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. When he's not mobbed by his brood, he runs a successful videogame design consulting business.
  • Tanie

    I have two kids and I’m currently pregnant with my third, and the #1 question people keep asking me is how I’m going to fit all the kids into my three bedroom apartment. So I tell them the two youngest are going to share a room and they act SHOCKED and APPALLED like it’s weird? I grew up in a family with seven kids and I literally never had my own room, I always shared with at least one or two siblings.

    • 3 bedrooms! How many square feet? Mine is technically a 2 bed + den and is 1,053sqft. We have more than enough room. I have no idea when this idea came into North Americans’ minds that every kid needs their own bedroom. What generation was every guaranteed that? And why is it a good thing? So odd…

      • Tanie

        I think it’s like a little over 1200 sqft? I’m in the West End too, and pay SHOCKINGLY low rent. Like white whale unicorn low, but I’ve also been here for ten years.

        The third bedroom is pretty small but plenty big enough for one kid. My 14-year old is going to have that room and my 3-year old is going to share a bigger room with the baby, and people think that’s weird? IDGI.

        • Wow… that truly is unicorn territory. Jealous! Sounds like you have a great setup. And the West End is so idyllic for kids.

    • kmc

      I loved hearing Jim Gaffigan describe the bedtime routine that he and his wife have, since they have a two-bedroom apartment and five kids. Talking about which one goes to bed in which place and which time, and then they switch this kid and that kid and then this other one goes to bed over there, and so on. Definitely reminds me that, whatever your situation, you just figure out how to make it work. I think we have a lot of luxury, and that’s not a bad thing, but the more you have it, the harder it is to remember whether you could live without it. So we become very afraid, like, if we have that many kids we need a certain amount of space, because if the baby cries all the other kids will wake up and none of us will ever sleep again. When in fact, kids are the best at just adapting and moving on.

      • Jim Gaffigan is great! Love his humour. You’re so right. Kids just adapt. If you expect a lot of them, they rise to meet that expectation. I can watch TV or listen to music in my living room while my kids are going to sleep and they’ve figured out how to get to sleep through that, and stay asleep. Although I do remember with my first kid my ex and I used to watch TV with headphones on to avoid waking him up! So I didn’t start with that expectation, that’s for sure.

  • I love this. I dislike my current home because it’s too big. The home we purchase is going to be smaller. I *hate* everyone being walled off in their own wing.

    • I also dislike stairs… I’ve lived in tow level houses, and three level townhouses, before and it was just a huge waste of time (and floor space) to constantly be traipsing up and down stairs. The time we save by having everything within reach is measurable.

  • Thanks for noticing that I’ve been sharing more lately. :) I’ve actually discovered a better process to getting a “shitty first draft” down that I can revise into something decent. It’s always that first draft that keeps me from doing anything… once I have something I can edit, I can take it from there.

    I appreciate your kind words re parenting too. Despite the fact that like literally every night I go to bed feeling guilty about all the things I’m not doing, or the times I get angry at them. Sigh. Parenting! So tough.

  • Thanks again for compliments. I take a ton of photos, so often I’ll just troll my Google Photos backup for blog post ideas. Other times ideas will be half-formed rants in my head.

    And yes, I think guilt is pretty standard for parents. But I definitely feel MORE guilty because I expect a lot of my kids in terms of responsibility and behaviour, so I’m often forced into the role of disciplinarian – not the “good times dad” that would feel so much better to be.

    C’est la vie!

  • So totally agree re boundaries. And as a parent, it often feels crappy to enforce those boundaries. But if we fed our kids only chocolate cake, they’d love us for a while but hate what we’d done to them in the long term. ;)

  • kmc

    I do think that kids need their privacy, but I think you hit the nail on the head which is that, especially if you encourage an empathetic household, they’ll go find their own spaces when they need time to themselves no matter what size space you have, and for the most part, other members of the family will learn to recognize and respect that alone time. It’s also important for kids to learn how to carve out the time and space they need to take care of themselves whether it’s set aside for them or not, because they’re going to need to do it for themselves later. And then you show them what it looks like when people who love and respect you support those needs, so they can learn how to recognize it in other people in the future as well.

    And also, if you imagine there’s any amount of space you can have that will be enough that some people won’t be in other people’s way, you’ve just never met a kid, I guess. So they’re going to need to learn empathy and consideration anyway, and it’s just futile to imagine that “if we could only have enough space…”

    • And it’s funny how little space they actually need to feel apart. I’ve had kids hole themselves up in closets, or in boxes, or in my bike basket (laying on art room floor) with a blanket over their heads… in some ways they love that feeling of being ensconced in a tight space. Which is good, because I don’t have an East Wing they can retreat to. :)

  • JenB

    I love it! We have 6 people in an 1800sf house. The previous owners moved bc it was too small for their family of 4. We are challenged by one bedroom that’s smaller than we need, but otherwise we have more than enough room. Kids need privacy to change their clothes, so they can use the bathroom or ask their roomie to leave for a few. They don’t need privacy to just read and draw and hang out.

    • Agreed! Funny when you, as a bigger family, are moving into a place a smaller family is “outgrowing.” I once had a mom of two explain their city to suburb move by saying to me, “You know how it is – you just need more space with two.” (They were moving out of 900sqft into 2200sqft).

  • Aimee Branson

    This is a great article but I would beg to differ with the premise that many 30 years olds living with their parents being out of choice. Most them are ones being hit hard by student debt that led to no promising job and high housing costs in this hard economy.

    • I absolutely agree, Aimee. I was being a bit flippant there. The group I co-founded here, Abundant Housing Vancouver (www.abundanthousingvancouver.com) is tackling part of that issue – the housing affordability piece, but crippling student loans are nearly as bad. Thanks for correcting me.

  • Love this article and enjoying your blog! Glad I stumbled upon your site.