- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

There are several unwritten rules about living in Alyson and Kelly Jones’ room. If one sister wants the light off and the other doesn’t, a compromise must be reached. If one sister is already in the room and requests a bit of privacy, the other must go away. The under-the-bed storage box must always, always be pushed back where it belongs because if it’s not, someone definitely will trip over it.

In a perfect world, the sisters say, each would have her own room. Alyson, 11, would have more space for her soccer trophies and would paint the walls green and blue. Kelly, 13, would have room to hang posters of her favorite bands, practice playing her viola and just be alone.

Their parents, Mark and Elaine Jones, have four children and three bedrooms in their Reston town house. That means the girls have been sharing a room practically their whole lives. Down the hall, Sam, 8, and Michael, 3, also are roommates.

“We used to like sharing when we were younger,” Kelly says. “I don’t remember when it changed, but we don’t like sharing so much now.”

The Jones sisters may not realize it, but their living arrangement may be preparing them to cope with future living situations. Sharing a room has taught them to compromise, to cope with frustration and to coexist in a very small space.

In other words, negotiating an agreement on who gets to hang more photos on the bulletin board will help in many a conflict down the road, says Brad Sachs, a Columbia psychologist and author of the forthcoming book “The Good Enough Teen: Raising Adolescents With Love and Acceptance (Despite How Impossible They Can Be).”

“Sharing space can be complicated, but there are many advantages,” Mr. Sachs says. “Teaching children how to negotiate boundaries can pay off handsomely later at work, with a spouse or with a college roommate. Lessons like handling adversity, speaking up and standing one’s ground are important lessons that will pay off later in life.”

As houses have become bigger and families have become smaller during the last generation or two, fewer children are learning these lessons. The average new house has 2,330 square feet of living space, up from 1,500 square feet 30 years ago, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The average home today also has three bedrooms.

Jill Engel-Hellman, community director of the Department of Residence Life at the University of Maryland in College Park, says adjusting to having a college roommate can be a big task these days. Only a small minority of the 10,000 students in Maryland’s dorm system come to college after sharing a room with a sibling, she says.

“In an orientation meeting, I often ask parents how many of their kids have ever shared a room before,” Ms. Engel-Hellman says. “In a room of about 200 parents, only about five will raise their hands.”

Living and learning

For some families, rooming together is not a numbers game. Rhonda Van Diest and her husband, Gulu Gambhir, recently moved to a fairly large four-bedroom house in Vienna. Their two sons, Bridger, 4, and Addison, 2, still share a room, though. Ms. Van Diest thought it would help foster a close relationship between her sons.

“I did not share a room growing up,” Ms. Van Diest says. “My sister and I are not that close today. She spent time in her room by herself, and I spent time in my room by myself. We decided it would be better for [our sons] to learn to get along. It is so important for them to understand about sharing.

“Also, I think it is easier,” she says. “It is easier to put them to bed at night. They have learned to sleep through noise. Our house has plenty of other places for them to be by themselves.”

Herndon parents Sandi and Mike Volpe both grew up in large families. Mr. Volpe is the oldest of six and grew up with three brothers and two sets of bunk beds in his room. Mrs. Volpe, from a family of five, shared a room with her older sister for many years.

“When I was growing up and I was scared of something, like a thunderstorm, I was more secure knowing my sister was there,” Mrs. Volpe says.

The Volpes have three sons, and the older two — Michael, 6, and William, 4 — share a room, even though there is room for everyone to be by himself.

Infant Max probably will work into the sharing mix when he is a little older, Mrs. Volpe says.

“They prefer to be together,” Mrs. Volpe says. “The oldest one wanted the company of the younger one when he was done with the crib. I think it is really good. At some point, though, they will probably ask for their own rooms.”

Peter Goldenthal, a Philadelphia psychologist and author of the book “Beyond Sibling Rivalry,” says most children want their own rooms by the time they become adolescents.

Of course, that is not always possible. When that is the case, he advises making rules that everyone can stick with in order to keep the peace.

“I would make basic rules such as, ‘Everyone picks up their clothes,’” Mr. Goldenthal says. “You don’t want to make too many rules, or they will be unenforceable.”

Room rules should be set with both personalities and styles in mind, he says. For instance, don’t demand pristine neatness if you have one generally sloppy child.

As children get older, parents should include children in the rule-making process, Mr. Sachs says.

“When they get to be late-elementary-school or middle-school aged and they can articulate what they want, it’s time to entrust them with that responsibility,” he says. “The children need to make it absolutely clear what they want in place, how their sibling should respect it, and what the consequences will be. If they want their journal kept private, for instance, they need to establish that it is off limits.”

After those rules are set, parents should try to stay out of conflicts as much as they can, Mr. Sachs says.

“Once they get involved, it is like quicksand, and they will sink deeper into it,” he says. “Parents should mediate, but not get involved.”

Mrs. Jones has used that strategy as her daughters have matured.

“The girls get along pretty well,” she says. “Sharing a room forces them to get along. They don’t have a choice. They have to resolve conflicts. Kelly insists on resolving things.”

Place of one’s own

Parents need to keep in mind that each child needs his or her own space in a shared bedroom. That can be as big as a corner of the room or as small as shelves and drawers to call his or her own, Mr. Sachs says.

“Parents who support a child’s individuality often see less turf wars,” Mr. Sachs says. “I have seen rooms painted two sides with different colors or two different styles of furniture. It often takes the edge off conflict. It offers emotional separation if not physical separation.”

For the Jones girls, the room’s colors remain neutral, but their own space reflects their personalities. Kelly has the top bunk and the dresser on the left, on which she has pasted pictures and inspirational words cut from magazines. Alyson has the bottom bunk and the dresser on the right, on which there is a lava lamp and pictures of her playing soccer. The bookshelves, desk and bulletin board are divided equally. The closet is fair game.

Next door in the boys’ room, Michael’s crib is a few feet away from Sam’s twin bed. There isn’t such a division of space there, perhaps because of the wide age difference.

“Sam will want to share with Michael forever,” Mrs. Jones says. “He loves having the company. I think the big age spread means there is no rivalry.”

More info:

Books —

• “The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied,” by Brad Sachs, HarperCollins, 2001. Columbia psychologist Brad Sachs tackles many issues, including siblings and sharing, in this book. His new book, “The Good Enough Teen: Raising Adolescents With Love and Acceptance (Despite How Impossible They Can Be)” has advice on teen rivalries. It will be published in January.

• “Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring and Compassionate,” by Peter Goldenthal, Owl Publishing Co., 2000. Sibling rivalry issues, including sharing a room, are discussed in this book.

• “In My World: Designing Living & Learning Environments for the Young,” by Ro Logrippo, John Wiley & Sons, 1995. California author Ro Logrippo has design ideas for siblings sharing a space.

Associations —

• American Academy of Pediatrics, 141 Northwest Point Blvd., Elk Grove Village, Ill. 60007. Phone: 847/434-4000. Web site: www.aap.org. This professional organization for pediatricians has a variety of information on sibling issues and parenting.

Online —

• Visitors can talk about sibling issues on various message boards at sites sponsored by IVillage Inc. — www.parentsoup. com and www.parentsplace.com.

• Author Ro Logrippo has creative design ideas for kids’ rooms on her Web site (http://msro.com/ro).

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