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Photo montage: Jo Powers

They say his mother kept the gun safe in his bedroom.

Socially isolated, video-game obsessed, and a child of divorce, he went to sleep every night and awoke each morning beside a weapons cupboard until the day he got out of bed and killed 26 innocents — and her — before taking his own life.

At home, within our own walls, we get to choose our setting and (mostly) control our environment. Like the food we eat, the objects around us nourish our being. They express what we value. And they shape who we are, a point expressed to the extreme in Roman Polanski’s bizarre 1976 film The Tenant.

Context exerts great formative influence, as Harvard professor Robert J. Sampson indicated when he wrote about the long-lasting effects of living in a high-poverty neighborhood. You might say the same of home interiors. Rooms devoid of ‘mental wealth’ can engender impoverished minds. Proximity matters.

Of course, parents of children with mental illness struggle mightily for answers that go far beyond personal setting. Through sheer dogged determination, one Illinois mother and father, profiled in The New York Times, were able to get their son into a year-long residential school in Montana where the environment included physical labor and horses.

It’s up to responsible adults to provide nourishing surroundings — at home and in the much larger picture. On an individual level, what signals does a parent send through something as seemingly superficial as furnishings and décor? What belongs in the bedroom of a child?

What ingredients might foster a healthful view of their world? Might inspire a high-caliber, balanced life?

  • Music or a musical instrument. A harmonica, maybe, or recorder flute or xylophone or tambourine.

  • A view, even if only the form of glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling.

  • Framed photographs of older generations. Studies indicate children with a strong connection to family roots are better able to cope with adversity.

  • Tried-and-true “play-pretties,” as my southern forebears called toys. Anne Frank’s girlhood marbles, classic glass treasures she gave to a friend for safekeeping, survive to this day as shining testament to the mind’s eye of a child.

  • A stuffed animal or doll to love. Not an entire menagerie. One is fine. Actually, one is better for a strong and less-diluted attachment.

I saw a photo in a home-décor publication recently that showed a “chandelier” fashioned from Barbie dolls — lots of them. Besides looking like a bizarre gallows in a girl’s room, it demonstrated such conspicuous waste. Give the excess dolls to those who have none.

There’s also no need to erect elaborate store-bought fantasy castles in our children’s rooms. They’ll fashion those visions on their own.

Even though most children do their homework on the floor, on their bed, or at the kitchen table, a bedroom desk suggests the importance of writing or drawing. Send them a postcard to establish the idea of written, stamped correspondence and let them stash it in a desk drawer with other cursive keepsakes.

A piggy bank sets the foundation for putting coins away. Add paper, crayons, books, and a flashlight, and don’t worry if the results aren’t too tidy. As research detailed not long ago, messes and clutter can spark creativity.

Children belong outdoors. The yard and the local sidewalks used to be our entertainment room, as one website commenter noted recently. Indoors, let a ceiling fan stir the air — and ideas. No doubt, the spinning blades will prompt mischief. My son and a neighborhood friend turned his bedroom fan into a rotating display of objects tied to an intricate network of knotted strings suspended from the rotors. Tape marks from that whirling creation remain on the fan blades — like grass-stained knees, happy evidence of child’s play.

My son’s room also displayed a small element of weaponry — a spent rifle casing, one he scrambled across cemetery grass on a September day to recover after the military salute at his grandfather’s graveside. At home, that casing joined the usual boyhood assortment of baseball cards and Matchbox cars given a place of honor on his nightstand.

This bullet was, however, a token of respect, one that said farewell to a life well lived.


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