As a Child Grows, Room Decor Evolves

'Black curtains?" you hear yourself muttering, followed immediately by a slightly louder, "not in my lifetime, and that goes for fluorescent walls and a beaded doorway, as well!" To which your daughter, 11 itching-to-be 15, slams her boring beige door and cries, "You don't want me to be a person!"

If any part of this exchange sounds familiar and you are looking for support for a this-is-my-house-and-you'll-do-as-I-say parenting approach to your offspring's bedroom decor ... keep looking.

According to parenting experts, architects, and designers who've given the issue their best professional and personal consideration (as well as studied the constituency - their own offspring), allowing children the right to participate in their personal environment is a critical building block of childhood development, not to mention key to household harmony.

"Responding to each of a child's needs and tastes is terribly important," muses Lillian Carson, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based psychotherapist. Ms. Carson and her architect husband learned early to let their children do as they pleased with their rooms. She says that it is "a sign that you recognize and appreciate both a child's individuality and autonomy."

Further, she adds, it's critical that a child's room grow and change to reflect the different stages of growing up. You need to "graduate" their rooms as they progress. "Their needs change and their environment needs to reflect this fact," she points out.

The mother of three who also has written a bestseller on grandparenting, Ms. Carson recalls her own experience with redecorating children's rooms. Her son, who was 8 at the time, requested a kelly-green carpet. Carson laughs remembering that back then, carpets came in far fewer colors. The boy didn't give a reason and his mother was tempted to override his choice, but he insisted and she persisted until she found just the right color. "It wasn't until the carpet had been installed for a few weeks that I discovered the reason," she remembers.

Her son was a young baseball enthusiast and he liked to arrange his player cards on the carpet and re-create games. Therefore, "of course," she chuckles, "the carpet had to look like the grass playing field," which he couldn't quite explain ahead of time.

Room to grow

Online children's design expert Ro Logrippo, who has written award-winning books ("In My Room: Designing For and With Children," "In My World: Designing Living & Learning Environments for the Young"), maintains a Web site (www.msro.com/ro) in which she discusses these issues. Ms. Logrippo makes it clear that the more participation by the child, the happier everyone will be.

"Children need to identify at least part of a room around them as something they've devised," she continues, "something that's a result of their own exploration."

The author says that a child's room should also be an educational experience, with as many "learning centers" as possible. "As a child learns and sees and grows into another stage, the room should keep step with the child's stages," she reflects.

Convertibility, says Logrippo, is the key to this sort of flexibility.

She offers a number of tips to stretch a room through childhood into adulthood:

* Use track lighting with different color light bulbs or plastic gels over the front to change the color of the room.

* Use changeable wallpaper borders. Decorate them with removable vinyl cutouts or decals.

* Buy wooden cubes that can be used for bookshelves, seating (with cushions), or to support a tabletop.

* Consider modular furniture that can be flipped or reconfigured for different uses.

If the suggestion that children ought to have their way with their room seems too indulgent, consider this, say professional painters (and parents) Charles and Deborah Lavoie, who've scrubbed many a sticker off a child's bedroom walls. Once kids have an investment in the way the room looks, because they chose it, "they're going to keep it a lot cleaner without you bugging them."

Beyond that, allowing the child to be involved does not mean handing over the store. Logrippo paints this picture: "Think of your child as being the star of the play and you are the supporting cast," she offers.

Star power

Children can't perform without your aid and assistance (money, paint, final approval), but since they're the ones who will interact most with the finished product, giving them more sense of ownership will increase the harmony of the whole production (translation: the entire household)." It's not giving them license to do whatever they please," she adds, finishing off her scenario, just the right to be the star in their own show.

If that means black curtains, fluorescent lights and a beaded doorway repeat after the experts: The more flexibility you give them, the more quickly they will move on to the next stage, and presumably, on to their own lives, in their own homes.

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