What Is It About Teens Behind Closed Doors That Scares Us So?

Jason Reid’s Get Out of My Room! takes us inside the private enclaves of the adolescent being, revealing both individual and collective anxieties and expectations.

It has been a trend for some time among general interest non-fiction writing to take a small subject, something easily overlooked, place it under the microscope of deep historical examination, and demonstrate the depth of its previously unheralded influence. Mark Kurlansky can be credited among the originators of this sub-genre and has enjoyed great commercial success with books like Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of a Fish That Changed the World.

Other examples include Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses and Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic. These works of popular history have in common a Malcolm Gladwell-like mix of deep thought and whimsy, drawing readers in with their uncommon observations of what was previously viewed as common. David Foster Wallace’s influential essay “Consider the Lobster” offers another example of the form: engaging and surprising, often with a sense of weightlessness in their reportage.

Jason Reid’s Get Out of My Room: A History of Teen Bedrooms in America makes a weighty contribution to this sub-genre. Published by University of Chicago Press, the book offers a more scholarly-inflected tone and perspective on its subject than its mass market cousins, but creates a no less accessible and, in the end, enjoyable reading experience. Reid’s subject is one that is, like salt or lobsters, widely taken for granted yet upon which we collectively ascribe deeper meanings and values. How we’ve come to those expectations and practices forms the core of this fascinating and deeply researched study.

At the book’s heart, Reid sets out to answer two questions: 1.When did the idea of the autonomous teen bedroom emerge and become normative in American culture?

and 2. What individuals, institutions, and other social and cultural factors helped bring this ideal to the fore? Consulting a variety of resources going back into the 19th century, including private journals and diaries, publications from both influential and forgotten child psychologists, popular press features and news, and marketing and advertising copy, Reid succeeds in answering both of his primary questions, often in surprising ways.

While popular portrayals of teen bedroom culture over the previous 30 years have tended to focus on the negative effects of teen isolation and reflect broad social paranoia regarding untamed youth, Reid clarifies that the earliest proponents of the “own room” argument for adolescent children were highly idealistic of its potential benefits. Where middle-class parents of the 1980s worried that their children were discovering Satanism while listening to heavy metal in their bedrooms, progressive-minded parents well before the 1880s were encouraged to provide their teen children, especially their daughters, with a private bedroom because it allowed the budding young adult a quiet space for prayer.

Among the many works of early 19th century diarists, Reid cites Elizabeth Payson, whose 1830s-era journal records the spiritual conversion she experienced in her private bedroom. Many other diarists from the period express similar uses for their precious private space, and Reid finds ample encouragement among contemporary theorists like O.S. Fowler, selling parents on the value of an “own room” for their daughter’s spiritual and intellectual growth.

Interestingly, most proponents of private bedrooms for teens of this era, Reid points out, were highly gender-specific in their considerations, particularly in rural America. As girls were expected to become future keepers of their own home, the private bedroom, many child development experts claimed, allowed them an opportunity to engage in home-based behaviors and develop proper domestic habits. Boys, meanwhile, with expectations of earning their means beyond the walls of the home, were, from an early age, pointed towards outdoor activities, their often shared bedrooms conceived as little more than rest stations in between outdoor chores and excursions.

Reid does an excellent job of tracing the “own room” trend from its origins in post-colonial America through today, diagramming as he does the change in cultural perspectives regarding parental control of their children and the norms of childrearing. The influence of behaviorist psychologists like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, with their mantra of the importance of self-reliance, encouraged parents to create private space for their children’s positive self-development. By the ’20s, Freud’s influence furthered the perceived need for children to develop both physical and emotional separation from their parents. Where shared bedrooms, and shared beds, were the norm at the start of the 19th century, by its end in the Industrial Revolution, social attitudes were well on their way to making individual children’s bedrooms, once almost exclusive to the upper-class, the norm for middle-class families; halfway into the 20th century, that norm had expanded to include most working-class families as well.

A growing economy, Reid shows, contributed to the trend both in enabling larger homes while also encouraging smaller families as more moved into the middle-class and away from agrarian labor. Science and technology, too, played a major role in the shift. At a time when common communicable diseases contributed to a high child mortality rate, doctors noted that providing separate sleeping quarters could quell the spread within a family. Meanwhile, the country’s growing grid of electric power enabled better home heating, moving the family from the one or two centrally heated rooms into the home’s peripheries. All of these changes, Reid shows, contributed to shifting perspectives on parenting and on the relationships between parents and their children.

One cannot address the subject of teen bedroom culture, of course, without confronting cultural fears regarding teenage sexuality and delinquency. The “own room” perspective of parenting became dominant in spite of ongoing fears regarding a world in which teenagers, left unattended, are freed to follow their passions wherever they might lead. Ironically, Reid identifies some early proponents, including advice gurus Dear Abby and Anne Landers, who argued that providing private bedrooms for teenagers granted parents more authority and control simply through the fact that a teenager at home alone in her bedroom, or even a teen entertaining friends therein (with the door open!) was, nonetheless home and thereby subject to parental monitoring. Similarly, the entertainment and related industries saw ample marketing opportunity in this relationship, as Reid notes, citing among many examples an early Atari ad that encouraged parents to purchase a home gaming console so that they would not have to worry about their kids getting into any mischief at the arcade.

Reid addresses parents’ fears of sex and drugs and their teenagers in a chapter aptly titled “Danger!” Going back to the origins of the idea, opponents of private children’s bedrooms cited an increased opportunity for masturbation and other so-called unhealthy forms of self-abuse. Reid does a thorough job of outlining parents’ fears regarding teen sex, drug use, and depression, focusing strongly on the decades of the ’60s through the ’80s. If this chapter seems under-developed in comparison to others in the book, it’s only because the subject is so large that it could merit its own book-length treatise.

Reid opens the chapter with the 1985 case of Raymond Belknap and James Vance, whose parents sued the UK band Judas Priest after the boys’ mutual suicide attempts (Belknap succeeded, Vance eventually succumbed in 1988). The case is a flashpoint for many of the pro- and con-arguments regarding teen bedroom culture as is the case of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, which Reid reserves for brief discussion in the book’s conclusion. There’s a sense that Reid skims the surface of a much deeper pool here, but then, Get Out of My Room’s purpose is in clarifying the cultural normalizing of the “own room” perspective, so a deeper examination into deviance and abnormality, while interesting, is probably extraneous.

Reid’s book is an excellent work of popular history. He’s an engaging writer with a clear, informative style and his deep research into the subject shows throughout. Interestingly, the book arrives at the very time that its subject is undergoing one of its most significant changes. As Reid notes in the conclusion:

While it is safe to say that the contemporary teen bedroom continues to be defined by decades-old ideas on child development and consumption, the one area in which this part of the home has witnessed seismic change involves the extent to which new technologies have erased the boundaries between the public and private sphere. Since the days of Hall and Hollingworth, child-rearing experts have argued that the teen bedroom could help parents contain teenagers within the home. The development and proliferation of home computing and the internet, however, has eroded the underlying strength of this narrative.

Where a locked bedroom door once worrisomely excluded a parent or authority figure from access to their child but also shielded that child from the broader world, that child can now remain isolated from the caregiver while open to the wide world. It’s a new chapter in an ongoing story that, one would hope on the strength of Get Out of My Room!, Reid continues to chronicle.