Working from home has a completely different dimension to it when you have kids, and they’re not in school. Which is the situation that many of us are finding ourselves in right now as we self-isolate from Covid-19. Many of us find ourselves being both the nursery/daycare, teacher, cook, cleaner on top of doing our actual jobs all the while trying to keep it together for the kids who don’t completely grasp what is going on. It can be a bit much for parents to handle.
I’ve worked from home for almost ten years, and through that time, and when I started, I had a newborn baby. Now I have two kids, both school-aged and very much into the argument phase of their lives (which I suspect will never end!). When the children were younger, they were much more hands-on and required a lot more care during the day. Now that they’re school age and have their own interests, it’s easier to make working from home actually work.
Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years for working from home while being a full-time remote working parent. I hope you find it helpful!
Bribery Is Your Superpower
I’ve talked about this in my previous posts on working remotely. I’m not above bribing my children to get them to cooperate during the workday. The carrot and stick approach works quite well when you’re dealing with the expectation of a little human that pretty much just eats, sleeps and spends the day being entertained (living the dream, right?). Even at a very young age, your kids will have specific desires. Use those desires to get them to leave you alone for a while. Don’t make promises bigger than you can keep or are willing to fulfil (do not, under any circumstance, promise a dog or a cat, so they’re quiet for a Zoom call!). If you start losing track of all the bribes/promises/deals…. A simple shared spreadsheet between the adults can keep track of things. You don’t want to buy Robux, the in-game currency for the popular game Roblox (see below), twice!
Movies and TV
When kids are very young, they’ll often sit for hours and watch the same movie or TV show over and over. This is extremely helpful. Before they started school, I used to sit on the couch with them and watch movies over and over while I worked on my laptop. I can probably recite the dialogue from the entire Cars movie. As they get older, their attention begins to wander, and they’ll sit for shorter and shorter amounts of time. But keep their favourite DVDs in a stack and ready to go. Better yet, if they’re old enough, show them how to put it in. If you have a Smart TV or Roku or Firestick, show your kids how to work it – how to get to their favourites shows on Netflix or Disney+. When my 6-year old daughter gets up every morning now, I fix her breakfast, and she takes it into the sitting room and talks into the remote for it to pull up her favourite show.
You need a tablet
A TV is a great tool, but a tablet is a Swiss army knife. Each of our kids has their own iPad. They also have their own pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones. This keeps them quiet and busy for hours on hours, especially when they really get into their games. It’s also handy for long car trips when we’re able to go on long car trips again. But it’s helpful to keep a tablet, or even your phone, on your desk so that when they wander in while you’re doing something important, hand them a device and tell them to bugger off. But don’t rely on the tablet too much – and always check to see what they’re actually doing. They can stumble across many things not appropriate for their age. Check app settings, check parental controls, etc. It’s sometimes too much of a good thing too – staring at a tablet for too long can lead to irritability or tiredness. Kids get lethargic too!
Kids love being creative; young children especially. And this is something they’ll definitely be missing from school. Set up a spot where your kids can do projects that allow them to be creative – and yes – make a bit of a mess. There are plenty of videos on YouTube kids can follow, or you can even take a break and do something fun with them. Even something like Play-doh or Lego can keep kids occupied for hours. Sometimes it’s simple things like water-colour painting or putting some water in a washtub and giving your child some cars and letting them pretend it’s a car wash. My wife used to make homemade slime from household ingredients. It made a terrible mess, but it kept them happy for hours!
They get bored easily, especially right now when they can’t go anywhere. It’s a continual source of argument, especially with my son. So, when they come to us bored, we tell them we have something they can do: chores! Half the time they’ll run away because they don’t want to do chores. The other half of the time, they will be SO bored that they’ll be willing to actually do them (and paying them for small chores certainly helps). Mine are at an age where they’ve started to become useful at chores (rather than just make more work for the grown-ups). If you have older kids (like teens) it’s a great opportunity to let them learn some initiative and encourage them to find chores and activities around the house they might enjoy – or at least tolerate doing.
Have Ample Snacks
I had no idea how much kids eat until I had them. They eat an unbelievable amount of food. They don’t eat three meals a day. They eat twenty. They are, quite literally, Hobbits. We’ve started bulk-buying the snacks. They are always ready and on hand for feeding. We keep most of them in a cabinet that they can reach so when they come to us and say they’re hungry we just tell them: “You know where the food is.” It’s also important to have some healthy balance, pre-packaged snacks are not necessarily the healthiest of options sometimes (even if they’re easy). We tend to buy fruit and cut it up and store it in the fridge for them. We try to push them away from potato chips… but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do!
My kids have grown out of taking naps. And I miss them. But if you’re kids are five and under, nap time is the most important part of the workday. Plan the work where you need to focus the most during the regularly scheduled nap time—also a good time to schedule that conference call or Zoom meeting. I used to be able to set my clock around nap time, and it was glorious (especially when they still took TWO naps a day).
Speak to Them – Tell Them You Have a Bloody Call
While my little ones have a reputation for being unreasonable creatures that seek only to fulfil the desires of the basic Human Id; they can sometimes be reasonable. Talk to them. Tell them your schedule for the day, or that you need to focus on a particular task or to get dressed so if they wander into a Zoom call, they are clothed. Give them a sense of ownership of the success of your workday (other than ‘You like having a roof over your head?). It won’t work all the time, but it will help.
Promise Walks or to play their games.
While we ’self-isolate’ we’re not supposed to go anywhere. But we can go on short walks around the neighbourhood or down the street as long as we stay away from others (follow all local government guidance on social distancing). Kids are like pets; they need to go for walkies too. Tell them if you get what you need to get done, you can all go on a walk together. Or kick the football around in the back garden. Or play on the swingset. It’s really hard to fulfil these promises – often by the end of the day, we parents are shattered from everything we’ve had to do during the day. So, don’t make promises you don’t want to keep. But a walk down the street, even if it’s only a few hundred feet, will do all of you good.
Introduce them to new games that will occupy them
With the internet, we have unlimited entertainment options. And depending on their age, they may like various games. Find new ones they can play. Let them loose in an imaginary world, and they’ll leave you alone for hours. My kids are obsessed with Roblox, a Minecraft like game where they build their own little worlds and play with their friends. It keeps them connected with their school mates. I bloody hate it; I’ve spent so much on the in-game currency they need to play it. But you know what? It’s allowed me to get so much done (like writing this blog post – they’re upstairs playing it right now).
This is all hard on the kids too
As ‘grown-ups’ we spend a majority of our mental energy worrying about the Covid-19 situation, the state of the world and how it’s affecting us and our work. Kids process things differently and this is very hard on them. We started to notice this with our daughter (not so much our son, who hates school). Look at it from their perspective – they had a routine, they had school, they had friends and a social world you have no exposure too. Then one day, they were sent home from school and told they weren’t going back. At first, it was fun! Like an early summer vacation. But a few weeks on, the cracks are starting to appear. Keep an eye on their emotional state. They will require a bit of extra attention during this difficult time.
You Need Flexibility
After bribery, the number one thing you’ll need to succeed as a work from home parent is flexibility. You cannot expect your kids to leave you alone for an entire 9-5 workday. They will interrupt you. They will want your attention for something. They will want a cuddle or two here and there. This means you need to be flexible in your work habits and your expectations for what you can actually get done. Thankfully, with so many people working from home right now, managers and bosses appear to be very understanding – most of them have kids too!
Then, there is the night shift.
This fits into the above point I was making about flexibility. You cannot possibly expect yourself to get everything you would get done in a ‘normal’ workday when you’re working from home with spouses, kids and pets. It’s just not physically possible. Most employers are being pretty understanding. This is difficult for everyone. However, there will be instances when you need to get something important done, and the best time do that is in the evenings when everyone else has gone to bed. In fact, I did this last night myself. There’s something to be said for knowing everyone is asleep in their beds, throwing on the noise-cancelling headphones and ploughing through some work. It can even be rewarding and enjoyable.
Send them outside
I’m lucky that I live in the middle of nowhere with several hectares of woods. If they get out of hand or too bored, we can just send them outside. They have all kinds of adventures in the woods (and get up to no good as well…). The weather is nice enough now that we can do this. We have a couple of cameras on the house, so we can keep an eye on their movements while we work. But you can do this with a back garden too. They can have plenty of fun and adventures in the back garden. Order that cheap slide from Amazon or get a paddling pool when it gets warmer.
Don’t be too self-conscious; we’re all doing this right now
You are not alone. Millions of us are working from home and parenting at the same time. Don’t be too self-conscious about the kids appearing on your Zoom call or kids being heard in the background (also if you’re not talking, mute yourself in a video conference!). Many others are experiencing the same thing right now. Employers of the world cannot expect office-level decorum in the home when everyone is literally forced to be there. We’re all in this together, and it will end eventually.
Savour the quality time too
There is no denying that this isn’t difficult. But when we are in the go go work world, it’s easy to lose sight of the things that were most important to us. Don’t spend all day fighting off the kids, try to savour the small moments too. This is a very unique situation, and it will likely never happen again. There are so many unexpected opportunities for quality family time during the day and weekends. Don’t miss out on something special just because you need to turn something in. Any work can wait. Quality time with your kids as they get older will decrease as they become their own people and don’t WANT to hang out with the whole family. Try to make the most of the time that they do. Eventually, this will end, and we’ll all have to return to our offices and schools. There will be many things we will miss from the lock-in. My wife works in a high-stress job in Chicago that requires a four-hour daily commute before Covid-19. Having her home every day with the kids, and I is a wondrous treat, and I don’t want it to end.
You got this!
Very insightful and well written.