Why Do So Many Parents Think Kids Need Their Own Bedroom?

Whenever I contemplate whether to have a second child, I inevitably start worrying about housing. For me and my husband to grow our family and stay in our two-bedroom rental in Seattle, our kids would have to share a room. He did it growing up, and it would be more affordable than getting a bigger place. But I struggle to wrap my head around the idea. I grew up in a three-bedroom home near where we live now; I had my own room, as did most of my friends. Even though housing prices have skyrocketed, I still want to give my children this privilege.

When I ask my husband what it was like to share a room as a kid, he shrugs. He didn’t consider it that big a deal. But many parents I’ve talked with who live in metro areas with high costs of living feel the same as I do. Some are stretching their budgets to afford a house with more bedrooms; others are reluctant to grow their families without having more space. As I mull this over, I wonder: Why do so many of us prioritize giving kids their own room?

Over the past half century or so in the U.S., the practice has become what the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau calls a “normative ideal”—something that many aspire to, but that not all can attain. It’s gotten more common in recent decades, as houses have gotten bigger and people have been having fewer kids. From 1960 to 2000, the number of bedrooms available for each child in the average household rose from 0.7 to 1.1, according to the Stanford sociologist Michael J. Rosenfeld’s calculations using U.S. census data. It’s held fairly steady since, the University of Washington real-estate professor Arthur Acolin told me. Recently, Acolin analyzed 2022 American Community Survey data and found that more than half of all families with kids had at least enough bedrooms to give each child their own (though it’s not certain that all of them do). Even among parents whose children share rooms, more than 70 percent say they wish they could give everyone their own, according to a 2022 survey from the Sleep Foundation, a research organization I’ve written for.

Given this fervor, one might assume that the space, privacy, and freedom solo rooms offer are better for kids. But that’s not necessarily true. Professors who study family life told me they don’t know of any research on how the setup influences children’s development. The importance we put on the issue seems more likely rooted in the broader American culture of individualism and independence, which many adults value in their own life and may want for their children. But the autonomy that kids get when they have their own bedroom is not absolute. And for some kids and teens, spending a lot of time alone in their room could even come at the cost of opportunities for intimacy, compromise, and exploration—all key parts of growing up.

Having one’s own room is unusual, historically and in much of the rest of the modern world. Before the 19th century, whole families, including servants and other relatives, often slept in the same area, Siobhan Moroney, a professor at Lake Forest College who has studied the rise of private bedrooms, told me. “One might enjoy real solitude only when away from home,” she wrote in 2019. But starting in the late 19th century, popular American parenting books and childhood-development textbooks began recommending splitting children up. They argued that doing so would give each kid “an independence within the family” that would build character and prepare them for adulthood.

That idea has stuck around. Although there’s scant evidence to support the character-building notion, solo rooms do have other things going for them. Being able to spread out is nice. Kids with separate spaces may fight less and, according to the Sleep Foundation survey, get better sleep. Separate spaces make particular sense for siblings with large age gaps. And some time alone in one’s room could help with psychological development. A child might use it to read, journal (which has been associated with improved mental well-being), or simply reflect.

More fundamentally, the setup gives children control over their environment. Kids can turn the lights on or off, play music or not, and choose their posters and bedspreads, without consulting a sibling. This is, in a sense, what adults aspire to have for themselves: to buy their own home and do with it what they like. Solo bedrooms are a microcosm of this, where young people can “create their own kingdom,” Aaron Cooper, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, explains.

But this power is limited. Kids may be able to arrange things as they choose, but even when they’re older, they’re still likely to rely on their parents’ money and permission to buy furnishings and decor. They can’t easily host people in their space without their parents’ knowledge. Plus, whatever degree of freedom the room does convey exists only within those four walls. Nowadays, children are allowed little unsupervised time outside the house. Many parents don’t feel comfortable allowing their kids to roam freely, because they either fear for their safety or worry about judgment from other parents, Markella B. Rutherford, a sociologist at Wellesley College who has studied parental supervision, told me.

A bedroom may now be the only place a child or teen can exist outside the gaze of adults—so of course many young people cling to it. Some kids may spend a lot of time isolated in there, connecting to the outside world largely through social media. While the implications of social-media use for kids’ mental health are complicated, they’re at least a cause for concern—especially when devoting so many hours to those sites can mean missing out on moments to explore, meet new people, and develop a social life in person. “Teenagers feel lonelier than ever,” Michaeleen Doucleff, a global correspondent for NPR’s science desk and the author of Hunt, Gather, Parent, told me, “and yet we’re walling them off in their own space.”

We lose out on potential bonding both in and outside the home by living this way. Globally, the norm is for young children to sleep in their parents’ rooms, or for siblings to share, Doucleff explained. Kids in America might protest that sort of arrangement, because they want what their friends have, or brothers and sisters might fight, but that’s how they learn to compromise. “A lot of cultures would say that, actually, sharing the room can help them get along better,” Doucleff told me. And, down the line, cohabitating also prepares them for sharing a bedroom with future partners or even just friends, Cooper says. Joint rooms are still common in college dorms. But, according to Lareau, many administrators must now deal with students who have never had a roommate before and don’t want one.

Having a sibling in your room will never completely prepare you for a wider life outside the home, especially if you both zone out on your phones when you’re in the space. And solo bedrooms themselves haven’t been shown to cause real harm. But the broader shifts in American childhood—both toward more privacy and material comfort in families who can afford it, and toward less freedom and, potentially, more social isolation and anxiety—do raise interesting questions about the role solo bedrooms play.

Considering all this, I feel more open to the possibility of having kids share. Still, even if we don’t have another child and our daughter always has her own space, I hope that she’ll spend much of her time outside it. Many of the best parts of growing up happen beyond the closed doors of a bedroom, not behind them.

Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans

By Michaeleen Doucleff

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