Is the "plan" in "open floor plan" never to take our eyes off our kids?

Open Floor Concept: A Helicoptering Idea?

How tefnnrsekt
we live reflects what we think is important, obviously. So here’s a question about the connection between home design and parenting:
Dear Free-Range Kids: I am interested if you have noticed the similarities in our society of hyper-vigilant parenting and the “open concept floor plan?” I love watching those Do It Yourself and home remodeling shows. Inevitably, a family will request an open concept floor plan so they can “keep an eye on the kids” while the mom is in the kitchen.
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Being the parent of two young children, I’m wondering if these families have not yet discovered babyproofing, or if they typically keep weaponry in the den which would require the parents to hover over their children while they are watching cartoons.
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I was raised in historic homes with walls and doors that separated me from my parents. I lived for years on a farm where it was common practice for my mom to go out to the barn to feed the pigs, while I was a toddler left alone in the house. I was out of her sight in our own home on our own property and I survived!
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It seems that we are being programmed to not only never leave your children unattended where danger “could” exist, but also to never leave your children unattended in your house if there is a wall that will separate the two of you.
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Thank you for your work! — M. Lane, Colorado
Now M. Lane has me wondering, too. A while back we were wondering if stairs were now considered too dangerous for kids.
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It feels as if the open floor concept was more of a designer idea than a parenting one. But it’s also true that we are getting to the point where taking our eyes off our kids even for a few minutes is considered outrageously dangerous. So, readers, what have you observed? Are kids under constant observation indoors as well as out? Do tell! – L.

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Is the "plan" in "open floor plan" never to take our eyes off our kids?

Is the “plan” in “open floor plan” never to take our eyes off our kids? (Photo from Steve Bennet Builders)

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50 Responses to Open Floor Concept: A Helicoptering Idea?

  1. Anna October 4, 2016 at 10:31 am #

    I don’t know if it’s a helicoptering idea, but I do know the reason I love closed-concept homes (if that’s what you call the opposite) is that it’s quite nice to have separate spaces so my son can play NOT in the same room as me. Since I grew up in a family of 8 kids, my parents also set a high value on separate rooms with doors that could be closed in between them.

  2. E October 4, 2016 at 10:31 am #

    Who knows. Our first home was “open floor plan” likely because it was cheaper to build (a new construction starter home) and remember thinking it would not be a plan that I’d like long term because of the noise traveling everywhere if someone (kids or otherwise) were watching TV and others were in the kitchen or at the table conversing. I do think that many older homes were WAY chopped up and semi claustrophobic.

    Maybe it’s also related to people not wanting to be cut off from the entertainment aka TV while they work in the kitchen.

    It’s hard to make this argument when people also want bonus rooms or basement media/play rooms which tuck kids out of sight/sound.

  3. DrTorch October 4, 2016 at 10:41 am #

    Interesting hypothesis.

    Of course Little House on the Prairie books suggested that open floor concept has been around a long time simply b/c it was cheaper and easier to construct.

    But, is it now in vogue in order to helicopter parent? Seems a stretch to me, as kids can still go to their rooms, or are probably sent to their rooms, in such houses.

  4. Emily October 4, 2016 at 10:52 am #

    Helicopter parenting and worry about stairs are nothing new, though it used to be unusual. Queen Victoria wasn’t allowed to walk downstairs alone until the day she became Queen, aged 18; her mother or her governess had to hold her hand!

  5. Workshop October 4, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    I think the idea of an “open floor plan” came about because people think they will be having all sorts of parties, and don’t want some guests banished to the kitchen. “We’ll make you social whether you like it or not!” Repurposing that idea as a helicopter parent is what the mindset of a helicopter parent does. Everything must be evaluated against watching the children.

    However, if the helicopter parent is in the kitchen making dinner, he/she should really be focused on their own safety first. There’s a hot stove, grease, water, sharp knives, and debris from psychotic chopping and mincing. If you’re going to “keep an eye on the kids” why don’t you just go into the same room and play with them, read with them, interact with them instead of dividing your attention and potentially slicing a finger?

    “Open concept” is probably like most real estate jargon – fancy words to cover something else. “Too small to turn around in” becomes “quaint.” Dated wood paneling becomes “charming.” Tiny yard becomes “low maintenance lawn.” Open concept probably started because someone fancied up “we were too lazy to build proper walls.”

    Yes, there was snark there. Having fewer blind spots as you transfer hot food from one room to another is a safety feature. I added this disclaimer for the commenters who take things too literally.

  6. Anna October 4, 2016 at 11:36 am #

    “Of course Little House on the Prairie books suggested that open floor concept has been around a long time simply b/c it was cheaper and easier to construct.”

    Uh, what? Yes, their early homes: cabin, shanty, dugout etc. were “open concept” but only in the sense that they consisted of a single room, likely not much more than 100 square feet. Once they live in a larger home in the later books, there’s nothing indicating “open concept,” is there? Generally, before central heating, all rooms had doors because you didn’t want to waste fuel heating a room no one was using at the moment.

  7. Anna October 4, 2016 at 11:43 am #

    ‘“Open concept” is probably like most real estate jargon – fancy words to cover something else.’

    Perhaps, but many people seem to love it. I regularly see articles about home renovations whose main theme is how much more wonderful the house is now that they took out the walls separating dining room, kitchen, family room, etc.

    A few factors that I think have led to the vogue of open concept design: how informally most people tend to live today (hence all the scorn I see everywhere for formal dining or living rooms), how central TV is to everything (so nobody wants to be in a different room from it, whether they’re cooking, eating, doing homework, or whatever), and the fact that families are smaller (so separate spaces are not as necessary for the many different activities that would be going on at once in a larger household).

  8. Nicole R. October 4, 2016 at 12:04 pm #

    I have to say, I love my open concept house!…But mostly it’s because I’m guilty of watching TV while I work in the kitchen. I never thought about it as a helicopter factor.

  9. Vicki Bradley October 4, 2016 at 12:11 pm #

    I’m glad this article was written as I totally agree with it – I have always been annoyed by the renovators talking about the “great sight lines” of the open-concept house that allows the children to be watched at all times while the parents are in the kitchen. Open-concept is definitely great for entertaining but not so great when you want some quiet, private time, which I often crave. It would never have occurred to me when my kids were younger that I would need it so that I can watch them every minute they’re awake.

  10. Momof8 October 4, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

    I think it’s more about connection and conversation. Also, it’s simpler and more adaptable. We chose on open floor plan to make the best use of the views around our house and for more natural light. I’d rather not be in my kids’ faces all the time, but then again, I’m big on free-range parenting. We’ve had some regrets, mostly that it’s noisy and nookless, not much quiet space. But we are many and our house is very small, so those are factors also.

  11. E October 4, 2016 at 12:20 pm #

    Right, families operate a little differently. Entertainment is different. Formal living rooms are no longer popular. Small bathrooms are no longer popular. Bonus rooms and media rooms are popular.

    I don’t really care what people on reality TV say, it’s all for whatever the show wants to project. Haven’t you seen them whine about *gasp* countertops that aren’t granite and stoves that aren’t gas?

  12. Dayna October 4, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

    We have an open floor plan but I never thought of it as a way to keep track of the kids, rather it creates an awesome flow of energy in the house and actually gives kids the opportunity to choose just how “exposed” they (or us) want to be. They can always retreat into their rooms to talk to friends, do homework, play, build, etc. or if they are feeling like they want to connect, they have that option as well.

  13. Rebecca October 4, 2016 at 12:30 pm #

    I hate open concept homes so much… and it’s because you *can’t* babyproof very well. I could set up a little baby jail and they’d have… what? 17-18 sq/ft? That’s not enough! I can’t set up the gate anywhere because there are no doorways… so I block the stairs and keep my fingers crossed I don’t trip over her. I mean, what else are you gonna do? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  14. John B. October 4, 2016 at 12:32 pm #

    Interesting perspective! I’m not sure it has anything to do with kids but more so with making the inside of your house appear bigger and more spacious. From my observation this seems to be the trend with the new homes. In fact, I currently live in a 1,550 square foot house and I’ve been pondering the idea of having a few walls knocked out so my home will appear bigger. My house was built in 1990 so it’s in dire need of a style upgrade!

    But who knows? Perhaps this idea did originate with the need to keep a closer eye on the kids. In that case, it wouldn’t surprise me that kids’ bedrooms of the future will not have any doors or walls but be an open space. Most kids today would be appalled at that idea but kids of the future will gradually learn to put up with that nonsense.

  15. LGB October 4, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    I always cynically considered the “open design concept” just developer-speak for cutting costs by nixing extra sheetrock. When I lived in one of these houses, I still set aside the toys in a closed part of the house because when it comes to showing every last kiddy mess, this floor plan is unforgiving.

  16. Heartfruit October 4, 2016 at 12:40 pm #

    When we were shopping for our current home our real estate agent got notably excited when I told her I liked walls and under no circumstances wanted my kitchen on display to anyone who came to the door.

  17. Tiffany October 4, 2016 at 12:45 pm #

    I think that it might be a bit of a stretch to say that “open concept” living is a relic of helicopter parenting, even if it comes off as a selling point for parents who can’t imagine having their children out of sight. We renovated our very “closed-concept” 1950’s home (I called it boxes within a box) long before we had kids so that it didn’t feel as clausterphobic and to take advantage of natural lighting throughout the day. It also made it easier for my husband and I to feel like we were spending time together when one of us was cooking and the other was doing something in the main room. Like Momof8 said, it is about connection and conversation. I would say that it continues to do the same as we have had kids. If the kids feel like being social after school, they sit at the dining room table working on puzzles and coloring, or sit on a bar stool on the other side of the counter (and not under foot) as I make dinner. If they want their privacy, they head to their bedrooms or the basement… or outside. I would never have thought of the floor plan as a way of supporting helicopter parenting until I read this post, and I still think that it is a bit of a stretch. At least, it doesn’t fit with the benefits that I see for an open floor plan.

  18. elizabeth October 4, 2016 at 12:54 pm #

    I only like the open floor concept because it’s roomy. wouldn’t be much good if the kids left everything scattered and you couldn’t do dishes every day so they piled up. “Welcome to my home. pretend the toys and dirty dishes are invisible, please.”

  19. Vicki Bradley October 4, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    Tiffany: honestly, it’s not a “bit of a stretch” – the parents and renovators in these shows talk exactly in those helicopter-y terms. I’ve been noticing it for the last few years that I’ve been watching those shows, and it always bothered me.

  20. Maren October 4, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    Our kitchen, living room, and dining room are all in the same big space, at the center of which is a masonry heater. This was by design (as part of a renovation/addition) partly to take advantage of the radiant heat from the stone, and partly to be able to host big events — education events, house concerts — which sometimes exceed 100 people. By shifting furniture around (and building a closet to hold two tiers of folding chairs) I can seat most of those people facing a speaker/screen/performer in one corner. And there’s space to spread out for the accompanying potluck supper.

    OTOH, I added a wall breaking up a room in the back end of the house; one bedroom was rather larger than I thought necessary, and had big windows which would just have had to be curtained to keep the bedroom dark and private. Other bedrooms are kind of small, but we get by. Two of them were made from one room long ago.

  21. Larissa Gilbert October 4, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

    Thanks for all of your work!
    Helicoptering definitely occurs in the home. In my circle of Moms with little kids, a common complaint concerns not having privacy in the bathroom. I have always shut the door and chanted “private time!” I earn a lot of “you SHUT the door?!” comments and incredulous looks. My kids are 6 and 3, and if they were ever quiet enough that I couldn’t hear them through 20 closed doors, I’d lock those doors and take a nap. Anyway, I figure our house is safe enough for them to play in without me staring at them all the time.

  22. bmommyx2 October 4, 2016 at 1:56 pm #

    I never looked at it that way or heard anyone say that, but I suppose some might. I did have a contractor once tell me that walls are the biggest wasted space in a home, I like to the that is where to open floor plan stems. I am the farthest thing from a helicopter parent, but having kids within earshot is another way to stay connected as a family. Sometimes I am concerned I don’t spend enough time with them. My kids play out front or at a neighbors house & when they are home they are upstairs.

  23. lollipoplover October 4, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    We have an open concept kitchen/family room but more traditional front rooms. The room the little ones played in was our formal living room because I could gate it off and use it as a giant playpen. It was the only room we kept carpeted (though we’ve ripped it out since) and it was basically a padded room with baby toys. It’s evolved into a computer room/library since the kids are now older.

    I LOVE having open concept, mainly because I do so much cooking and prepping food and don’t want to be isolated from the action. These shows that have people critiquing houses for dangers towards children drive me nuts. They have to be actors. What parent of young kids wants stainless steel appliances?? Do they know how much these bastards will be smear and schmoogie every shiny surface, over and over?
    The fear of stairs and kids drives me crazy, too. So the pool is just fine… right off the back door but you’re worried about a fall down stairs? What about the 4 lane highway in your front yard? They always pick the worst house.

    Parents who think open concept is safer clearly have never tried to cook a meal with kids climbing up the cabinets or opened a hot oven with baby Kale riding his ergonomic scooter through the open concept kitchen accented with reclaimed barnwood.

  24. Shawn October 4, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

    No, this is not a helicoptering idea.

    As a parent of four children who enjoys cooking, I typically get off work at 5:00 and then spend the next three hours in the kitchen (cleaning, then cooking, then serving, then cleaning again). I love this time. It also makes the kitchen the heart of the home. II also want to spend time socializing with my family — talking, taking homework questions, etc. An open kitchen plan, which allows this communication promotes this social interaction.

    Nothing nefarious here — let’s move along to real helicopter parent examples.

  25. E October 4, 2016 at 2:51 pm #

    @Shawn — that’s what I was going to say. If you come home and have to feed kids, do dishes, catch up with the spouse, hear about the kids’ day, it’s nice that you aren’t stuck in a kitchen alone.

    My stay at home mother had supper cooked (or at least ready to go into its final phases) when my Dad walked in the door. She greeted him at the door with a kiss, and we were probably having dinner before 6pm most nights. Homework might already have been done since we came home right after school.

    It doesn’t work that way anymore in most homes.

  26. lollipoplover October 4, 2016 at 3:18 pm #

    “As a parent of four children who enjoys cooking, I typically get off work at 5:00 and then spend the next three hours in the kitchen (cleaning, then cooking, then serving, then cleaning again). I love this time. It also makes the kitchen the heart of the home. II also want to spend time socializing with my family — talking, taking homework questions, etc. An open kitchen plan, which allows this communication promotes this social interaction.”

    I completely agree.
    Every house that I’ve ever lived in, everyone always winds up hanging out in the kitchen. It truly is the heart of the house and where everyone congregates…naturally. Most nights I’m positioned in the middle of the island while the kids are doing some homework (or getting me to sign forms) at the bar stools. I’m like a mom bartender, dispensing advise and feeding hungry kids (and perhaps having a nice glass of wine). But we make them do the dishes now to contribute towards their meal. It’s not so much a parenting style as a personal housing preference. I hate closed-off kitchens.

    Has anyone ever watched those Tiny House Hunters type shows? Homeowners who think it’s a great idea to live together in 200 square feet? I watch these with amazement- it makes sense to work less and live more and not pay so much for a mortgage. Who really needs a large sectional sofa when you can have a foam cushion? But them I turn towards my husband and realize I would murder him if we were stuck together in such little space. And the dog farts.

  27. marie October 4, 2016 at 3:25 pm #

    Helicoptering is in the parents, not in the house plan.

    The TV shows, though, use “for the children” as a selling point just like computer monitoring software does: because it seems to work. Believe me, if “for the children” didn’t sell, the sloganeers would move on to another catch phrase.

  28. Backroads October 4, 2016 at 4:09 pm #

    Huh. I happen to love the open floor plans because everything just looks spacious and simpler. Never thought of it as having anything to do with watching kids.

    Now I’m a tad paranoid…

  29. Curious October 4, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

    Useful discussion!
    I bought a home when my son was nine. It was open and a lot of fun for running all around and up and down. Worked well for dogs, too.
    Now he is grown and I have rescue cats and I wish every room had a door. Oh well.
    The home of my dreams has always been the Arts and Crafts Bungalow like the one my best friend lived in when I was nine.
    It had inglenooks and lots of smallish rooms with doors that closed and a great porch front and back. Places to hide under the stairs. An attic. All missing from my home.
    Open floor plan houses are seldom cozy.
    Gimme shelter.

  30. pentamom October 4, 2016 at 5:42 pm #

    Marie, exactly. The fact that the designers blather on about it doesn’t mean that the concept was developed for helicoptering. It means the designers have found a hook for promoting what’s already out there.

  31. Jessie October 4, 2016 at 5:46 pm #

    If young people hear the message that open floor plan is better because you can keep a better eye on your kids, they will probably remember that when it’s time to start a family and shop for a home. Anything with closed-off rooms will feel unsafe. I know lots of teenagers that love design and remodel shows. These same kids are always bugging their parents to “redo their room.”
    I have a big open kitchen/family room. My kids are ALWAYS hungry because we are always where the food is. Come to think of it, I’m constantly snacking myself…

  32. baby-paramedic October 4, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

    I hate open plan living.
    Alas, I live in the tropics, so open plan living is the best way to go (if you can get cross breezes happening, which luckily we can). It becomes a problem though if there is no breeze and you need to use the aircon (we do avoid it where possible).
    I suspect I hate open plan living because I am a massive introvert. A bit of separation is a good thing.
    Conversely my husband, big extrovert, LOVES open plan. He can see and be involved in everything!

  33. Susanna October 4, 2016 at 8:32 pm #

    Okay, maybe it’s just because I’m a die-hard lover of the open floor plan, but this rubs me the wrong way. I don’t want to see Free Range go the way of the world, except in reverse: hypervigilant for any whiff of “danger” (except in our case it would be hypervigilant for “fear of danger”).
    Here’s the thing about floor plans and kids, at least young ones: the *kids* often want to keep an eye on mom (and food potential). So if the kitchen is old-farmhouse style, closed away at the back of the house, that’s where the entire family will be: crammed in there, clogging up the workspace and driving the cook batty.
    Open floor allows proximity without overcrowding. 😉

  34. Cassie October 5, 2016 at 3:12 am #

    I want a combo…. a large open plan space, but plenty of nooks and crannies in the other areas of the house/yard/shed for us to find our favourite personal spots.

    Open plan is great for when friends are over.

  35. MichaelF October 5, 2016 at 6:07 am #

    Nah, that sort of thing has been around far longer than helicoptering. Like everything else, its co-opted for something new.

  36. Katie G October 5, 2016 at 6:35 am #

    I doubt my grandparents would think they had been that way when they designed the half-wall setup between the kitchen and play area in the house they built in 1955….but ugh, I hate open floor designs in general!

  37. Rae Pica October 5, 2016 at 9:31 am #

    I’m a huge fan of HGTV and have noticed the same thing. Every time I hear parents say that they want to be able to keep their eyes on their kids at all times, I think back to my own childhood and imagine (1) having eyes on me at all times and (2) never being able to play anywhere but the family room. Ugh. But, honestly, it’s the comment about the stairs that really gets me. Parents won’t buy a home with a staircase because they have children. WTH? Surely children through the ages have managed to survive being raised in homes with stairs! Otherwise we’d have a MUCH smaller population.

  38. Bridget October 5, 2016 at 9:58 am #

    I see people say that on home shows also. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I am super happy it is a thing. I love open concept. My current home has it.

  39. sexhysteria October 5, 2016 at 11:11 am #

    An open-floor home doesn’t allow kids any privacy to play doctor.

  40. Reziac October 5, 2016 at 11:34 am #

    Know why those older homes and rustic cabins so often have a dozen tiny rooms upstairs?

    Because they had a dozen kids, and kids want a space to themselves, no matter how small.

    Kids need privacy. It makes them feel like they individuals who matter. If you can give your kids nothing else, give them this.

  41. Emily October 5, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    >>I want a combo…. a large open plan space, but plenty of nooks and crannies in the other areas of the house/yard/shed for us to find our favourite personal spots.

    Open plan is great for when friends are over.<<

    Yeah, I've seen a lot of houses that are "open plan" on the first floor (like, living room and kitchen combined), but the rest of the house is individual rooms–bedrooms, bathrooms, laundry room, usually a finished basement, maybe an extra room that's an office or a sewing room, et cetera. This seems like a reasonable way to design a house, so there's an area on the main floor that's good for entertaining guests or having family time, but private spaces throughout the rest of the house.

  42. SteveD October 5, 2016 at 2:28 pm #

    Re: Open concept

    The book:

    FROM BAUHAUS TO OUR HOUSE (1981)
    by Tom Wolfe

    Page 32

    (Describing a new modern worker housing project in 1927)

    “…they had open floor plans, ending the old individualistic, bourgeois obsession with privacy.”

  43. BMS October 5, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    I was reading an article in the Angie’s List newsletter about how today’s homes burn much faster and hotter than previous homes. Where you used to have about 17 minutes to escape once a smoke alarm went off, now it’s more like 4 minutes. Part of the problem is materials – plaster lath insulates better than drywall, lots of synthetic materials, etc. Part of the problem is that open plan homes do not allow you to close doors to slow down a fire. Interesting…

  44. Jenny Islander October 5, 2016 at 4:37 pm #

    I also think that a well-designed open-plan home has the advantage of not trapping the cook all alone in the kitchen. But I wouldn’t be able to stand our open-plan home if it didn’t include features that broke up the sight lines, as well as a sheltered, sunny porch right outside.

  45. test October 5, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

    I don’t like open floor much, I like to be able to close the door to kitchen when there are visitors and kitchen is full of dishes they used or I used for cooking. That being said, it is just personal preference and I do not think it has anything to do with being freerange or helicoptering. I also prefer white walls over colored ones and that does not have anything to do with freerange vs helicoptering either.

    Small kids like to play nearby parents anyway even if they have own room and I can imagine how someone would like to have more space for that around kitchen.

  46. Stephanie October 5, 2016 at 8:38 pm #

    I like open concept because it’s easier to socialize as a family… at least when everyone is in the house. That said, my kids get to use our garage as their play space – they get to be messier that way.

  47. hineata October 5, 2016 at 9:37 pm #

    I expect it’s nothing to do with helicoptering, and more about better heating options making bigger rooms viable. I love our open plan kitchen and sitting room, great for parties and accommodating teenage male bodies sprawled around, but I do sort of miss the days when the girls’ bedroom was our sitting room, a completely separate room where I could lock the toddlers off and cook in peace ☺.

    Our house is 1200 square feet, and much more roomy than when it was 800 square feet of course, but a neat thing about an older house is that you can have a combination of styles fairly easily if you want. Knock down a few walls for open plan living, and still have nice big bedrooms. And a small bathroom – could never understand the concept of a big bathroom ☺

  48. Rachael October 7, 2016 at 9:47 am #

    Our open floor plan makes home schooling easier. I can separate the kids (because they work better that way), have one in the dining room, one in the living room, and one in the adjacent play/school room. I can be working in the kitchen while discussing math and science.

  49. Teresa October 9, 2016 at 10:59 pm #

    I think that allowing more child supervision is just an added “bonus” of open concept design. The real root of it is a combination of more casual living causing us to get away from formal dining rooms and sitting rooms, with new construction methods and materials that allow us to build larger open spaces with fewer (more widely spaced) structural supports.

  50. Ravin October 11, 2016 at 11:49 am #

    I tend to think of it more as encouraging communication. I like open floor plans because without them everyone in my family would be in a bedroom behind a closed door with their face in a screen. With an open floor plan, everyone can be a reasonable distance from each other, with noise cancelling headphones and a face in a screen, but at least when we look up we know we aren’t alone.