example, if you rarely use it and always eat in the kitchen. She advocates for using space effectively to improve your quality of life. Our friends who renovated their home are examples of this. They want to use their space in a way that reflects how they want to bring up their children – with a sense of shared space and things.

Consider what our homes say about us. Do all spaces invite play or is play confined to a playroom, recreation room or the bedroom? Is your home reflective of a materialist mind – where objects take precedence over the people living in the space? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, is your home so child-centric that children believe that they rule the roost, leaving parents to feel uncomfortable in their own house?

Then there is the issue of volume. According to CMHC (Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation), the average house in Canada in 1945 was only 800 square feet! In 1975, the average size of a home was 1075 square feet and in 2003 it was 1800 square feet. For comparison, in 2007 the average American home was 2500 square feet! Interestingly, over time the family size has also decreased. Today, we are living in larger homes with fewer people.

Consider the effect of a large volume of space on the people who reside within it. In 1979, academics Bharucha-Reid and Kiyak (Journal of Nonverbal Behavior) wrote that the more physical space between people, the more people feel a sense of social isolation. I’m going to take a leap here and question how children must feel if they are raised in a large home with a small family.

The volume of space also impacts activities of children. If children have lots of space within the home, they will be more prone to playing inside than out. We acutely felt the reverse of this effect this spring. The Bear has been thrilled with the fact that, now the snow is gone, she can easily leave our somewhat small home to expand her play outside.

House size also impacts the amount of ‘stuff’ we feel obligated to have. If you live in an average American-sized home of 2500 square feet, then it is filled with more things and activities than the 1200 square foot home. The large home has brought with it the idea of home entertainment rooms with theatre style seating, recreation rooms with pool and ping-pong tables. A home office now seems like a ‘must’ for homebuyers. All these uses of space were foreign to those of the 1945, 800 square foot home era.

Not only are children playing inside and not outside, but they are becoming accustomed to a type of space that accommodates every need or desire. There’s no need to go to the local playground or pool if these activities are within the home! And I believe that if entertainment is limited to what resides in a home, then a family’s worldview will also be limited.

Finally, I must mention the book, My Freshman Year (2005). A cultural anthropologist went ‘undercover’ by enrolling herself as a freshman and living in the dorms of a large state university. Among her many fascinating observations was her surprise at the freshman’s sense of entitlement to space. Long gone are the days of sharing a dorm room at university – students demand their own rooms. On top of that, they demand access to their own media within their room; you won’t find them sharing a television or a computer. Surely, these demands can be linked to how they became accustomed to a certain type of space in their family homes.

How we use our space – and how much we use – impacts our life. Our children become by-products of any obsession with bigger-is-better. When really, we know that when it comes to raising free-range children, less is always more.

Next post this weekend – Part 2: Exterior Space.

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Inspiration for free-range parenting or simple living

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