I am sitting with a friend who has escaped her little family for a few hours – she is sipping cabernet with her legs curled up on my couch. Having waited to start a family until she’d hit the mid-thirty mark, she and her husband live in a small 2 bedroom house they’d bought before family life. “I think that we’re more connected as a family because we’re forced to really deal with each other living in a small house,” she muses. I’m thinking of my own surly teens, spread out upstairs trying to stay out of each other’s “space” and wonder if there’s any truth to that. Can the disintegration of the American family ideal be tied to expanding square footage of our housing?
We Americans have definitely been accused of using more than our fair share of space, resources, consumable items, etc. And, it certainly seems as if houses being built today are much bigger than in the past – but there is also the popularity of the “great room” or open floor plan with the kitchen, family and living areas all opening into a great communal space. But, if families are getting smaller and houses are getting bigger (at least houses and families of the more affluent), how is that reflected in the health of the family?
When my own children were younger, they tended to play together in a big clump. Even with separate bedrooms, I often found them camped out all together. For me, it was easier to keep track of them and we were able to eat together and go on outings together. As they’ve morphed into teenagers, however, they just naturally needed more space and privacy and, as they made more friends out in the world, they pulled away from each other more. That’s not to say I don’t still find all three of them draped over the furniture in one room – teasing and taunting and talking over the concerns of their lives with each other, because I do, but they certainly seem to require more space away from each other too.
The space became such an issue that about two years ago, I went house hunting. Our little sixties ranch house – with three smallish bedrooms and 1 and Ã?Â½ small bathrooms began to feel very cramped with three teenagers. Instead of the cozy, bustly family we had been, we were becoming crabby, nasty and volatile as everyone competed for privacy, bathroom use and trying to find a place to get away from everyone else. It became apparent that we had really simply outgrown our little house and I had to go house-hunting. There were plenty of tears and sadness as we moved out of a house we’d been in since the kids were in the early years of elementary school, but within a couple weeks of taking up residency in our larger, newer townhouse with three large bedrooms, three bathrooms, upstairs laundry and a spacious kitchen, I could see waves of peace return to my family.
Whereas in the small red ranch house, the kids were starting to look for ways to get away and out of the house to find peace, space and privacy – moving into the bigger home gave them some breathing room and they seemed happier to have friends over and know they could settle into somewhere without being hassled or jostled. Still, we live in moderate-size housing by many American standards (even if other cities and countries might find it enormous.) so we are forced to negotiate in terms of space and resources.
So, in pondering things, I think there is truth to my friend’s claim that smaller houses force families to stay connected – but I think it depends on the demographic make-up of your families. Younger families or smaller families with young children can really benefit and stay bonded when they are living in closer quarters. And there’s no denying that learning to share resources and space can be character-building life skills for any child. But, I think there’s also a place for space and breathing room. Like most issues in human dynamics (especially families), personality, temperament and attitude play as much a part in how things evolve as the physical environment