When Pat Tiller was a graduate student at Harvard, money was tight and living space was cramped. He and his wife Linda, and children, Emily, Mary, and Nathan, shared a small, two bedroom apartment in Watertown, Massachusetts.
The girls occupied one bedroom, Pat and Linda the other, and Nathan lived in the hall closet. "We didn't have any other place to put him," recalls Linda.
Nathan slept in the converted walk-in on a crib mattress until he was four. Then he transferred to a futon in the adjacent living room and the closet became his office until the family moved two years later.
The Tillers painted and stenciled the walls and decorated the sloped ceiling with pictures of farmyard animals. "We didn't want him to feel like he was living in a hole," says Linda. "We made it light and cheerful and never closed the door."
Every child needs a place to call his or her own. "Five to seven years old is when children start to carve out personal space," says Carleton Kendrick, EdM, LCSW, a family therapist in private practice in Medfield, Massachusetts. "It becomes an extension of who they are."
Kendrick stresses that it is not the size of the space that is most significant. "What is important is the effort made by everyone in the family to respect and honor the spot as sacred to the child."
"Kids are always creating personal spaces," says Jim Tolpin, author of The New Family Home. "In fact, they are better at it than adults." According to Tolpin, five- to seven-year olds like having hiding spots—small, enclosed spaces like alcoves, closets, or tents. "If there isn't an alcove there already, a child will make one by moving the furniture around or covering a table with a blanket," Tolpin says.