On a recent chilly day, 2-year-old Kaya Caouki, of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, is indoors, having a great time running from room to room, hopping on and off the beds and pausing momentarily to check out massive decorative displays. His dad, John, has taken him to spend some time at The Land of Nod, a children’s decorating store, and Kaya is delighted to be looking for new items for his bedroom.
Kaya is too busy to chat. He is choosing the perfect easel to continue his painting endeavors. “He likes things like this,” John Caouki says, gesturing warily around the store as Kaya goes racing past. “I think I’ll get it for him.”
Kaya’s decorating sense appears to be much more advanced than that of your average 2-year-old 10 years ago—but maybe not today. More and more children are taking an interest in decorating their rooms. And more and more parents are pulling out the credit card to pay for it.
In fact, parents spend $17 billion annually on rooms for children ages 8 to 18, or $386 per household each year, according to WonderGroup, a youth/family marketing agency.
And they are asking their children before opening up their checkbooks. Twenty-two percent of children play a helpful role and 13 percent play an active role—ultimately making the final decisions when decorating their rooms—according to a 2003 poll, the first by the American Home Furnishings Alliance, a North Carolina-based manufacturers’ organization.
Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of public relations for the group, says that number will only go up.
TV fuels decorating frenzy
Kids’ newly developed interest in decorating isn’t a spontaneous change in priorities. Retailers and designers have spent years trying to tap into children’s desires through magazines and television. Increasingly, children are also motivated by the massive marketing machine of the home furnishings industry.
Nothing is more direct than “Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls,” which airs on the Discovery Channel and offers children a step-by-step approach to decorating.
But there are also subliminal advertisements. Children see a popular television show and then they are offered a way to buy that character whether it is on sheets, towels, furniture, bedspreads or wallpaper.
This commercialization of children’s bedroom is not all good news, nor is it all bad. Allowing children as young as 2 to have a say in the decoration of his or her room may foster self assertiveness and responsibility, says Fran Stott, vice president and dean of academic affairs at Chicago’s Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development.
It is similar to giving him or her choices when choosing clothing. It’s a way to help develop independence, especially if the parent and the child do the project together, Stott says.
But problems can arise when a child is encouraged to respond to every commercial or television show.
“There’s an increasing amount of commercialization aimed toward kids,” Stott says. “Parents have to be better limit setters.”
Parents should be aware of these influences says Susan Linn, a Harvard Medical School psychology instructor and associate director of the Judge Baker Children’s Center. “A character-linked room decor means that essentially your child is living in an ad,” Linn writes in an e-mail.
There is nothing wrong with allowing the child to decorate his or her rooms, but it is helpful for parents to explain that putting up SpongeBob SquarePants wallpaper may be a reaction to decisions made by advertisers, not by the child’s personal decorating sense, Linn says.
Kids take charge
While kids’ interest may be on the upswing, the type of furniture and accessories that end up in their rooms depends on parents’ willingness to open their minds—and their wallets—to SpongeBob bedspreads, Barbie wallpaper and everything in between.
Parents are having children later, which means they tend to have more disposable income, explains Lisa Ridolfi, a spokeswoman for The Land of Nod. That makes it easier for children to put their newly acquired design knowledge into practice.
“Every year you see a little more of an increase [of] the investments into children’s rooms,” she says.
And every parent negotiates that investment differently.
Kaya makes 50 percent of the decisions about decorating his room, his father says. While Kaya’s parents select the bed and the cupboards, Kaya gets to choose the sheets, toys, pictures and smaller decorative items.
Kaya isn’t as lucky as 5-year-old Chloe, of the Near North Side, who has a major say in 80 percent of her room.
“She wants decorative pillows, a desk, lamps—she wanted to decorate her bathroom,” says Chloe’s mother, Mary Borcean. “All that was done.”
In addition to adding more decorative items to the rooms, parents are spending more on each item, such as hand-painted drawers and customized cabinets, says Lois Gries, of Lois Gries Interior Design in Chicago. Parents will spend $3,000 to $5,000 on a child’s room today, as opposed to $2,000 to $3,000 a decade ago, Gries says.
With so much money going into children’s design—and with the knowledge that children’s ideas and interests fluctuate from day to day—many parents wonder exactly how much influence they should let their children have. After all, no one wants to spend $5,000 on a room only to have their child begging to redecorate the very next year.
Debbie Travis, host of HGTV’s reality show, “Debbie Travis’ Facelift,” advocates giving children complete control of their own rooms.
“What’s so great is that it’s their one room in their house. Our bedrooms are the one private space, whether you’re 9 or a teenager, and it’s important,” she says.
Travis witnessed a disaster when a child’s parents redecorated his room when he was away. When he returned and viewed the damage, he was so distraught that he slept in the hallway for two years.
Does Batman get the boot?
But trends do change—and fast. If parents permit the child to freely decorate with television characters, one immediate consequence would be the pressure to redecorate once the characters change the next year.
“Children’s attachment to characters can wax and wane and you may find that once you invest a lot in a particular character, your child will have moved on to another one,” Linn says.
So, parents should make sure they feel comfortable with whichever designs the child selects.
“I think parents might get in trouble if [the children] have something in mind and you have something else in mind,” Stott says.
With a little creativity, parents can avoid the “my room is so last year” trap. Travis suggests cost-conscious parents invest in a high-quality bed and desk, both of which should last for many years. Then let the child repaint the room every year. Throw in a different $30 rug when the colors, patterns or superheros change.
For kids who want that Batman-themed room, parents can work with their children to come up with a more temporary—and less expensive—decorating scheme. That might mean hanging Batman posters in the room instead of Batman wallpaper, Travis suggests. If a child wants to paint his room black, hang a few black sheets on the walls instead, she adds.
Parents could also give their children a budget for their rooms, which would make them think twice about frequent, unnecessary purchases, Travis says.
Whatever parents decide, it’s important to support their budding designers, Travis says. If parents allow their children the freedom of design, they will be encouraging a creative hobby that will allow their children to grow, she says.
“They’re sitting in a classroom all day and are on the computer—they just want to roll up their sleeves and have some fun.”
Danielle Braff is a writer who lives in Chicago with her cat, Mr. Trevor.
Children’s expertise coupled with their parents’ spending money can spur creativity, and the possibilities are endless. Parents willing to pay can commission an original wall mural or wallpaper. For tighter budgets, homemade touches turn any child’s room into a royal suite or a sports shrine.
For about $400, Oak Parker Jay Fancher will do a hand-painted mural specifically tailored to your child. Her business of customizing walls was born shortly after her son, now 9, was born because she wanted something different in his room.
Usually, Fancher says, the parents approach her with an idea, but a child’s input is often requested—especially in teenagers’ rooms.
Three years ago, Fancher painted Julia Venetis’ daughter’s room and the hand-painted tree in the corner of the room is still sprouting.
“I felt that a mural would open the room and make it look a little bigger, and [my daughter] never expressed any interest in changing it,” Venetis says.
If you are wary of spending hundreds of dollars for a complete room makeover, there are also options of customizing a child’s room with his or her own work.
Angela Mendez of me, my room and i, a Chicago-based design business, creates custom wallpaper borders out of children’s artwork.
Drawings, paintings and even poetry can be permanently saved when they are added to the wall or onto giant stickers for the floor.
Another option may be imadethat, a Portland-based company, which has moderately priced desks, stools and toy carts that children can build on their own or with a parent. The kits include a wooden hammer, glue, pegs, sandpaper and a certificate for a child to sign and attach to the underside of the finished piece. Find the company at www.imadethat.com.
If you are handy, searching the garage sales for furniture you and your child can paint together is not a bad option, either.
TV host Debbie Travis details 80 different projects in her book, Debbie Travis’ Painted House Kids’ Rooms: More Than 80 Innovative Projects from Cradle to College. The projects range from painting furniture different colors to creating customized wallpaper—and many of them do not eat up the entire college account.
Travis says in her book that pint-sized princes and princesses can get the royal treatment with the addition of a few homemade candelabras. To make the wall pieces look just like gold candles, Travis suggests cutting out a piece of cardboard in the shape of a candle holder. To give them a three-dimensional look, she suggests adding corrugated cardboard tubes cut to size. A little red paint makes the candles appear to be lit. A gold chain loosely hung around the candles provides the finishing touch.
Or give a sports star a basketball motif. Children can outline the court on a hardwood floor then lay down white tape over the outline. Next, use bright latex paint and high gloss varnish to paint the NBA colors inside the white border, Travis says. Danielle Braff
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