"In his eyes we did the worst thing we could possibly do," said the mother of a 3-year-old boy as she sat in her newly completed family room. "We ripped up my son's home."
She went on to describe her child's "classic" anxiety symptoms during the several months of their home renovations: nighttime teeth grinding, bedwetting and tantrums.
It is undeniable that the more you improve your home the less you improve your life. Preschoolers are especially susceptible to stress during extensive remodeling as they have a great psychological investment in their home; it is literally the center of their existence. At the same time, young children are too shortsighted to appreciate the long-term benefit that results from temporary dislocation. A 3-year-old's sense of adventure won't carry him beyond the first week of a renovation project.
For our daughters, Alison, then 3 1/2, and Christina, not yet 1, the two months of our renovations were a nightmare, not an adventure. Like most children her age, Alison was upset if her spoon was placed on the wrong side of her dinner plate. Despite our assurances, she was disoriented by the construction and threatened by what she perceived as the dissolution of her home. Christina was more disturbed by the physical impact of the work: the noise, the dust and the dirt. In the case of either an infant or a preschooler, the mixture of children and construction is potentially hazardous.
Despite our apprehension about the effects on our children, my husband and I were convinced that we could not pass up the opportunity to renovate. Our Washington apartment building converted to condominium, and we had the chance to buy our two-bedroom apartment, plus all the basement space under it (a large above-ground storage area with a door that opened into a small garden). With an architect's help we drew up plans to make the storage area a family room, playroom, extra bath and laundry. And while we were at it, we ripped out the kitchen, expanded it and put in a new one. Our expenses totaled half of what a comparable Washington condominium would have cost.
Once you have decided, as we did, that more space is a necessity:
* Choose a contractor who will make the children's safety a priority. It was difficult to find a contractor who was willing to work with us -- and around us. We remained in our apartment during the renovations and some of the contractors turned us down on that basis.
"You really don't want to do this," said one. "You really don't want to do this," he said again, shaking his head as he looked at our plans. And he walked away. We finally found a company that was willing to take the extra precautions necessary when working around young children.
* Make the project short. A "time-is-of-the essence" clause in your contract with a penalty for lateness will help to ensure that six weeks do not drag into six months, an eternity in the life of a 3-year-old. It took the visit of a much impressed 4-year-old to make Alison feel that her experience was special rather than interminable. As she and her friend watched wide-eyed from our dining room window a cement truck poured out our new steps.
"Boy, are you lucky," said the friend, "a truck of your own." There's nothing like the envy of a 4-year-old to boost the morale of a 3.
* Enlist the aid of your child's teacher. In response to a distraught letter I wrote detailing Alison's behavior during our siege, her preschool teacher began asking her every day during the "Sharing Circle": "Tell us what's been happening at your house."
Like a torrent, Alison's words spilled out. "It's been terrible, really terrible. We have no kitchen sink, the refrigerator's in the living room, there are workers all over and there's a big hole in the floor." Every day for several weeks she regaled her classmates with stories of our progress and gradually her attitude became more positive.
* Plan escape routes. When the jackhammers arrived at 7:30 one morning to cut the 3-by-6-foot hole in our solid concrete floor the children and I fled to a sympathetic neighbor's -- the baby in mismatched booties and Alison still drowsy in her pajamas. Friends and family became essential to our survival. Some provided a safe harbor on unbearable days and others invited us for dinners when we had no cooking facilities.
* Involve your child. A 3-year-old is too young to read architectural plans, but he is not too young to understand, as you point to the staked-out ground, where his swing set used to be and say, "Workers will build your playroom here."
* Take the season into consideration. Spring, summer and fall are easier on the preschooler as the monotony of pounding hammers can be broken with a jaunt to the zoo or the playground. Snow and cold not only trap children indoors, but closed windows trap dust and noise.
* Tell your pediatrician. Allergic children may have an especially difficult time during renovations. Some building materials, particularly insulation, may affect those who previously showed no symptoms of allergy.
* Keep a photograph album. Take pictures of your construction, before, during and after, and make a photograph album with your child of your renovations. The pictures will help you later on when you want to know where the electrical lines and plumbing pipes run.)
* Have a party. Plan a party with your children and invite your friends, your children's friends and maybe you even can get some of your construction workers to stop in. The pictures from this party will complete your photo album. Celebrate!