Kids and old houses: Don’t try this at home

Published February 15, 2012 by housecrazy

my kiddos

The first time I owned an old house, my son was just an infant. Now he is six and I have a two-year-old. Living in an old house with two very active, exuberant, destructive young children is making me old and grey before my time.

In fact, I often liken our house to an old, old woman when I explain to my kids how we need to treat her.

Would you jump on an old lady that way?”

And it is like living with a very elderly person. She is so delicate and fragile. Even a slight poke on her plaster walls might result in a very messy three-day repair job.

So throwing kids into that mix is…. cringe-inducing. My kids get into everything. They climb everything. They bang on everything. They wreck everything. There’s no escaping them!

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

Baby gates only work for so long until the little monsters learn to catapult over them.

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

When we first moved-in my daughter was just learning how to crawl up stairs. My son bounded up and down them but even the movers warned us that the stairs on the front hall staircase were, quote, “deadly”.

The problem is that the stairs are:

1) painted wood and extremely slippery

2) spiraling with wedge (or pie-shaped) treads on the mid-section

3) the banister spindles are not up-to-code and are placed too far apart – just enough so that my toddler could squeeze through and fall down from the second floor landing.

It took me only one time of losing my footing on those darn pie-steps to decide that we needed to put down some carpet so there would be more traction. And if any of us did fall down, at least the carpet would soften our landing (somewhat).

So we installed some thick, Berber-type carpet as a runner on the stairs – well the carpet actually goes right to the wall, but doesn’t cover the banister side:

full carpet runner on stairs

It’s helped a lot.

It didn’t help, however, with my children hanging off the spindles from the outer side. Yes, my son taught my daughter how to climb up the outside of the banister and dangle from the staircase.

photo credit: angry mother

And yes, they broke two original spindles clean off.


It was more difficult than you think to get those spindles fastened back on. My kids are forbidden from hanging onto the banister from the outside. (They are lucky I let them touch it when they are walking up the stairs the proper way!)

To address the issue of the spindles that are spaced too far apart, we sought a temporary fix because we knew that my daughter would someday be too big to fit between them. The solution: we got some white plastic lattice from the garden section of Home Depot and zip-tied it to the upper level banister. Oh yes we did. (It sounds trashier than it actually looks.)

creative use of lattice - photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

Most people don’t even notice it.

Another major health and safety issue was the live wires protruding from the floor in the kids’ bedroom. Seriously.

There was asbestos in the linoleum flooring of the kids’ room – I’ll get to that in a minute – so we had to hire contractors to put new floor over it. When the flooring contractors were here, one of them got a huge and very dangerous electrical shock when he touched a certain part of the floor. (This is the same floor where my young daughter had been crawling around and playing for several weeks.)

photo credit: Joann Grenard

Live wire in the floor, he said. They would not enter the room again until a qualified electrician assessed the situation. So an emergency call was made to an electrician, and five hundred dollars later, the live wire had been safely capped. But the electrician could not, for the life of him, figure out where the source was coming from. Very bizarre.

Anyway, the live wire was enough of a worry for the health and safety of my children, nevermind the asbestos.

The flooring estimator told me that in his best estimation, the floral-patterned linoleum was at least from the 1940’s and that it likely contained asbestos. I did some of my own research and… he was probably right. Since asbestos is such a toxic substance when interfered with, he recommended we just leave it alone and put new flooring and underlay right on top of it. So that is what we did.

Now my children can roll around on the floor to their heart’s content.

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

New flooring, however, did not address the dust issue. The dust issue is ALL OVER the house – some rooms worse than other. Old houses with original plasters are very dusty. Old houses in general have grime and dirt ground-in from decades and decades ago. It gets in the drapes, it gets in the air vents, it gets in your hair, it even gets in your cereal. It is really quite disgusting.

Besides dust from decaying plaster and lead-based paint, there is a constant layer of black soot all over the rooms where there were formerly wood stoves – pretty much every room in the house.

The worst of it is in the old fireplace in the dining room. It had been capped and cleaned by previous owners, but the soot is just embedded in the bricks. When we first moved in, my little toddler liked to play hide-and-seek in the fireplace. She would come out COVERED in black soot.

I racked my brain trying to think of some way to keep her permanently out of there. Books! I have tons of books… so why not build bookshelves in there?

"built-in" bookshelves - photo credit: Noe Felix

But still, the soot falls down from the window sills when I open the blinds. It gets kicked up when I vacuum. It just appears no matter how many times I scrub the walls and ceilings!

I did a little research online and apparently, the toxic soot leftover from wood stoves and fireplaces can last for decades.

I’m sure that the air quality outside the house is MUCH better for my children. And that’s saying a lot because we live not too far from a Superfund contamination site.

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

The dust and poor indoor air quality also poses a huge problem for my son who has asthma and allergies. Every time we do even minor remodeling, or every time I clean, or even when the heat kicks on, my son goes into coughing spasms. We have brought him to specialists and he has every type of inhaler, nebulizer, and air purifier, but the coughing persists. He had it in the other two houses he lived in, but they were old houses as well. Lead-based paint, asbestos, mould, etc., etc. The poor boy has never lived in a *new* house.

Noe's "mask machine"

I feel very guilty that we live in a house that is bad for my son’s health. And I can’t say that he forgives me for this. When he is mad at me, he will often scream: “I HATE YOUR HOUSE!!!”

Then he stomps his feet purposely on the floor.

And I scream back: “DON’T HURT MY HOUSE!!!”

It really is a point of contention between us.

Luckily my two-year old daughter Tova is a little gentler on the old house. Thus far.

"mommy - I touch your house!"

But my son…

His coup d’etat was one of the many times he was in the “time-out corner”.

The time-out corner in our current house is in the southwest corner of the dining (the room with the checkerboard floors). After being sent to the corner, Noe was sitting on the floor cross-legged, facing the wall and angrily seething. I guess his anger boiled over and he punched the wall.

Noe's handiwork in the time-out corner

He actually punched THROUGH the wall – right through the old plaster. I looked inside the hole and could see daylight coming through from the outside!

It was a huge patch-job… but we got ‘er done.

Now my son has his time-outs in the center of the room (no walls to punch).

My son Noe - pretending he is innocent

In closing, I can’t say that living in an old house is actually good for my kids, or conducive to a happy, healthy childhood.

My hope is that they will look back fondly on these days (when they make it to adulthood) and feel grateful that they had the opportunity able to live in such a neat, historic home.

Until then, my house and my kids will remain completely at odds.

It is only a matter of time until they smash out one (or several) of the original single-pane windows.

Of course, it will be “an accident”.

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns


6 comments on “Kids and old houses: Don’t try this at home

  • Oh Boy, this sounds familiar. I have 3 asthmatics and they lived to be adults, even with reno dust. Watch out, boys that punch walls sometimes break their hands. Love those E.R. visits!

  • I can totally relate to this. I sometimes feel guilty for having bought my old house at a time when we had a toddler and a dog. Thrown toys have dented our original parquet floors, my dog scratched the heck out of one of our original doors. I try to prevent damage as much as I can, but it depresses me. Don’t even get me started on my furniture. . .

    I enjoy your blog!

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