Give That Kid a Paint Roller

By Georgia Orcutt

When the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch delivered his now famous "last lecture" in 2007, his inspirational lessons on life and achieving your childhood dreams included advice for parents on – of all things – kids' bedrooms.

"When I was in high school, I decided to paint my bedroom," Pausch told students and faculty in that lecture, and he showed them a slide of the quadratic formula he painted on his childhood bedroom wall.

Kids Painting"The great thing about this is [my parents] let me do it. They didn’t get upset about it. And it’s still there. If you go to my parents’ house, it’s still there," he said. "To anybody out there who is a parent, if your kids want to paint their bedrooms ... let them do it! It will be OK. Don’t worry about the resale value on the house."

It was one of many simple, heartfelt ideas that Pausch, a 47-year-old father dying of cancer, imparted in a lecture that became a YouTube sensation and a bestselling book. He believed that letting a child choose and participate in how his bedroom looks will inspire his creativity and independence.

At several points in your kids’ lives, the time comes for changing something – or everything – in their bedrooms. You might have a new baby on the way; you might be moving to a new apartment or house. Perhaps your toddler has outgrown his crib; your 3-year-old and your 6- year old need to share a room; or your 12-year-old is angling for more grown-up digs where she can hang out with friends.

Whatever prompts the change, get your kids involved as much as possible in decisions about their own rooms. And try these helpful tips gleaned from parents and child bedroom professionals:

Let Your Child Pick the Color

"It’s a nice idea to let kids pick their paint colors and celebrate their individuality," says Boston interior designer Edie Twining of Twining Design. "My daughter actually painted her own room when she was 12. It’s a good experience to get them involved in doing it." (Think latex paint and dropcloths.)

"It’s really important for parents to let a child express himself in his room," adds Lisa PaintCeremsak, who runs a Cambridge, Mass.-based home organizing business called Smart Hands. "In my work, I sometimes see parents who decide to surprise a child by painting and completely doing over her room while she’s away at camp or on a school trip. These ‘presto rooms’ just don’t feel like home and they don’t reflect a child’s personality."

When her daughter, Abby, chose baby blue and cool green as the colors for her room, Ceremsak had her doubts but kept quiet. "Now, when I walk into the room, it feels like Abby. She knew what she wanted and she was right."

In her eight years working as a colorist for Johnson Paint Company on Newbury Street in Boston, Nadia Malaszenko has dispensed plenty of painting advice for kids’ rooms.

"I always try to make kids feel like they’re a part of it," she says. "Some parents come in with children as young as 4, but kids can start to tell color [preferences] by age 7, 8 or 9. At those ages, they’re more reactive and interactive."

Since every child is different, Malaszenko says she tries to figure out what the child wants. She has learned to use a vocabulary kids understand in terms of color. "I’ll tell them that’s a sad color, or a happy color, or a quiet color. It works."

Her advice to a child who insists on a wall color that doesn’t work? "I tell them the color they’ve picked is a great color for a dress or maybe for a chair, but it’s too bright for walls. Then I suggest some other shades."

Sarah Cooney at Circle Furniture’s Acton, Mass. store likes the idea of using a bright color on just one wall of a bedroom. She also recommends bright colors – hot lime, zinnia pink, shrimp, tomato – for kids’ furniture. "There are some great colors today for beds and bureaus, or you can always buy unfinished furniture and paint it yourself," she says.

What About When They Want Black

And what if your brooding adolescent wants to paint the bedroom walls black? Malaszenko says she tells the teen that black is a depressing color and would create the impression of "living in a dungeon or a cellar." Other parents suggest compromise, such as painting only one wall or the ceiling black (perhaps with the addition of constellation stickers) or using blackboard paint on one wall that can then be written on with chalk.

Don’t Go Theme-Crazy

"Remember that a child’s imagination is far stronger than the images we often think of for their rooms," advises Twining. "Parents get nailed into icons: a little girl has to be a princess or a ballerina; a little boy has to have a sports theme. If you get so specific, your kids get cemented into it. Trust their imaginations."

Instead of theme-based wallpaper borders, for instance, Twining suggests using icons in a print or a piece of artwork that you can easily change later.

She recalls once being asked to help decorate a room for a boy who loved school buses. Rather than use this theme in the décor, she installed a ledge all around the room to highlight his collection of miniature buses.

"He could play with them and put them back, and when he outgrew them he could put something else on the ledge," she explains.

"I always tell customers that everything in the room doesn’t have to match," adds Cooney. "If, for example, you want to give your child Grandma’s mahogany bureau, let it be the one whimsical piece in the room. Or buy a bed and have it stained; you don’t need to find a mahogany bed."

Mom Cynthia Marshall suggests that parents listen when kids say they don’t want something. "If your son tells you he doesn’t want the giant stuffed bear in his room, get rid of it, even if you bought it for him. It isn’t fair to guilt-trip your kids into keeping things you want them to have."

Take Your Time

Research furniture styles and décor online and in various stores before you make up your mind to buy items for your child’s room. A lot has changed since you were a kid! Salespeople today expect you to have questions.

"Customers tend to come in two, three, four or more times before they buy," says Tracy Steedman at Bedrooms in Peabody, Mass. Staff members at the Young America Shops  agree, noting that today’s consumers "have seen a lot" before they even come into the store.

Don’t forget to get out your tape measure. Figure out your child’s room dimensions and write them on a simple sketch showing windows and doors. "People rarely have a concept of what will actually fit in the room they have," says one Young America Shops salesman. "It’s always amazing to us that they will come in to buy furniture without measuring the room!"

Study Your Bedding Options

"When parents come in to buy their child’s first bed, they are excited and often want to get something fun and different," says Cooney. "A lot of parents are buying fullsize beds for very little kids. It’s worth comparing the prices.

If a twin costs $624 and a full is $721, it can be a good investment to buy the bigger bed and have something your child can use right through college, or even take along to a first apartment and use later as a guest-room bed."

"Loft systems are very big right now," notes Steedman. Featuring platform-style beds without box springs, these lofts come in a wide range of styles, some with stairs and desk space or small sofas underneath.

Whatever bed you decide on, buy a good mattress! "Parents who purchase new beds often tend to scrimp on the quality of the mattress, thinking little kids can sleep on anything," Steedman says. "I always try to talk them up on the quality. Kids’ bones are growing and they need proper support. I think a lot of adults today suffer from back problems because they grew up sleeping on lumpy old mattresses."

A lower-end mattress will be OK for about a year, but a higher quality one can last five to 10 years.

Pam Reilly at the Bellini furniture chain, says convertible cribs are very popular. "When the child outgrows the crib, you can use the same mattress and convert it into a toddler bed. And when he outgrows that, with a kit and a new mattress you can turn it into a full-size bed."

When buying a crib, Reilly warns parents of short stature to watch out for the newest styles that have stationary sides. "These will be OK when the mattress is set up high for a new baby, but as your child grows and you lower the mattress, you’ll need to stand on a step stool to reach her.

Make it Cozy

When Edie Twining was a child, the highlight of her room was a built-in bed with two closets, one on either side. "I loved it," she says. She urges parents to think of ways to create the same kinds of cozy, private spaces for their kids. "Instead of a headboard, put two tall shelf units facing in toward the bed. The shelving becomes the child’s very own space for storing books or other stuff." Twining also suggests installing a curtain that the child could easily pull across the opening of the two shelving units. Kids can put on plays from their beds. If siblings share a room, set up two built-in beds for privacy.

Plan a Makeover

Once a year, ideally before a new school year starts, get your child involved in a room makeover. "Move the furniture, buy a few new accent pieces, and create different desk or play areas," recommends Cooney.

Lisa Ceremsak adds that rearranging furniture is a simple way to make a room feel new.

"My daughter rearranges her room several times a year," she says. "We put wheels on the furniture so she can do it without help." 


Georgia Orcutt is former associate editor at the Boston Parents Paper, a Dominion Parenting Media publication.