As if being a working parent wasn’t stressful enough, what do you do when suddenly you are expected to work at home and take care of your kids at the same time? If you are in this predicament, here are some ideas for how to manage the seemingly unmanageable. Of course, you will need to adapt and apply these based on the age of your child and your unique situation.
Establish a clear daily schedule. Kids love routines. Knowing what to expect is calming, and it focuses children’s attention in positive ways on what is expected. It can also create sanity for you. Further, kids are used to the highly structured world of school. An integral part of every day at most early education program is going over the plan for the day, so re-create this at home. Tell your kids that you will have a schedule just like they have at school and engage their participation in developing it. Build in choices: for example, during art time they can opt for coloring or Play Doh. Take photos of the different activities they will be doing so the schedule can have visuals, which are especially helpful for younger kids. Make it a ritual to go over the schedule each morning as it might change from day-to-day depending on your work commitments. Let your kids know exactly when you will be together and when you won’t be able to play. For example: from 8:30 to 9 you might have breakfast together. From 9 to 9:30 you will read books. Then from 9:30-10:00 mommy/daddy will be on a work call so they will have an activity they can do independently. Then you’ll be together for mid-morning snack. And so on. Be clear about how you will set limits when you need to work. For example, they can choose to stay in the room with you if they can play quietly. Otherwise they will need to go into a play space—that is safe and has a boundary so they can’t keep running in and out—during that time. Note that some parents don’t even try to have their kids in the same room while they are working, especially when they need to be on a call, because it is too tempting/stimulating for kids to be in their presence and not be able to interact. Use your judgment. You know your children best. Create a box of toys that your child can play with while you are working. Consider putting some special toys in a box that you take out when you are expecting them to play on their own. Books on tape are a great option, especially those for which there is a companion hardcopy so the child can follow along. (Scholastic has a lot of free audiobooks.) Or, during together time you could do a joint activity like making goo. Then while you are working, the kids can play with it.. I love Theraputty because it takes a lot of effort to pull it apart which is very stimulating for kids. I hide little surprises in it that they have to excavate. (I recommend getting the “soft” version as even that is pretty tough. I have a hard time managing the “medium”.) The more engaging the activity is, the more likely your children are to stay focused on it and the less likely they are to seek/demand your engagement Use Time Timer to let your kids know how much time you have for each activity and how long you will be busy with work. Having a visual can be very helpful - this is my favorite timer because kids can see the time elapsing. Let them know they have a special place in their brain where they can store all the ideas and things they want to share with you when they can’t have your attention right away. You can call it their “memory” brain. Let them know that when you are done with your call, you can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. For older kids, you might suggest they draw their ideas or the things they want to do when mom/dad are available. Provide concrete ideas for what they can do while they’re waiting to help focus their attention on something productive. If they want to play restaurant, they can decorate menus while you are on your call to use when you can play together a little later. Or, they can build a house for their dinosaurs and then take you on a tour of it when you are ready to play again.
Finally, be realistic and empathetic. I am reminded of the study by Jenny Radesky that looked at parent-child interactions at fast-food restaurants. She and her colleagues found that when parents were distracted on their phones, kids tended to get increasingly demanding and disruptive to get their parent’s attention. This resulted in parents getting annoyed at and punitive with their kids. In one instance, a parent reflexively kicked a child under the table. It’s important to keep reminding yourself that your children aren’t purposefully trying to drive you crazy. It is in their DNA to seek your attention. In those moments when you are unable to give it to them, show empathy while setting limits: “I know, you really want to tell mommy all about the story of the penguins, but right now I have to do some work. Remember to store all your ideas in your memory brain. I can’t wait to hear all about what’s on your mind when Time Timer goes off and my call/mommy work time is over.” For ideas on how to set limits with your colleagues while at home with the kids, check out thisgreat advicefrom Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute.