Compact Living Breeds Empathy in Kids

Today I was sitting at my dining room table working from home as I often do. The house was quiet except for some light music, the sun streamed in along with muted city sounds below and I was thoroughly engrossed in writing a client proposal. My four year old played with Lego blocks on the hardwood floor behind me.

My typical work day setup.

My typical work day setup.

All pretty serene, until the little guy dropped his bricks, scattering my thoughts and his creation.

“Sorry, Dad,” he said immediately, glancing up at me.

Bingo! Empathy. Consideration. Awareness of others.

That right there is a part of the reason why we live in what could be considered a tiny house: it forces all of us to be more considerate. We’ve had no choice but to learn how to respect each other over the last few years. We live it, every day.

The youngest, finding some quiet space on my settee to check out a book during the day.

The youngest, finding some quiet space on my settee to check out a book during the day.

Teaching empathy is something schools and parents spend countless hours attempting. How do we get our kids to respect others’ space and consider their feelings? Occasional lectures on empathy can only go so far, whereas how we live day in, day out is akin to empathetic immersion school.

The kids have learned how to sleep in rooms adjacent to adults chatting into the wee hours or loud movies or music.

The importance of keeping bedroom doors closed, to keep sound in or out, is well understood by now.

And constructing huge towers of blocks is done only on the sound baffling mat (aside from today).

The oldest setup a recording studio in his room, complete with "On Air" sign to keep his sibs from interrupting.

The oldest setup a recording studio in his room, complete with “On Air” sign to keep his sibs from interrupting.

While some might see this as restrictive to kids’ freedom, I don’t. How are kids to learn empathy if they can’t model it in their own house, toward each other, their parents and their downstairs neighbours?

One of the more frequent negative comments I hear from people regarding how we live is, “Kids need their privacy.”

I’m not sure what these peoples’ specific recommendation for me is – perhaps a six bedroom condo? – but their implication seems to be that all of us living in such close proximity is unnatural or detrimental to the kids’ well-being. Perhaps these same commenters believe kids should have their own wing or floor of the house, so they can do whatever they like, free from having to consider others. Or at least be out of their parents’ hair.

I can also shift my work area to the bedroom, if kids are playing in living areas.

I can also shift my work area to the bedroom, if kids are playing in living areas.

But I prefer we all learn how to live with each other, respectfully. It’s not easy and believe me, there are times when I’m at someone’s house and secretly covet the “out of sight, out of mind” amounts of space they possess. But my kids wouldn’t be nearly as considerate as they are today if it weren’t for how closely we all live together.

The art room is another highly utilized area when kids want to get some of their own space to create.

The art room is another highly utilized area when kids want to get some of their own space to create.

And ultimately, if my kids want privacy, they can create it in their own ways. Stealing away to the art room, reading on my bedroom settee, or creating a bunk fort with blankets.

If when they’re 18 years old they need more privacy, they can choose to move out. Perhaps too much privacy is part of the reason adults are choosing to live with their parents into their thirties.

For now though, our proximity to one another breeds an empathy and closeness that can’t be taught.

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Adrian Crook is a father of five living in beautiful downtown Vancouver, Canada. He's an advocate for rental housing and public transit.
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