Yes, you can co-habitate gracefully with a few conversations + boundaries.
By Christine Emming
The people you share space with daily are likely always around, crowding the couch during movie night and emptying the kitchen drawer of spoons. How to share space well without developing a martyr complex or becoming a nag involves strategic planning, and a bit more growing up than I preferred.
George and I brought our kids into the world without overthinking it. They came with stuff – rather, things we bought to care for them comfortably – and then they grew.
Eleven (and ten) years later, the people we share space with still have a low standard of living. They’re not naturally inclined to look at the devastation in their wakes. I recall the jam-begrimed dining room wall, a line of sweet 3-year-old fingerprints spreading across the cabinets and into the kitchen, where he dipped into his toast again and pranced blueberry fingers across the refrigerator.
Little by little, the preferred treatment of our home and belongings has aged. Nobody jumps on the couch anymore. Those jammy fingerprints? Gone. Everyone’s old enough to wash walls. Those early issues seem simpler than what arises now. But careful, ongoing conversations help everyone to honor the space you share, even as expectations change.
Design for comfort
Because we want everyone to feel welcome in our living room – to sit with their feet up, to build a fort for stuffies, to set up a game – we loaded it with cushions, open space, and soft blankets. We carefully considered the furniture and added nothing too precious.
Rather than shove all the kids’ toys into their rooms, I intentionally planned areas to incorporate play spaces. Yes, the fierce sprawl of LEGO can be upsetting to an elder’s tender feet. But when they play nearby, kids spend more time at play. We take a few minutes before dinner, turn on energetic music and tidy up these shared areas, like the living room, to keep Grandpa from cursing. This minimial effort ensures a clean space for tomorrow’s play and a more presentable house.
Add respectful boundaries
When my kids began creating projects, they used the glue gun, the drill and hammer. Rather than establish firm, individual ownership, we share. “These are family tools,” we parents said. We may all use them responsibly, care for them well, and replace them when finished.
If the use of shared items doesn’t feel respectful or end as discussed, consequences follow – usually lack of access. An early discussion encourages age-appropriate expectations: how much help will they need, which tools, what to use to clean up? It’s quick, and then we all understand what this project entails.
Create a home for everything
Without a specific place for each thing to return, it’s difficult to share anything well. We had to devise homes for specific items, like the push broom we hang downstairs versus the little sweeper that lives on the kitchen wall. It’s taken years, but everyone knows where each thing lives if they want to use it. We help each other clean up when we can, and accountability grows each year.
Preserve individual spaces
We don’t share everything, all the time, and having a sacred space of my own makes sharing the rest easier. I retreat to my room to recharge, where everything stays the way I left it. Unsharable, precious items live in our rooms, and family members know that taking an item into a bedroom means you’d like time to use that thing alone.
Our rooms are our own. And it isn’t my job to control the sprawl, which frees up my time and energy. My son keeps his room a hideous mess, in my opinion; yet he finds it inspiring to see all of his building materials at once. When this bohemian spirit ventures into shared areas, he knows he’ll be cleaning.
On top of a daily turn around the house, I also make a list of areas that need cleaning. We normally have a family brunch on Sunday mornings and a quick playlist of everyone’s favorite song is made. Then everyone chooses a space to clean – whatever’s left is split between us. When the music stops, anywhere from 15-20 minutes, we finish whatever we started and move on with our day.
Sharing space comfortably bonds us. Rather than our former, top-down struggle against mess, these simple community expectations have helped us form a family culture we like, one where we all have clear responsibilities. Set up for success, we share our cozy home (mostly) peaceably – oh and everyone cleans on Sundays.
© 2019 Christine Emming. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Originally printed in the May/June 2020 issue of Vibrant Life magazine. Updated and edited on July 14, 2022.