A neutral paint job works in a child's room because it can be accessorized to fit the phases children go through without starting from scratch. Illustrates DESIGN-KIDS (category e), by Elizabeth Mayhew, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, August 9, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Annie Schlechter)
A neutral paint job works in a child's room because it can be accessorized to fit the phases children go through without starting from scratch. Illustrates DESIGN-KIDS (category e), by Elizabeth Mayhew, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, August 9, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Annie Schlechter)
A neutral paint job works in a child's room because it can be accessorized to fit the phases children go through without starting from scratch. Illustrates DESIGN-KIDS (category e), by Elizabeth Mayhew, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, August 9, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Annie Schlechter)
A neutral paint job works in a child's room because it can be accessorized to fit the phases children go through without starting from scratch. Illustrates DESIGN-KIDS (category e), by Elizabeth Mayhew, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, August 9, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Annie Schlechter)
A neutral paint job works in a child's room because it can be accessorized to fit the phases children go through without starting from scratch. Illustrates DESIGN-KIDS (category e), by Elizabeth Mayhew, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, August 9, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Annie Schlechter)
A neutral paint job works in a child's room because it can be accessorized to fit the phases children go through without starting from scratch. Illustrates DESIGN-KIDS (category e), by Elizabeth Mayhew, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, August 9, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Annie Schlechter)

Washington - I don’t claim to be a parenting expert, but as the mother of two great teenagers, I would say my husband and I have done a pretty good job. I believe all the choices we have made on behalf of our son and daughter – their schools, how they spend their free time, how we have decorated their rooms – have had an impact on their development.

Neither of our kids has a room filled with toys, video games equipment, lava lamps, basketball hoops or trendy bedding.

Instead their rooms are comfortable, tasteful and timeless, partly so that I don’t have to redecorate them after every growth spurt, but also because I want their rooms to reflect our family values.

Too often I talk to parents or soon-to-be parents who want to indulge either their own fantasies or those of their children with gimmicky, impractical designs for their rooms. This is certainly the trend, in part because of reality TV shows that trick out a boy’s room to look like a racetrack pit or a girl’s room to look like a three-ring circus complete with a hanging trapeze.

To me such rooms are indulgences that are impractical and do nothing to foster good habits. They make me wonder why everything for children these days has to be fun? What happened to a quiet place to read, sleep and daydream about being at a racetrack or in a circus?

Lest I sound schoolmarmish, my kids are not living in prison barracks. The trick has been to allow them to have some personal expression at the same time that I exercise parental control.

Here are the decorating rules I followed in doing their rooms. They just so happen to be my parenting rules, too.

Provide edited options. I remember one summer when my mother decided to redecorate my and my siblings’ bedrooms. We were all headed to sleep-away camp, so it was an opportune time to paint and purge (old toys and clothes are more easily sorted when kids are away). Before we left, my mother asked us each what colour we wanted our rooms to be. My brother asked for his room be purple and orange – not attractive even in the late 1970s. Thankfully, my mother did not indulge his preferences, but instead painted the room a neutral colour so that he could have whatever colour bedding and accessories he wanted. I can’t remember whether my brother was disappointed, but in hindsight my mother would have been better off giving him a small selection – say, three colours to choose from. To hand him a 3 000-plus paint chip deck was too overwhelming. You need to present kids with edited choices.

This applies to more than picking paint colours. The next time you ask your children what they want for dinner or which book they want you to read, give them only a couple of options. This way you have some control over the outcome and they feel hey have had a say.

For my own kids, I took a page out of my mother’s book and painted their rooms in neutral tones. My daughter’s room is beige with white woodwork and a pale blue ceiling.

I also used the light blue on the inset panel of her wardrobe doors, just to add some visual interest. That paint job was 16 years ago, and I have had no need to change it because it has grown with her. She can easily change accessories and bedding without having them clash.

My son’s walls and trim are his favourite colour: green. I gave him a few choices, and he settled on a cozy army green, an adaptable shade that goes with almost everything.

Kids go through stages, so be flexible. One of the biggest similarities between parenting and decorating your kid’s room is the need to remain flexible. Just as your kid’s sleep schedule can change in one night, so can his or her obsession with the character du jour, which is why I urge parents to think twice before investing in the full Monsters, Inc ensemble.

It is far better to keep your child’s room neutral – not just in palette, but also in pattern.

Avoid the themed bedding, hand-painted wall murals and character-shaped rug. Children do not have your experience and hindsight to know that their tastes and preferences can change as quickly as their shoe size.

It’s fine to indulge them with Thomas the Tank Engine books, a Spider-Man wall decal or a stuffed toy, but to go all the way is a waste of money and too indulgent.

Give them building blocks and some freedom. Children need a few basic items in their rooms: a bed, a bedside table, a rug, a desk, a desk chair, a reading light, a bookshelf and, if it fits, a comfortable chair.

I have learnt never to pick anything that is too precious.

I like to use solution-dyed acrylic fabrics for upholstery, and I favour washable rugs (my favourites are cotton striped rugs because they come in a variety of colours and are comfortable enough to roll around on).

I never invested in toddler beds or changing tables.

Instead I bought twin beds from the get-go and put a changing pad on top of a dresser that we still use to this day (minus the pad).

Each of my children has a desk and desk chair, but both end up studying on their beds, which seems to work for them, so I don’t force them to change. They both have overhead lights but rely more on reading lights they can switch off without getting out of bed.

They each have a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with books, which I do believe encourages them to read (experts say children who are surrounded with books at home tend to do better in school).

Their rooms are theirs to arrange as they see fit, as long as they stay neat (see next rule).

Create systems that help them help you. Ask just about any mother (or father) what they wish for, especially during the back-to-school rush, and they will tell you that they wants to be more organised. No parent wants to yell at the children to put their laundry in the hamper. Children don’t like to be yelled at, and they crave order too – they just don’t always know it.

It’s up to you to teach by example, which means you need to involve them, not yell at them. I make an effort to put things away after using them, and I encourage my children to the same.

The trick is to have a consistent place for those things to go. I always remind them of the Mary Poppins-ish motto “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

I outfitted my son’s closet wardrobe with cubbies instead of hanging rods because it is easier for him to stack his T-shirts and jeans than hang them. When my kids were younger, I installed hooks (mounted low so that they could reach them) on their walls, in their wardrobes and in the bathroom – it takes much less effort to hang something on a hook than it does to hang it on a hanger or fold it. I am not going to say that I never find a pile of clothes on the floor, but the kids eventually get around to picking up after themselves without me yelling at them.

If you start teaching your children to be organised early on, hopefully they will carry those good habits to school and on throughout their lives. – Washington Post