The Benefits of Living in a Small House With a Family

I have been given so much that I feel quite petty to even worry about house size when the poor are still with us.

The Skinny House in the North End of Boston is an extremely narrow four-story house reported by the Boston Globe as having the "uncontested distinction of being the narrowest house in Boston".
The Skinny House in the North End of Boston is an extremely narrow four-story house reported by the Boston Globe as having the "uncontested distinction of being the narrowest house in Boston". (photo: Source: John Stephen Dwyer, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons )

It has taken me a long time to get to the point of being comfortable with intentionally living in a smaller house with our potentially large family. There is that point after having a baby, when I start thinking about if/when the next one might come along, and if/when he or she does come along, what we are going to do about bedrooms. I spend hours planning and rearrange mentally where we are going to put which person. Then I start to wonder, how much space does each of my children really need? At what point would it make sense to get a bigger house? Can we just get by with the space we have?

Often in the midst of my anxiety about house size, I have had to be reminded that these material things are passing and what really matters is that we grow in holiness. My own experience of growing up in a smaller house in a family of six, realizing how others have lived in the past, talking to friends who grew up in bigger families, and considering creative, economical uses of home space has all contributed to my husband and my decision to choose purposefully to live in our smaller house with our four children and potentially with any future ones.

It is possible that my parents always meant to move to a larger house, but between having four kids and sending us all to Catholic high school and college, it never happened. Really those years went by so quickly, that I do not thing any of us felt particularly crowded after my parents finished the third bedroom in the basement. Sure, personal space was somewhat tight, but we all learned to accommodate each other even with our one bathroom. We used to draw straws in the evening to see who would have the first bath.

My mom has a tiny pink painted wooden house sitting on her kitchen windowsill inscribed with the words, Little house so very small, big enough for love, that’s all. In some ways I think that really describes my home life growing up, for while quarters were tight they gave us a greater opportunity for community and love (even if there was conflict as well). That experience has made me want even more to keep our family close through the size of our house.

But even smaller than my parents’ house are those that the Ingalls family lived in during their many adventures in homesteading in the prairies. I have been reading the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my four-year-old daughter and I am always struck by the tiny spaces they lived in especially during long, cold winters. In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura is amazed when her family of six gets to use the surveyor’s house, which has board floors instead of dirt, and two stories, a pantry, and three whole rooms! In most of the other books they lived in one or two room homes, often sleeping in quite close quarters with only a curtain dividing the parents from the children. Compared to the little homes of the Ingalls family, our ranch house from the 50s with a finished basement, even with the 5-6 months of cold we get in Minnesota, seems like the lap of luxury. We have way more rooms then they had in any of their houses.

I also found our four-bedroom home to be quite an adequate size for a lot more children than we have when I saw an exhibit about the living spaces of immigrants in the city of St. Paul. People raised their families of 4 and more children in little 2 or 3 room apartments with a small city lot to play in. An older man told my sister about when he was a child and his parents used to bunk their 12 kids in Navy-style bunks with a boys’ room and a girls’ room. The expectation of a large bed and a large bedroom that seems to prevail in modern times ignores the fact that people can sleep just fine, many to a room.

I recently had a great conversation with a friend who grew up in a family of 12 kids. We talked about how many bedrooms they had (2 or 3 kids per bedroom was normal), and how much extra play space they had besides bedrooms. We talked about how a yard can make up for a lack of indoor space, and how a playroom for toys and play can go a long way when the bedroom space is tight. Basically, we concluded that it is more important to have space for living in than lots of floor space in a bedroom. When my husband and I bought our house, one of my top priorities was to have a separate family space for playing and toys from the main living room, which we have been able to have with our finished basement. It has made a huge difference all year round.

I have been greatly helped by the tiny-house movement and the savvy of people like those who work for Ikea. These people, who are trying to reduce their ecological footprint by making a small space livable, are actually helping people with lots of kids. They are finding ways to fit the comforts of modern homes into tiny apartments and homes. I like to use their inspirations to organize our home, so that we have things like a capsule wardrobe for each family member (basically enough clothes for a week and no more), use our storage space efficiently, and have multiple uses for each room. For example, putting a home school organization shelf in my husband’s study, which also is my “gym” with my treadmill, freed up several other cupboards and emptied out a closet, but also made it possible for our kitchen table and dining room tables to double as our school rooms.

Besides being able to make a home of our size work for our family, living in a smaller house, where bedrooms are shared and family rooms are full of people has spiritual benefits. Blessed John Henry Newman said:

I cannot fancy any state of life more favorable for the exercise of high Christian principle, and the matured and refined Christian spirit (that is, where the parties really seek to do their duty), than that of persons who differ in tastes and general character, being obliged by circumstances to live together, and mutually accommodate to each other their respective wishes and pursuits.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, II, 5)

A family that is forced to live in closer quarters, that has to come in contact with each other, has an opportunity for greater communion with each other, which causes us all to be more human. Man was not meant to be alone; none of us were meant to be alone. I do put great value in alone time; we have our own “little silence” quiet time each afternoon in our house in which we spread out to have alone time. Yet, children need formation in community—they cannot form themselves in virtue or manners.

Being in a small space helps us to learn to love, to argue, to forbear with one another, to be merciful, and to overcome our differences. It helps us learn to be quiet, and have an interior silence even when other people are in the room. It helps us to exert ourselves to pay attention to and show love to others when we would rather be left alone. Being in a small space helps us to put less value in material comforts, because we cannot have as many due to space, and it helps us to put more value in eternal things. Being in a small space helps us to live simpler, so that our hearts have more room to focus on God. Being in a small space helps us to have a greater love for the world, because we do not use as many resources to sustain ourselves.

Further, choosing to live simply helps us to see more clearly what Pope Francis has expressed in Laudato Si when he spoke of the grave inequalities that there are between the wealthy and the poor in our world.

But we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. (LS 90)

I hope that by choosing to live in a smaller house, I am reminded of the great material gift I have been given being born into a middle class American family and to now be living at a similar economic level as in my youth. I have been given so much that I feel quite petty to even worry about house size when the poor are still with us. By choosing intentionally to live in the simple way that we strive for, my hope is that my children will grow up to desire to be free of attachment to material goods, and be able to exercise the virtue of liberality where they are not anxious about their goods, and willing to give to others that which they do not need.

And perhaps, if we can, we will be able to live out Christ’s words:

Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12: 27-34)