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All around the country, people who usually have to trek to an office for work are suddenly confined to their homes. For some, this engenders feelings of isolation and even depression. For others, it means frayed nerves, hyperventilating meltdowns, and the trauma of watching the same Disney movie for the fourth consecutive time. I am talking, of course, about parents who are trapped with their offspring, with no school or day care or toddler zoo to send them to.
Parents who are lucky enough to still have a job—and, to be clear, being employed is a cherished privilege as the coronavirus ravages the economy—now have to prove that they can not only be productive at work but they can also care for kids 24/7.
I don’t have a lot to add about the educational priorities you should set for your children during their long absence from school. I am not a teacher. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills—skills that I have acquired over a long career of working from home with two small children. Skills that have helped keep them alive and me employed. Skills that could be helpful to people who have never had to do this before for an extended period of time.
I’d like to offer some tips to people who are struggling to manage their professional responsibilities and their parental responsibilities. I offer these tips without agenda or judgement. I have a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old, and I have worked from home three-to-five days a week for their entire lives, usually with some child care assistance, but sometimes without. Here are some things that have worked for me. If any of these sound like bunk to you, feel free to disregard. But maybe I can offer a nugget from my experience that others can adapt to their own challenges.
Again, my kids are small. If you’re trapped in an apartment with a teenager, I don’t have anything for you other than my sympathy and the names of a few good defense attorneys should you need them.
For everybody else, here are some hints.
Invest the Time to Set Up “Unstructured” Play
The top-line goal of working from home is creating time for yourself when you can actually work. To do that, you need the kids occupied, without your input or direction. Obviously “screen time,” in whatever increments you are comfortable with, is the ultimate way to create that time. Stick ’em with a movie or an iPad or a video game, and you’ve bought yourself hours.
Thing is, you can also create a few hours where the kids are occupied off screen, without your direction, if you set up their space correctly. Kids can entertain themselves with “unstructured play” if you put them in a situation to do so.
The key, counterintuitively, is to limit their play options. You can’t just stick them in a room with all their stuff and tell them to go nuts. They’ll be overwhelmed by the choices and report back to you that they are “bored,” which will then make you insane because you are trying to work to earn money to buy them all this stuff.
Instead, I like having “stations.” I pull out specific things I want them to do that day and set them up. I don’t just pull out all of their art supplies. I say, “It’s crayon day,” and pull out only the crayons, open the coloring book to a specific page, and have that be the “art station.” In another part of the room, I’ll set up the block station. If I’m really putting in the time, I’ll half build something, encouraging them to finish it or knock it down or whatever. On a different day, the play kitchen will make an appearance, or I’ll arrange all the space toys as if they’re half way through some kind of “mission.”
Unstructured time involves merely the illusion of lack of structure. There’s a ton of work that goes into setting up their play area (usually the night before) before I unleash them into it.
Some days work better than others. But if I’m lucky, I can usually create a couple of hours where the kids can play without bothering me or anybody else, and I can get some work done.
Regarding Screen Time
We are not going to settle our great cultural debate about the appropriate amount of screen time for children during the coronavirus pandemic. People will do what seems right to them, and the only people I judge are the judgmental jerks who think they’ve figured out the one true solution.
That said, I’m a pro-screen time kind of dad. For those who may be reexamining their screen time rules given the crisis, here are some things that have worked for me:
- I prefer for the kids to watch videos in the same room as I am in, with the sound on. I’ll take the hit in terms of mental focus in order to be able to keep an ear on what my kids are watching. The YouTubeKids filter isn’t as good as my own ears. If I hear one thing I don’t like, I tell them to change the video. They do, and we can all move on with our lives.
- I know Republicans think that guns don’t kill people, video games kill people, but as usual, Republicans are wrong. I actually prefer for my kids to spend their screen time playing video games instead of watching random videos or even most television shows. If they’re playing, say, Mario Kart on the Nintendo Switch, I know exactly what they’re doing and being exposed to at all times. My 7-year-old can reliably beat me at Super Smash Brothers now. Make of that what you will.
- Educational apps exist. Some of them are very good. But, from the perspective of working from home, I don’t find them to be that helpful. Again, my goal is to scoop out multiple hours when the kids don’t need attention from me so I can work. A lot of the educational apps, even the ones I like, just don’t kill enough time.
- When in doubt about a piece of electronic content, I find Common Sense Media’s reviews to be invaluable. I don’t always agree with the review. But they always let me know what I should be on the lookout for.
Between screen time and some unstructured play, I can usually kill an entire work day. If I set those things up right, I barely have to talk to my kids!
The difference between having a 4-year-old versus a 3-year-old is the difference between interacting with a tiny human versus managing an unreasonable goblin sent to get you fired. When my eldest was a toddler, I was still living in a tiny Manhattan apartment. My “office” and his “nursery” were the same room. Those were dark times.
I’ve probably owned every kind of baby jail put on the market, in hopes of keeping them restrained while I work. Pack ’N’ Plays, baby gates, those baby bouncy chair thingies that make you feel like the kid is about to be catapulted into the wall—I’ve tried them all.
With toddlers, you’re not trying to create hours when you can work without paying too much attention to them; you’re trying to create minutes when you can take your eyes off them without them actively trying to kill themselves behind your back.
Having been through this phase of parenting twice, I can say that it’s pointless to try to get your toddler to entertain themselves while you work. All you can do is get your work to understand that you have to entertain your toddler. You are going to be less productive while working from home with a toddler, and everybody you work with just needs to get over that and learn to live with their disappointment.
With that in mind, here are some strategies for dealing with your colleagues, especially the ones gunning for “employee of the pandemic” who either haven’t been around kids since they were one and lack empathy, or don’t remember what it was like when their kids were small.
- Do not be ashamed about your lack of “business hours” productivity. You’ll find a way to get things done, but you’re not going to be immediately available at all points between 9 and 5 just because some boss expects you to be. Don’t let people make you feel bad about that. You’re an adult who can be trusted to complete your assigned tasks. Demand to be treated as such.
- E-mail less and send shorter messages when you do. Personally, I’m terrible at responding to e-mail, and I’ve been told my lack of responsiveness really pisses people off. My compromise solution is sometimes to send really short e-mails, like “yes” or “okay.” That’s about all I’ve ever managed to type when trying to shove mushed peas into a toddler’s face. If people need something more detailed than that, they can wait till my kids go to bed.
- Don’t try to be a hero. Some people will make a great show of all they can accomplish while working from home during this crisis. Bully for them. Just remember that you don’t know their situation. You don’t know if they have a spouse or grandparent at home taking more of the child-rearing burden. Right now, my wife is able to be relatively productive from home because I write for a living and can keep a lot of “Mommy, Mommy, I need, I want” off her plate. If I had a real job, her productivity would be reduced. If I were a single parent, my productivity would be reduced—and I would hope I wouldn’t feel one shred of guilt about that. You do you. And if that means you have to take the 2:35 pm meeting on mute while you sing “Baby Shark” to your toddler, everybody else can get over that and adjust.
Working from home with toddlers is hard. You need to ask your colleagues to be the adults in the room, because your toddler will have no chill when it comes to your work schedule.
A Few Don’ts
In my experience, here are a few things to avoid while trying to work when your children are running around the house:
- Getting dressed: First of all, stuffing my kids into “day” clothes is a giant battle every morning even under normal circumstances. I’d rather spend that time working or setting up their play area. The second problem is that when my kids get dressed, they expect to be let outside. But I can’t take them outside because I have to work. My kids are spending the coronavirus pandemic in their pajamas. Judge me if you must.
- Musical instruments: Maybe you can work while children are tootling on whistles, horns, banging drums and cymbals, or tickling a keyboard. I cannot. I keep the music-making toys as closely guarded as I do the rat poison.
- Paint: Do I really need to explain this one? Some day, my kids will be old enough to paint without adult supervision. But today is not that day. I’d sooner let them play with an Easy Bake nuclear reactor oven during the workday than their painting supplies.
These are difficult times for families. Our workplaces are designed around the concept that somebody else should be taking care of our children while we work. Working and parenting at the same time is simply not something that our society is designed to allow.
But we’re in a crisis, and so everybody just has to try to their best. My last piece of unsolicited advice, from one veteran working from home to new ones: When in doubt, resolve the tension in favor of your kid. You won’t regret missing the first part of your Zoom meeting because hide-and-seek ran a little long. You won’t regret having to log back into work in the evening because you peaced out at 4 pm to help with some Lego architecture.
Working from home, with incomplete child care, over many snow days and summer breaks, I have often found myself standing at my front door, trying to convince myself not to open it in the hope that my kids would take the hint and go play in traffic or join the circus or get abducted by aliens. But, for the life of me, I can’t remember what they specifically did to make me want to sell them on eBay. The only specifics I remember are the good times we’ve had.
We’ll get through this, and when they go back to school, we’ll miss these little gremlins. All these tips are designed to make them hush up long enough for us to remember that. Good luck.