“I really have to go, Mom. Like, NOW,” my son said from behind the bathroom door of my parents’ home.
“I’m hurrying!” I’m sure I snapped at him. I didn’t want the warm embrace of the shower to end so soon. And all of the sudden, I was fourteen again, telling my brother to get lost so that I could enjoy just a few moments of peace, all by myself, in the confines of our only bathroom.
I grew up in a small house.
My house was a really small house, especially by today’s standards. Seven rooms, no basement, one floor, and just one bathroom for the four of us to share. I remember when Doug Stone released the country song “Little Houses” in 1994, the fall after I graduated from high school. When he crooned about brushing one another while passing in the hall, he wasn’t kidding. The quarters were tight, and they grew even tighter as we grew bigger.
My friend up the street had a small house, as well, but she had a bedroom in the attic. That meant that she had stairs. I dreamt about having stairs. Someday, I promised myself, I would have a house with stairs. I don’t remember dreaming of a mansion, but I did fantasize about having a bathroom where I could shower without someone banging on the door. And if I could have a basement where I could hide from a tornado, that would be okay, too.
Looking back with more wisdom and experience, I understand that our small house on a small street in a small town was just fine. It was more than fine, actually. It was always warm and it was always cozy. It was never too small to welcome a guest who stopped by, and it was just the right size for a small dining room table where a nourishing meal was served every night. The love in our house was condensed into such a small space that it hung thick in the air. We breathed it. We felt it on our skin.
So during a recent visit, as I finished my shower at my parents’ house while my son impatiently waited outside the door, it struck me that, while my own kids have stairs and a second shower and a finished basement, too, all of those things I had wanted as a child, maybe they are actually missing out. Growing up in a small space shaped the person I am today, so here are a few of the biggest lessons I learned from the smallest house.
1. The world does not revolve around you.
For the most part, my kids don’t have to accommodate other people too much during their normal routine at home. If they need to use the toilet, we have three. If they need to shower, we have two. If they need a sink where they can brush their teeth, we have options. If they want to watch something on television, we have two comfortable living spaces where they can do just that. And many kids today are living in homes much bigger and with many more televisions than ours.
Life isn’t like that in a small house.
In a small house, you learn to wait and you learn to hurry. It doesn’t really matter how much you might enjoy pampering yourself a bit more or how hard your workday has been. At the end of the day, you have three minutes to get clean, partly because you are just one link in the shower chain and partly because everyone wants some hot water. Small houses don’t have huge hot water tanks. Everything about small houses is, well, small.
When you have one bathroom, someone is always beating on the door. Always. And while it’s annoying when you are the occupant and someone is knocking, you have also been the person beating on the door – too many times to count. So you learn to hurry in order to accommodate someone else, even if you do so with loud sighs and eye rolling, in the hopes that they will return the favor later in the week.
When you live in a small house, you never expect to watch what you want on TV, unless you just happen to get home from school before everyone else does, which did happen during middle school and was kind of amazing. Then you can watch Santa Barbara, a soap opera that you probably shouldn’t be watching anyway, without anyone complaining. But most of the time, watching TV in a small house is an exercise in compromise. You learn to watch things like Jeopardy and Animal Planet and old sitcoms that everyone in the family can enjoy. You also learn the importance of the win/win. Yes, you are missing the shows that your friends are watching, but you aren’t being forced to watch football or He-Man or something else that your brother would choose, and that, my friends, is a WIN. You become skilled at negotiations and learn to stand by your word – “You can play video games for one hour if I can watch Beverly Hills 90210 at 8.” That’s a no brainer. DEAL.
A college writing professor once asked me if my parents argued in front of me often while I was growing up. They didn’t. He explained his observation that students who are skilled in the art of argumentation were often raised in the midst of conflict. Nope. Not me. I grew up in a small house. I just learned to debate and negotiate so that I could watch what I wanted on TV.
2. Don’t want anyone to know about it? Then don’t do it.
It is very, very hard to have secrets in a small house.
In a small house, your family hears everything. They observe what you are doing, see what you are watching, and hear what you are listening to. If your friends come over, no one sends you to the basement and closes the door behind you because there is no basement. Your bedroom is close to the living spaces in the house, and you may even share a bedroom with a sibling. People can see into your room every time they walk to the restroom, and your drawers and closet space might even be used to store things that aren’t your own. People are in your stuff and in your space all of the time. But it’s okay. You never get comfortable with privacy because you never have any.
This can keep you out of lots and lots of trouble.
Our kids today believe privacy is their right, and it’s no wonder that they feel this way. They have their own rooms, their own phones, their own e-mail addresses. Many have their own bathrooms, their own televisions, and their own gaming systems. Sure, privacy is nice. But privacy is also where, in many cases, we make mistakes that have the most serious consequences. Sure, my friends and I could have gone to other people’s houses to hide from our parents, but that feeling of never having privacy just became a part of who I was. I imagine that my small house saved me from making at least a few very poor decisions.
3. If you don’t plan ahead, you have no one to blame but yourself (even if you try to blame your brother).
Getting four people ready for anything in a small house requires military-level planning. It is impossible for everyone to “pull it together” at the last minute when everything that everyone needs is located in one very small place. The timing of showers has to be coordinated and supplies have to be distributed so that various tasks can be completed wherever a mirror can be found. Extra time has to be factored in if the ladies are washing their hair or shaving their legs. And inevitably someone will actually need to use the toilet somewhere along the line, which can completely derail the entire schedule.
In a small house, if you don’t plan ahead, you may be going to school without brushing your teeth. Or going to work with wet hair. Or showing up with your friends only to find that your brother’s friends have already claimed the living room. Or trying to study while everyone else is enjoying dessert with guests and loudly reminiscing at the dinner table. Or bringing a date over when your family is being completely embarrassing and there is nowhere to escape in the house.
Kids with big houses will never understand the strategic planning that takes place in small homes.
4. Most of what you think you need, you don’t need.
Now that I have a home of my own, I am AMAZED that two teenagers and two adults lived in my parents’ teeny house and never really “felt” how small it was. I chalk this up to my mother’s skills and wisdom in managing our household.
My mom shopped from a list of what we needed, and I don’t remember ever buying much extra. If she didn’t have an immediate need for something AND know exactly where she could store it, she didn’t buy it. I can remember my mom declining invitations to go shopping, and this baffled me because shopping seemed fun. She said, “If I’m not going to buy anything, then why would I go there?” She didn’t get sucked into “window shopping” because “window shopping” usually becomes “actual shopping.” And I still fall for this ALL. THE. TIME.
I spend impulsively sometimes. I buy things I don’t need sometimes. I buy things that I can’t use now but hope to use later sometimes. I can do this because I have a little extra room to store things, but extra space can encourage excess spending. Small-house people can’t just buy more things. They truly understand the difference between a need and a want. They also know that buying one thing will probably require them to get rid of something else, and that trade-off often isn’t worth it. The value of the things that they choose to save is very clear, and there is no need for extra gadgets when another simple tool will do the trick.
My mom also kept our house very tidy. Although she treasures family heirlooms, she has always been able to “clean out” without getting too hung up on emotional connections to objects. In a small house, there is just no space for clutter. Everything has a place, and when things are out of place in a small home, you literally have to move them or step over them all the time. You can’t stuff them in a closet or in the basement or in the “guest room.” When you live in a small home, you learn to recognize the true value of the things that you have, to buy only what you need, and to respect your space by putting things away.
5. Get over it.
In a big house, people can hide from one another. They can remain angry or sad or frustrated for a long time without really dealing with the problem at hand. In a small house, you can’t do that. You are going to be sitting directly across from the person who hurt your feelings at some point later that day. There is really no place else for the two of you to go.
You are going to need that person to let you use the bathroom because there is only one. You are going to eat at the same table because there is only one place to eat. You are going to watch television together because your bedroom is boring and all of the entertainment is in one room. You have to have hard conversations or your own life will be miserable. You have to get over things and move on.
That’s not a bad life skill to learn.
I’m not saying that kids who grow up in big houses won’t learn these life lessons in other ways, but I do wonder if they will learn them the hard way, from people who don’t love them as much when they leave the safe boundaries of home. And if they don’t learn to be humble, to compromise, to share openly, to manage their time and their space and their money, and to resolve conflicts as a natural part of sharing a home, I wonder how we should be fostering these skills and if a deficiency in them might impact their relationships and experiences in the future.
My mom was never one to listen to the radio much. She had her Barry Manilow albums that we listened to instead. But I remember that she loved the lyrics to Doug Stone’s song:
But you know, love grows best in little houses,
With fewer walls to separate,
Where you eat and sleep so close together.
You can’t help but communicate,
Oh, and if we had more room between us, think of all we’d miss.
Love grows best, in houses just like this.
In reality, the most consequential lessons we learn are often from the little things – the close-up, intimate interactions with people that force us to change who we are, decide what we value, and reflect on how we respond to others. Maybe more walls and more bathrooms and more TVs and more staircases are making our job as parents more difficult, forcing us to be more intentional about promoting certain values and skills. I don’t know. But I do know that tonight I will take a long, hot shower with no one banging on the door. And, because of my childhood, I will appreciate every minute of it.
Doug Stone. “Little Houses.” Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, Sony Legacy, 1994