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Isabelle Schnoeckel really wants her kids to be good at sharing. It makes sense, then, for six-year-old Henry to share a bedroom with his little sister, Violet, who is four. Henry thinks this arrangement is great, plus it frees up an extra room in the family's three-bedroom townhouse to serve as a home office. Nonetheless, Schnoeckel did worry at first about what people might think. "Growing up in the suburbs," she says, "I didn't know anybody who shared a bedroom."
For many, circumstances dictate coed rooms - if you've got more kids than bedrooms, it's common for brothers and sisters to bunk up. But there's no need to feel guilty about it; many parents report more pros than cons after giving room sharing a try.
"There can definitely be benefits," says Joanna Seidel, a Toronto child and family therapist. "It can increase bonding, build mutual respect and teach kids about privacy." Seidel also adds that sharing a bedroom with a brother or sister can help a child feel safe and secure at night.
In order to foster peaceful nights and avoid bedtime struggles, she suggests offering a structured and predictable routine to help both children go to bed at the same time with minimal talking and playing. At first, some parents may prefer moving bedtime back by a few minutes to account for the inevitable "giggle time" as siblings adjust.
Personal space within the room is important, too. "You want to foster independence and individuality," says Seidel. "So put their toys on their side of the room, or maybe give them a poster or some sort of decoration. Allow them to develop their own interests and to become individuals." Provide each child with his or her own desk or craft table, if space allows. Leading up to the transition, kids might enjoy picking out their own bedding.
If you're concerned about privacy issues, keep in mind that boys and girls tend to group off according to gender as early as kindergarten. From ages six to eight, grade-schoolers will become more aware of their different body parts.
"Children are more apt to have feelings of embarrassment and increased curiosity as they become school-aged," says Belleville, Ont., family therapist Julie Gowthorpe. Respect a child's need for privacy by making the necessary adjustments. "It may be that children don't change in the same room. Say, 'we sleep and hang out in here, but if we're getting changed, we go into the bathroom or into another space.'"
Consider the social and sexual development of each kid before choosing coed bedrooms. Red flags to watch for, says Gowthorpe, include whether or not either child has displayed inappropriate sexual behaviour, whether there's been any history of abuse and whether one sibling has has shown aggression toward another. In the majority of situations, however, brother-sister room sharing is a creative solution that works just fine.
Schnoeckel and her husband are expecting baby number three in a couple months, and they're in no hurry to split up the older two kids. "At some point," Schnoeckel says, "personality-wise or developmentally, putting the same-sex kids in the same room might be a better fit. But the age difference doesn't make sense right now." What's more, when Violet wakes up at night, she's comforted by the fact that she's not all alone, so she sleeps better. And no parent wants to mess with that.
A version of this article appeared in our January 2013 issue with the headline "Sharing a bedroom," p. 54.
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