Your children's rooms don't have to be complex


By ELIZABETH MAYHEW, Special to the Washington Post

I don't claim to be a parenting expert, but as the mother of two great teenagers, I would say that my husband and I have done a pretty good job. I believe that all of the choices we have made on behalf of our son and daughter — the schools they attend, how they spend their free time, how we have decorated their rooms — have had an impact on their development.

Neither of our kids has a room filled with toys, video game equipment, lava lamps, basketball hoops or trendy bedding. Instead their rooms are comfortable, tasteful and timeless, partly so that I don't have to redecorate them after every growth spurt, but also because I want their rooms to reflect our family values.

Too often I talk to parents or soon-to-be parents who want to indulge either their own fantasies or those of their kids with gimmicky, impractical designs for their kids' rooms. This is certainly the trend, in part because of reality TV — shows that trick out a boy's room to look like a racetrack pit or a girl's room to look like a three-ring circus complete with a hanging trapeze.

To me such rooms are impractical and do nothing to foster good habits. These rooms make me wonder why everything for kids these days has to be so fun? What happened to a quiet place to read, sleep and daydream about being at a racetrack or in a circus?

Lest I sound schoolmarmish, my kids are not living in prison barracks. The trick has been to allow them to have some personal expression at the same time that I exercise parental control. Here are some of the decorating rules that I followed in doing their rooms. They just so happen to be my parenting rules, too:

1. Provide edited options: I remember one summer when my mother decided to redecorate me and my siblings' bedrooms. We were all headed to sleep-away camp, so it was an opportune time to paint and purge (old toys and clothes are more easily sorted when kids are away).

Before we left, my mother asked us each what color we wanted our rooms to be. My brother requested that his room be painted purple and orange — not attractive wall colors even in the late '70s. Thankfully, my mother did not indulge his preferences, but instead painted the room a neutral color so that he could have whatever color bedding and accessories he wanted. I can't remember whether my brother was disappointed, but in hindsight, my mother would have been better off giving him a small selection — say, three colors to choose from.

To hand him a 3,000-plus paint chip deck was too overwhelming. You need to present kids with edited choices. This precept applies to more than picking paint colors. The next time you ask your kids what they want for dinner or which book they want you to read, give them only a couple of options to choose from.

For my own kids, I took a page out of my mother's book and painted their rooms in neutral tones.

My daughter's room is beige (a lightened version of Benjamin Moore's Seapearl) with white woodwork (Benjamin Moore's Decorator White in semi-gloss) and a pale blue ceiling (Farrow & Ball's Borrowed Light in a flat finish). I also used the light blue on the inset panel of her closet doors, just to add some visual interest. That paint job was 16 years ago, and I have had no need to change it because it has grown with her. She can easily swap out accessories and bedding without having them clash.

My son's walls and trim are his favorite color: green. I gave him a few choices, and he settled on a cozy Army green Benjamin Moore's Tate Olive, an adaptable shade that goes with almost everything.

2. Kids go through states, so be flexible: One of the biggest similarities between parenting and decorating your kid's room is the need to remain flexible. Just as your kid's sleep schedule can change in one night, so can his or her obsession with the character du jour, which is why I urge parents to think twice before investing in the full "Monsters, Inc." ensemble. It is far better to keep your kid's room neutral — not just in palette, but also in pattern.

Avoid the themed bedding, hand-painted wall murals and character-shaped rug. But it's fine to indulge them with several Thomas the Tank Engine books, a Spider-Man wall decal or a Dora stuffed toy.

Give them building blocks, and some freedom: Kids need a few basic items in their rooms: a bed, a bedside table, a rug, a desk, a desk chair, a reading light, a bookshelf and, if it fits, a comfortable chair. I have learned never to pick anything that is too precious. I like to use solution-dyed acrylic fabrics for upholstery, and I favor washable rugs.

Each of my kids has a desk and desk chair, but both of them end up studying on their beds, which seems to be working for them, so I don't force them to change. They both have overhead lights but rely more on reading lights that they can switch off without getting out of bed. They each have a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with books, which I do believe encourages them to read.

3. Create systems that help them help you: Ask just about any mother (or father) what she wishes for, especially during the back-to-school rush, and she will tell you that she wants to be more organized. No parent wants to yell at the kids to put their laundry in the hamper. Conversely, kids don't like to be yelled at, and they usually crave order, too — they just don't always know it.

It's up to you to teach by example, which means you need to involve them, not yell at them. I make an effort to put things away after using them, and I encourage my kids to the same. The trick is to have a consistent place for those things to go; I always remind them of the motto "a place for everything, and everything in its place." I outfitted my son's closet with cubbies instead of hanging rods. When my kids were younger, I installed hooks (mounted low so that they could reach them) on their walls, in their closets and in the bathroom.

Elizabeth Mayhew, a "Today" show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of "Flip! for Decorating."

Last modified: August 16, 2013
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