Squeezed by escalating real estate prices and growing – often blended – broods, families are experimenting with boys and girls sharing sleeping quarters.
Caleb and Harper can’t share a bedroom forever. For now, Rachel Goldstein cites several reasons to keep her 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter together in the family’s New York brownstone.
For one thing, there is a conservation of parenting energy, a nonrenewable resource. “I can’t imagine having to do two bedtimes,” Goldstein said. The siblings entertain each other — if by “entertain” you mean “cage fight.”
The best reason to leave them in a common bedroom, however, is that Goldstein, a social worker, and her husband, a lawyer, have no other choice. They have no room in their 1,150-square-foot home.
“We’re open to seeing how it goes,” she said. “I can’t imagine when he’s 11 and she’s 8 …” and then paused. “I don’t know! Maybe when he’s 12 and she’s 9?”
It’s not a taboo. Or maybe it is.
Parents of opposite-sex children from Minneapolis to Miami are having to confront what seems to be an impossible equation: add a bedroom or subtract a child.
The other solution — shared quarters — seems elegant at first, but quickly develops into a high-stakes calculus. The variables include age, gender, family dynamics and personality, and they change over time. The real question is, does the mixed-sex bedroom represent an inherent risk to children’s social and sexual development?
“The answer is, we don’t know,” said Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a research specialty in healthy sibling relationships. For all the scientific literature in her field, she said, “We haven’t really studied this.”
History of sharing
Throughout history, most of the world’s population has subsisted in a common room.
An 18th- or early-19th-century farmhouse may have had a downstairs space (a kitchen and parlor) where the parents slept and an unheated attic loft, often reached by ladder, where all the children (and possibly the servants) would bed down.
Sharing a room meant nothing in particular. “They were probably even sharing the same bed,” said Kramer.
So is it possible that whole generations of American families who inhabited close quarters were psychologically damaged by the experience? What changed?
“Freud,” Kramer said, and then laughed. “We have come to have different expectations about what is appropriate for kids at different ages, for different genders.”
For most of the 19th century, young children would have been considered not yet gendered, said Elizabeth Cromley, an architectural historian and the author of the monograph “Sleeping Around: A History of American Beds and Bedrooms.”
Around the age of 6 or 7, working-class girls and boys would begin to take up the different labor of their mothers and fathers. Still, their personal space remained an afterthought. In city tenements, Cromley said, children slept where they could: for instance, on chairs in front of an open stove for warmth.
Wealth and social mores aside, there is a simpler explanation for why brothers and sisters rarely share a room. For decades now, U.S. families have been building more bedrooms and generating fewer offspring to put in them.
The exception would be the kind of modern blended family that Betsy Custis and her husband, Stephen, have assembled with their six children in Minneapolis. It’s a “his-hers-ours” setup, Betsy Custis said. A few years ago, her husband, a health-insurance actuary, spliced their heads into the “Brady Bunch” grid for a video Christmas card.