When Elizabeth Foy Larsen was growing up in the 1970s, she spent an enormous amount of time watching television. But now that she has three children of her own and a four-bedroom Mediterranean-style house filled with computers, TVs and iPads, Larsen finds herself waging a continuing battle against screens.
“On some days,” she said, “it’s a fine line between whether it’s our family home or a media center.”
Fighting the war against techno-passivity is in part what inspired “Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun,” a new book from Bloomsbury that Larsen wrote with Joshua Glenn. With how-to ideas like making LED graffiti and get-out-and-explore manifestoes by the illustrator Joe Alterio and others, it reads like an old-fashioned child’s activity book for a modern Gen-X-parented family.
Larsen, 48, a former editor at Sassy, the ’90s alternagirl magazine, said the book was designed to get children involved in activities that strengthen social bonds and shape their self-identity. Many of the suggestions, she said, were road-tested inside her home in Minneapolis.
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“The decorating-your-room chapter came directly out of having my kids create environments they liked,” she said.
Her middle child, Henrik, 10, chose for his bedroom walls an orange she compared to “standing in the middle of an orange-juice-concentrate can.” It was a choice that tested her conviction that family governance ought to be a democracy in which the parents wield soft power rather than a dictatorship.
But Henrik vetoed her suggestions for a subtler shade, and Larsen conceded: “It’s his room. I wanted him to have it the way that made sense to him.”
Peter, 13, her oldest, is a modern-design fan who picked out his Ikea furniture and, with help from an artist friend of his mother’s, stenciled the Los Angeles skyline above his bed. “He thinks he lives in way too small a town,” Larsen said.
The only child who didn’t have creative control was Luisa, 8, who was just a toddler when the family moved in.
“She isn’t crazy about this Cath Kidston floral wallpaper,” Larsen said. “But she was 2 when I did it, so she didn’t have a lot of say.” When Peter goes off to college, Luisa will take over his room and get the chance to show off her design skills.
Larsen and her husband, Walter Schleisman, 44, an assistant principal at a local magnet school, envisioned an unbored life for their children as far back as 2006, when they bought the house for $770,000. Its 2,900 square feet offered more stretchout room than their previous home, and the proximity to park space encouraged outdoor play.
“We wanted a neighborhood where our kids could explore without us,” Larsen said, adding that nearby Cedar Lake has plenty of “nooks and crannies.”
Even if they need a push out the door.
“Our kids have 255 channels and unlimited Internet, plus the App Store,” Schleisman said. “It is a challenge.”
The only drawback was the tiny master bedroom, with its pocket door that opened into what would be a child’s room, so the couple walled off the door and enlarged the room to include an office for Larsen and an updated master bath.
Elsewhere, Larsen worked with a designer, Janet Gridley, to replicate the feeling of the homes of her mother and grandmother, which combined traditional elements with a 1970s grooviness. Toile wallpaper in the dining room looks conservative, but the design features large pheasants, and the chandelier is made of coffee filters.
In the spirit of “Unbored,” Larsen has tried not to be a perfectionist in decorating the home. Indeed, the living room often looks like a tent city, she said, with blankets and towels covering the furniture while the children make forts. And although the grass-cloth wall covering in the family room was the first thing Larsen chose for the house, she conceded that it would look better with a more-chic couch. But Darwin, the family’s labradoodle, insists on jumping on the furniture.
“The kids aren’t running the show, although sometimes it feels like they are,” Larsen said. Then she added what could be the mantra of anyone with a house full of children: “It’s a process.”