Growing up in working class Baltimore, our house had one bathroom. Though my parents could have put in another bathroom in the basement, there never seemed to be a reason to do so. For us, one was enough. For my parents, I suppose it reflected their own conditions growing up. My mother, one of five siblings, had one bathroom. My father’s family was smaller, but he lived in a row home. The house he spent much of his youth in had been built at a time when “outside facilities” (the “outhouse”) was typical, and later, before, his family move in, in door plumbing was installed, and a smaller bedroom became the bathroom. This probably explains why some bathrooms in older homes are much larger than they need be.
The size of the American home has increased over time. The average size in 2015 was 2,467 square feet: 61 percen bigger than 40 years earlier. In 1960, the year I was born, it was 1,289 square feet, and in 1931, the year my father was born, it was 1,213 square feet. And of the 648,000 single-family homes completed in 2015, 25,000 had one and one-half bathrooms or less, while 246,000 homes had three or more bathrooms. But the average number of family members has in fact decreased: in 1960 it was 3.67 and in 2016, 3.14. As you can see, the trend is upwards: larger homes, and more bathrooms. But families are getting smaller.
The point of this piece is not to make the argument that our homes are needlessly getting larger, which I probably could make fairly easily. Europeans, who have living similar standards to Americans, generally live in smaller homes.
Sharing one bathroom provides important learning opportunities that can be lost for the sake of affluence and convenience. If you need to share a bathroom, then ergo, you will need to negotiate for its use with your siblings (no small feat) and other family members. Standing in line for the bathroom requires patience (and even at times fortitude), and finally, where there are many bathroom users there is a constant need for time management and planning.
In my own home, we have two bathrooms, but the basement one is used primarily by my in-laws who live with us much of the year. The one on the first floor has been shared by my wife, daughter (now 18, she seems to be using it more of late), and, at times, our son (who is 22, out of college and overseas in the Peace Corps), and me. It seems to have worked over the years. Even in the morning, when everyone is getting themselves together for the day, rarely are there conflicts over use.
There is much humor in our popular culture about the challenges of sharing a bathroom, particularly among siblings. But realistically, the requirement of sharing demands that brothers and sisters find a way to accommodate each other’s needs and schedule. Of course, sometimes parents might need to intervene (mom as the family mediator) to find a solution, but overall siblings tend to figure it out.
Today studies are showing that young people are lacking in social skills that are important for them to succeed in the workplace and in their personal lives. Technology seems to have played a role in reducing social skills awareness. These skills, sometime referred to as “soft skills,” include time management, collaboration, problem solving, and negotiation. Have we set up a society that because of affluence, the need to share and compromise is no longer present? In some families everyone has their own bathroom. That’s very nice, but it likely undermines opportunities for individuals to engage, figure out how to share, and then compromise, often to accommodate another person whose demands might be greater at the moment! In this process, we learn not only important skills, but also increase our capacity for empathy, tolerance, understanding of others, patience (and forbearance: we can’t get everything we want right way!), and finally how to live in a world of conflict and differences. We can’t teach that enough today. And sharing a bathroom might provide a wellspring for some interesting stories from childhood.
Though in shopping for a home, a real estate agent will likely encourage you to purchase a house with as many bathrooms as your budget can afford (or maybe your ego demands), maybe having fewer can provide important life lessons for your family that would be lost if you each had your own private loo.
David J. Smith is an educational consultant focusing on peacebuilding. He is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He lives in Rockville, Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.