Q We moved into our four-bedroom home 15 years ago and gave the biggest children’s room to our daughter, then 3, and a smaller room to her little brother. And then we had our third and last child. She got the smallest room, which is the size of a large closet. * She’s been fine about this room for 12 years, although she does complain a bit about the lack of storage and its tight quarters. Nevertheless, our kids get along well, share nicely and know that they’re mighty lucky to have their own rooms, whatever their size. * However, our eldest is heading to college in the fall and is already threatening bodily harm to anyone — especially the youngest — who would take over her room. She bursts into tears if I try to reason with her, even when she’s having a calm, non-fraught moment. I know that this has something to do with her fairly gentle but still stressful college application process, but mostly it has to do with herself. She isn’t ready to leave home yet. * To me, it is a real estate issue; to her, it’s an emotional one. This child is a homebody. She loves our house and our family traditions, and she can’t imagine what her life will look like in nine months. I think it would be crazy for us to keep this large room for her, as if it were a shrine, while her sister is stuck in a closet. * How do I get her to understand that she has to share her room? And what is the best way to explain our concerns to her without having her burst into tears?
A You’ve been doing such a great job with your children; don’t stop now.
Life will be easier if you realize that you and your daughter are different people at different stages in life and that you each have different priorities. However, they can be blended if you change your approach a lot, compromise a little and quit referring to the smallest room as a closet, because that just stirs the family pot. While it would be lovely if your daughter would take this small room, this decision should wait until she can bear to let her old room go. Emotions trump real estate in this case.
The idea of giving up her room probably makes your firstborn feel as displaced as she did when you brought her baby brother home from the hospital. You were filled with joy, but if she could have expressed her feelings, she might have said, “What about me?” “How can I share you?” and “What’s going to happen to my space? My toys? My world?”
Like most college-bound teenagers, she’s got to be pretty scared. She’s about to leap off the ledge without knowing what the future will hold: whether her college will live up to its brochures or her roommate will be any fun or she’ll like fun a little too much. Your daughter still wants to keep her room at home, not because it is a shrine but because it is a sanctuary. Her sanctuary.
You’ll win some points with her if you simply admit defeat. Tell her that you and her dad have decided that she’s right; she should keep her own room, even when she’s away. And after she bursts into tears of gratitude, ask her if she would let her little sister stow her childhood treasures and her out-of-season clothes on a high shelf in her closet and if her sister could study in her room when she’s away. Your eldest will probably be so glad to keep her nest that maybe she’ll even tell her sister that she can have a friend spend the night in her room sometimes.
A clean room should be part of this deal, because it will let your older daughter come home to the same safe haven that she left while giving your younger daughter space to study and to entertain her friends even though she still has to sleep in her bed. To pull off this trick, you might have to buy a small, lightweight desk that she can move out of the big room whenever her sister comes home, even for a weekend. Perhaps you can file the cost of this desk with the IRS as a medical expense, necessary for Family Harmony.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Jan. 23.