When a family embarks on a new home project, how democratic should the decision-making be? Should Mom and Dad decide everything or should the kids have some say?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer. The participation of the kids depends on the family, their style of parenting and the age of the kids, therapists who work with families said in recent interviews.
Some parents will welcome their kids’ input because they think that the more engaged their children are with the new house, the easier it will be for them to leave their old one. For these families, bringing everyone on board and reaching consensus on the choice of cabinetry, floor finishes, carpet colors and other details is more important than what the final results may look like, said Lenni Gimple Snyder, a psychotherapist in Kensington, Md.
Other parents will choose to limit their children’s input because they have a clear vision of what they want the new house to look like, or they think most decisions about the family, including ones about the new house, are best left to the parents, Snyder said.
Both approaches are equally valid. The more important consideration is recognizing your comfort level with your children’s participation in the planning of the new house — almost none to quite a lot — and being honest with your kids at the outset. “Kids always do better if they know up front what the expectations and choices are,” Snyder said. “If you jump in enthusiastically and then realize you don’t like your kids’ choices and reject them, this is worse than not asking them at all because it says to the kid you don’t care about their opinions.”
At the outset, it’s also important to clarify what decisions the kids will be making, Mary Whiteside, a clinical psychologist in Ann Arbor, Mich., said. While the kids may have a lot of input on the specific choices in a particular house, the parents should make the major decisions such as which subdivision and which model or which lot and which architect. Inviting a child to weigh in on these decisions will not make him or her feel more grown up. It’s more likely to make a child feel anxious because this is too much responsibility for a child of any age to handle, Whiteside said. But, she added, “Parents can always invite their kids to offer opinions without asking, ‘Which house did you like best?'”
From the kids’ perspective, most will not feel bad if their input is limited to their own rooms because that’s what they really care about. The extent of their participation will depend on their age, said Jonah Green, a clinical social worker in Kensington, Md. “Very young children may not get much farther than ‘I want a place for my stuffed animals,'” he said. But, by the time most kids reach kindergarten, they will have more interest and the skills to communicate it. “They can draw and use blocks to talk about the new house, and it can turn into a fun project for the whole family,” Green said.
As kids pass through the elementary grades and on into high school, their interest in their own rooms will increase, as well as their insistence on specific decorating ideas. Their parents may find that the decision-making is a matter of guiding choices and discussing the consequences.
For example, Whiteside said, your child might be crazy about Mickey Mouse at age six, but you know that by age 12 he will have long since moved on to something else and hate the Mickey Mouse wallpaper. Channeling serial passions into something more easily changed like a bedspread can diffuse likely conflict down the road.
When your elementary-school-aged child insists on something you think he won’t like in a few months time, never mind five years, Georgia DeGangi, a clinical psychologist also in Kensington, Md., suggested emphasizing the consequences of his decision. “A parent can say something like, ‘If you choose this color you must live with it until we can afford to repaint it.'”
By time your children reach middle school, privacy is a big deal, DeGangi said. Not only will they spend more time in their room, they are likely to want more say in what it looks like.
For many teens in high school, the desire to decorate their rooms is mingled with their struggle for autonomy and separating themselves from their family. They want to draw a very strong line between their room and the rest of the house, and some teens want to accomplish this by making everything in their space black, including walls, ceiling, carpeting, doors and trim. But, Snyder said, if parents have any concern about depression issues, they should push for an alternative. Research has shown that color does indeed affect mood, and black or other very dark colors are not a healthy choice for a child who is depressed. In this situation, she said, a parent might suggest other ways to differentiate a teen’s room that are equally eye catching and compelling, such as a single black wall, black accents, art work or even a splashy bedspread.
Fairness as well as aesthetics also comes into decisions about bedrooms in a new house, DeGangi said. If one is obviously nicer than another because it is bigger and has more windows or a window seat, the parents must walk a narrow line, she said. “For the child who didn’t get the nicer room, it can be as devastating as discovering that they got left out of a parent’s will. The rifts created over the bedrooms can last a lifetime.” Sometimes there can be sensible reasons for deciding who gets which room. For example, if a younger child has nighttime fears, it’s reasonable to put the younger one closer to the parents, she said. But it will be more acceptable if the parents tell both kids that when this changes, we will switch bedrooms. And in the meantime, if there’s some other special space in the house — a study alcove or a window seat in another room — the parents can give that to the older child.
In the shared spaces of the new house, especially the family room where the kids and parents are likely to spend the most time together, parents can make each child feel more comfortable, even if they didn’t help select any of the furnishings or colors, by giving each one his or her own special “cubby,” Snyder said. In the context of a family room, this might be a base cabinet for toys and a bookshelf for their books or school art projects that a child wants to display. “It’s a great way for each family member to feel ‘ownership,'” and, she added, “it has the added benefit of helping the kids stay organized.”
Wanting a brand-new house to look really nice, however, can have unintended consequences. DeGangi said. “I hear a lot of kids say, ‘We have a house but we don’t live in all the rooms. We can’t go into the living room or formal dining room; it’s not for us; it’s kept nice all the time.'” While the parents understandably want their house to look presentable when guests visit, designating whole areas as off limits says to their kids it’s not really your house and you don’t know how to behave. Most kids, by the time they’re six, know they shouldn’t bring finger paints into the living room or rough house in there, but they should be able to use it for sitting quietly and reading or playing a board game on the floor.
It’s also important to remember that the kids will have strong opinions about the new house, regardless of how much they participate in the planning, Snyder said. The parents need to acknowledge this, even if they don’t agree.
Questions? Queries? Katherine Salant can be reached at www.katherinesalant.com.