In her new book, Not Buying It: Stop Overspending and Start Raising Happier, Healthier, More Successful Kids, Brett Graff, a former economist and now a nationally known personal finance and parenting expert, breaks down the myths around money and child-rearing. In this adapted excerpt, she explains why buying a big house isn't necessary—and how having a smaller home can actually benefit kids in the long run.
Just after announcing their pregnancy, my friends Larry and Gayle bought their dream McMansion in a suburb of Cleveland. The home brought the great promise of happiness an American family can achieve only by acquiring an oversize kitchen, a sprawling master bath, and 15-foot ceilings. Larry happily embarked on his new two-hour commute to work, shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Oh, it’s not bad,” before reminding us about all the reading one can accomplish on a train ride.
That’s hardly debatable—we all want more reading time. But what might be worth examining are the motives behind American families’ lust for larger homes. Homes are the single most expensive aspect of raising kids, according to a 2014 government report. And newly constructed houses have, on average, increased in size by 53 percent since 1973, according to the Census Bureau. The ratio of houses with three or more stories has doubled.
New homes are designed with features that provide for more space and greater privacy. While these features most certainly come in handy when we’re touring our friends around, experts wonder: Where did we get the idea that sprawling living rooms and child-centric wings are essential for successfully raising kids?
Why You Don't Need a Big Home to Raise a Successful, Happy Kid
Big houses are not necessarily bad for families. But we seem to have collectively decided that when it comes to living quarters, bigger is better in every circumstance. That each of us needs space and privacy. That all our friends have a big house, so we should get one, too. These houses—we may have come to believe—are tangible measures of our happiness and success.
And that’s 100 percent false.
Kids thrive in smaller houses, which by design can help them dodge some invisible struggles that later plague adolescents and teens. For starters, these homes create more convenient backdrops for family communication and cultivate bonding between siblings. Plus, sometimes smaller homes are closer to a city and tend to cut down parents’ commute times.
And who was it that decided that each of our kids should have their own bedroom? There’s no research stating that children, particularly young ones, thrive more fully when they can close the door and be alone.
On the contrary, room-sharing has a litany of psychological benefits, starting with the sense of emotional protection at bedtime. Because the frontal lobe of a child’s brain is still developing between the ages of 2 and 5, kids cannot separate imaginary life from real life, says Dr. Gwen Wurm, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician in Miami who wrote the foreword to my book. This accounts for kids truly believing there are monsters in the closet. And having a sibling in the room offers a security they might not be able to express or even realize. That presence can combat resistance to bedtime and can foster peaceful sleeping, says Dr. Wurm.
That doesn’t mean peace will remain through all waking hours. Small disagreements and full-scale wars, complete with the hurling of toy-car missiles, are a certainty among all siblings, including those who share a room.
But even that clashing can set the stage for the kind of sibling connection that lasts a lifetime. Room-sharing provides so many ways for sisters or brothers or even combinations—though there are benefits to separating those kids before puberty—to work together as a team and learn to negotiate. A bunkmate also provides kids with a built-in confidante. And a strong sibling bond has lifelong benefits.
A smaller home also probably means the TV can be heard from around the house. The rewards come when we’re able to effortlessly monitor what our kids are watching. We can scream, “Change the channel,” or simply step in and magically appear for a teachable moment, educating our kids on being careful consumers during commercials. While fast-food chains and toy makers are trying to hold them captive, we can explain that people on television may seem beautiful and happy stuffing fries in their mouths, but they are acting.
It’s simple: The more opportunities a family has to communicate, the more a family will communicate. Smaller houses encourage the kind of unscripted moments during which real teaching and genuine communication occurs, says Dr. Wurm. The best discussions aren’t planned, she says, but are sparked from passing each other in hallways or from sitting around a kitchen island. Smaller homes give kids and adults easy access to one another, making the spontaneous expression of a thought or daily event practically effortless.
And if the size of your house means kids are sick of seeing you all the time, good; tell them to go outside. Rather than lounging around on leather sofas, Dr. Wurm wants to see our kids spend time outdoors, particularly in green or wooded areas. This enhances their physical and mental well-being. Sunlight and trees are natural mood elevators, and exercise improves a kid’s ability to learn and concentrate. Studies from the University of Illinois point out that kids score better on tests after exercise, and separate research proves children with ADHD display higher levels of focus after coming in from outside.
Overall, all this is not to say that people in big houses won’t be home in time for dinner or will somehow neglect to communicate with their unsuccessful kids. Besides, how could we even define the words "big houses," seeing as it would have a far different definition for a family in New York City than it would for a Texan? Rather, the idea is to introduce some alternative considerations when contemplating the homes we choose and evaluating their locations and sizes. Or even during those unfortunate times when we compare our lives to other people’s lives.
It’s true, many families—hopefully most—with colossal kitchens will do a great job of organizing sibling-bonding opportunities. But considering the true developmental needs of our kids, those families without so much space will not be doing even one bit worse.