A lucrative market today can be found in the design and furnishing of children’s spaces—from the nursery to the older teen or even adult child living back at home. For the mid-income customer, this market is fairly new.
Through most of the history of the United States, attention has
been given to children’s spaces only by the very well to do.
The majority of Americans felt no compelling need to indulge children.
In fact, the view of children as recent as pre-World War I was substantially
different than it is today.
Let’s examine a few of these attitude changes and see how they
translate into making us as professionals more astute and aware
of how to help clients create environments for their children that
will give them a place for growth and security.
A LOOK OVER THE SHOULDER
My mother, born in 1919, was the oldest of eight children, and her
parents were farmers. She has written dozens of stories about her
childhood and has won several awards for her writings. She talks,
humorously, about being the “victim of child labor,” and
compares the attitudes of her father (gentle, kind) to her grandfather
(the Master Sergeant) as they encouraged their little broods to
help in the fields.
She tells also of going to dances as a teenager where the boys her
age moaned and sought sympathy for the long hours they had spent
thinning beets and showed their red-stained fingers to prove their
plight. Mother and her friends had soaked their fingers in lemon
juice so as to not let on that they, too, had spent long hours in
the hot sun bent over pulling out baby beets to make room for some
to grow large enough to be harvested at about seven pounds each,
which made harvesting an even more labor-intense chore than thinning!
When extended families and friends gathered for large meals, my
mother was put in charge of caring for the younger children while
all the adults ate and enjoyed each other’s company. Much later,
the children were allowed to eat what was left over.
These were common practices and attitudes throughout America since
its Pilgrim days. Children could be seen, but not heard; children
were to be obedient, work hard, show trustworthiness and industry,
grow up to emulate their parents, and defer to parents on all matters
On the more positive side, my mother also writes of delightful times
on fishing trips with extended families and friends, of times of
sweet reverie, of complete safety and security free from fear of
harm, free from influences that were evil—a freedom that today’s
children do not enjoy.
Probably the great change in attitude toward children had its roots
in the Victorian Era where, in upper-crust families, the English
motto of “only replacing yourself” became a well-healed
person’s philosophy. This certainly made dividing up the family
fortune much easier.
Children who were indulged were also expected to take their places
properly in society, to keep up the family’s traditions and
live a noble life to honor their heritage, and quite possibly to
carry on the family business. These, too, are positive attributes
of a free people.
In the post-World War II era, children began to be exposed to far
more external influences, including television in addition to radio,
which had been a part of American households for about 20 years
previous. They also had, with their parents’ increased disposable
income, access to their own automobiles. They spent more time together
in public and compared notes about what they wanted to be when they
grew up, which often varied from the parents’ jobs.
Bedrooms became places for pajama parties and repositories for teen
idol posters. Although sterile in comparison to today’s decorating
styles, these rooms nonetheless became fashion statements. Although
today we look back with wistfulness on the naiveté of that
era, it was a daring, dramatic leap forward in thinking compared
to earlier eras.
THE SIXTIES AND SEVENTIES
In the ’60s and early ’70s, with hopeless wars being fought
in Southeast Asia, a new attitude of rebellion developed among the
youth. They began to despise what they saw as the hypocritical lives
and actions of those in “the establishment.” Coupled with
the introduction and widespread availability of consciousness-altering
and hallucinatory drugs, many older children clearly abandoned their
parents’ goals and dreams.
Ironically, many of these rebellious souls eventually found themselves,
and some grew up to be much more like their parents than they ever
would have dreamed. Some went from hippie to yuppie, from despising
wealth to jealously guarding or indulgently spending it. Others
are still trying to find themselves, and have little responsibility
in their lives (old hippies).
I clearly remember colors from those decades, which reflected the
intensity of the drug era coupled with Eastern Asian philosophy
and the American bicentennial: electric blue, shocking pink, brilliant
orange, clear American red, East Indian purple and sunshine yellow.
I look back on those bedrooms and wonder how the children of my
generation ever physiologically slowed down enough to rest and sleep.
I also shutter at the color combinations and maintain that it was
one of the worst color and design eras known to mankind. As the
cycle of color popularity rolls onward, many of these colors have
resurfaced, made popular because of video screens, which scream
over-stimulation as they vie for our attention and get us to link
to an advertiser’s site. They are still psychologically horrific.
THE EIGHTIES AND NINETIES
In the ’80s and ’90s, Americans in general have begun
to see greater value in their children, cherishing them and spending
much more time with them to nurture and encourage them, to help
them excel in their schooling, sports, the fine arts or performing
arts, and to develop their unique characters.
For some, this push to making children become “the best”
at grades or extracurricular activities gives the parent(s) validity—the
child accomplishes dreams the parent personally was unable to do
but desired to do. At times, the motivation for parental encouragement
is vicarious accomplishment, becoming a badge of honor for the parent.
Many have taken childhood away from their children by pushing them
to higher levels of excellence—forcing adult goals on children.
They justify this action as a way to give the child a “competitive
edge” when they are ready to enter graduate school, the marketplace
or kindergarten. Parents with this attitude will want their children’s
rooms to be serious and support study and practice. They also may
want their child to have things other children their age cannot.
They want the child to be more special than any other child yet
to arrive on earth. This type of optimism or determination needs
psychiatric help. After all, children still need a little time to
Parents’ personal philosophy will also be a determining factor
in furnishing children’s rooms, because so much of it is rooted
in molding the child in fanciful, indulgent ways.
THE VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENT
The continual development of technology has made a big impact on
what children think, what they do, and how they behave today. Whereas
two generations ago the child did most of his or her homework at
the kitchen table, now there may be multiple personal computers
in a home, often with one right in the child’s room.
Rather than interact with the family or friends, today’s children
often are more isolated, spending virtual time rather than real
time with others. Their world is one of removed, impersonal connections.
As a result, college-aged kids today are often brighter, but have
less-developed social skills and common sense than students of less
than a generation ago. They have poorer manners and feel entitled
to receive more. They have lived life in a bubble.
If you have concerns about the exposure of your clients’ children
to questionable Internet sites, then the location of computers should
surely be addressed. Many astute parents today are placing computers
where adults can monitor them. Others, sadly, do not want to be
bothered by or to be responsible for their children. I call this
the “buy them off attitude”—if you spend enough money
and buy enough toys for a child, then he or she will be occupied
and not bother you. This attitude rarely results in well-adjusted,
ethical or hard-working adults.
SAFE SPACE—CREATIVE DREAMING
Today many parents encourage their children to dream and think,
play and imagine in the safety of their rooms. Relatively few children
have the out-of-doors freedom that my mother enjoyed; today the
fear of harm or abduction is too great. The alternative is to create
a fanciful child’s world inside the security of locked and
alarmed homes, which give children safe space.
Thematic decorating contributes to the virtual reality of this space.
Choose a theme and run with it is great decorating advice. Contemporary
child theorists often agree that a child who is exposed to stimulating
fantasy will grow to be creative thinkers and problem-solvers for
an ever-more-complex and problem-riddled world. They will be the
developers of new technology; they will explore the horizons of
the future without hesitation. The seeds are planted within the
walls of their own personal spaces—their bedrooms.
Other philosophy theorizes that the more clearly defined the visual
images, the less creative the child. Room for imagination—sometimes
entire walls are left white or made into large chalkboards or pegboards—allows
more opportunities for creativity.
THE EMPOWERED CHILD
Today’s children make decisions. They are unaffected by spending
their parents’ money. And youth who are allowed to be a part
of the decorating process are delighted to select their own themes
that reflect their own special interests and dreams.
With multiple coordinating patterns, every room can be unique. Whether
“guy” or “girl” stuff is featured, the themes
offered through wall covering and fabric books make creating a wonderful
space a grand adventure for the child.
Another reason Americans are spending more money furnishing their
children’s rooms is that parents in general have access to
more disposable income.
Young parents who have grown up with new technology, cars and credit
cards provided by their parents are very fashion-conscious. These
under 30-something mothers and fathers, happily furnish the child’s
room in a complete decorating package. From the SUV (sport utility
vehicle) strollers and Baby Gap clothing to coordinated decorating
ensembles, this group of parents aims to own quality goods and enjoy
the best that life has to offer for their children.
That is not to say that only young parents are guilty of wanting
the best for the child. Older parents with young children tend to
enjoy higher levels of professional income. They often want the
room to be a wonderland of delight for the child (and perhaps more
JUST DO IT
A final word of advice: designs for decorating children’s rooms
are transient at best, so go ahead have fun! Except for decorating
children’s or teen’s rooms in all black or all yellow
(psychologically devastating colors), children’s rooms should
be viewed as changeable as the child grows.
Make the space wonderful, but don’t feel that you are doing
it “for good.” Think in terms of flexibility. As children
move through various stages of physical and emotional development,
the decorating should be able to change with them. And let the parent
enjoy the experience as well, because when all is said and done,
the room is as much for the paying parent as it is for the child.
J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at
Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and
has authored several books including Window Treatments, Understanding
Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular
correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the
areas of fashion, education and merchandising.