A version of this article originally appeared on Learnvest.com.
Would you—or do you—have your children share a room? Sometimes room-sharing is a choice, and other times, it’s a necessity. After all, not every home has one bedroom per kid.
But whether by choice or necessity, similar issues may arise when you set up roommates of the non-rent-paying variety. How can kids get alone time? What if they have different bedtimes? What if they fight over toys or space?
We spoke to two parenting experts (who also happen to be parents themselves) to figure out what having a sibling as a roommate means for your child, and how you can make sharing a bedroom a great experience for everyone.
Why Sharing a Room Can Be A Good Thing
Jessica McMaken, founder of parenting consulting site Razbelly and mom of three, has found that her two older children, ages 4 and 7, like sharing a room. “When the baby gets older, they’ll probably all three share a room,” she predicts.
Dr. Susan Bartell, child psychologist, mom of three, and author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask, ($11, amazon.com) explains that the reason most kids like to share rooms is because, for many kids, sharing is about inclusion rather than space–parents expect that kids want space (and when they reach a certain age, they probably do), but many children just want to be together.
That doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing. The following issues are common with children who share rooms. Find out why they happen, and how you can solve them.
The Problem: If your children are different ages, you shouldn’t force the older child to go to bed at the same time as her younger sibling, says Dr. Bartell. She adds that children should be allowed to go to bed when it’s developmentally appropriate. “Otherwise, older children will become resentful.”
The Solution: McMaken explains that when her children first shared a room, the problem with a shared bedtime was that they were constantly talking and playing instead of sleeping. She got around this barrier by giving the children different bedtimes: While she and her husband put one of the younger children to sleep, her son has “by himself” time until his own bedtime, when he reads a story with his dad in the living room and then heads to bed across the room from his sleeping sister.
2. Personal Space
The Problem: While many kids like to share space, they don’t always want to share all their stuff. Dr. Bartell points out that when there aren’t doors to define a child’s own space and possessions, things can get tricky.
The Solution: “Each child should have a little space of his or her own within the larger room,” Dr. Bartell recommends. This can be as small as a shelf or drawer, or as big as separate dressers and night tables. She adds that one of the biggest private areas is a child’s bed. “I would recommend having children ask permission to sit on each other’s beds to give them control over their own space. It’s just like asking before entering a room.”
But what if one of the sharers is too young to understand about asking for permission? In that case, Dr. Bartell says it’s the parent’s job to help the older child figure out a solution: Build shelves up high where the baby can’t reach, or offer the child space in another room to store his precious things. If it’s really a problem, help the older child pack away his breakables to be unpacked when the baby is old enough to understand boundaries. “He’ll understand that he’s being respected, and that you’re doing what you can to help him,” she explains.
The Problem: Especially when a child shares a bedroom with a sibling of the opposite sex, privacy can become a problem as they get older. “Ideally, children would move out of shared rooms with a sibling of the opposite sex by age 6,” explains Dr. Bartell, “but not every family has that option.”
The Solution: Dr. Bartell recommends setting up explicit boundaries around changing and privacy. “Have them change in the bathroom, or be flexible with your own room as another place to change. I know one family who even set up a curtained area, like hospital curtains, for changing,” she recalls.
The Problem: While conflicts over sharing toys or clothes will happen with any siblings, the forced proximity of a shared room makes those conflicts even more commonplace. Dr. Bartell points out that many of the conflicts revolve around infringements on personal space, like touching or borrowing something that belongs to the other person. “Another thing I often see is a neat child being blamed for a messy room, although the sibling is the messy one. It sounds like a minor thing, but children find it very upsetting.”
The Solution: Set up rules and consequences for breaking those rules as soon as possible. “Tell your children explicitly what the rules are and what will happen if they break them,” explains Dr. Bartell. “The consequences depend on your household, but they should be something that matters to the child–which means different children can have different consequences.”
For instance, Dr. Bartell recounts the story of a family she once worked with: Two little girls shared a room and established that they must ask the other’s permission before touching anything that didn’t belong to them, whether or not the owner was around. One day, one of the girls needed the other’s book when the other wasn’t there, so she asked the mom for permission (who gave it). When the owner of the book came back later, her mom explained why she had given permission, and conflict was avoided.
The Problem: If your children haven’t shared a room from infancy, merging two kids into one room can be a challenge. McMaken experienced this with her own kids: When her youngest son was born, she moved her older daughter and son into what used to be just her son’s room.
The Solution: “We made a real effort to emphasize that the room was both of theirs now,” remembers McMaken. “I realized that my daughter referred to her new shared bedroom as ‘Henry’s room,’ because we all still called it that. We changed our language and redecorated the room–just a coat of paint and a new bedspread, but it made the room feel like a new space that belonged to both of them.”
If you’re merging rooms because you’re downsizing your home, Dr. Bartell recommends being both honest about the situation (“We’re moving to a smaller home because we need to—now we’ll have more money for other things”) and creative (“I want to make sure you’re comfortable in your new room. How can we do that?”) about the situation.
If you’re transitioning the other way—from one room to separate rooms—Dr. Bartell cautions that many kids might not want to stop sharing. In that case, set up the new bedroom as simply a place to play, but leave the beds in one room. “When they get older, probably around age 8 or 9, they’ll want to split up—it will happen organically.”