A few days before my first son was due to arrive, I asked my dad what it was like to be a parent.
After a (disturbingly) long pause, he quoted Martin Mull: “Having children is like having a bowling alley installed in your brain.”
Indeed. And when you are suddenly working from home with kids, it can feel like that bowling alley has suddenly gotten very loud and crowded, especially when the bowling pins go flying just as you are about to speak up on WebEx.
But now is the time to let go of the guilt we might feel from having a day go not quite as planned. You are already doing a great job, and we will all get the hang of it together a little more each day.
In case it helps, I thought I might share a few of the tricks that have helped me over the past years as I’ve navigated working from home with three sons.
Tips for working from home with babies + toddlers
Keep your baby nearby
Babies and toddlers are programmed to want to be near you. It’s their main mission in life. So, when my little ones weren’t napping, I just embraced this fact. In fact, when my littlest was a baby, I would lay out a blanket or his little seat right next to me as I worked, put on some music, and do my thing.
Now that he is a toddler, I have little gated corners with toys right near my workspace, and as long as he isn’t eating dirt or wailing, we have a pretty good time working together.
Make busy boxes
I rolled my eyes the first time I saw this idea on Pinterest, but busy boxes have been lifesavers during really hectic workdays.
The key is to change the contents of the box up. Each week I make a new box with little toys, bubbles, crayons, letter tiles, new books, playdough (when I’m feeling brave) and so on. The other key is to put the box away as soon as your meeting is done, or the kids start to lose interest, so it seems like a special treat the next time you pull it out.
Have a lineup of sensory activities at the ready
Things that adults would never find entertaining can keep little bitty ones occupied for ages. Throwing ice cubes off the deck. Sitting in an empty bathtub (yes, I have brought my laptop into the bathroom) and drawing all over with bath crayons. Bubbles. Sorting blocks into different colored buckets. You name it. Have a series of engaging sensory activities for toddlers and babies lined up in the morning so they are ready, and you’ll be thanking yourself later.
Tips for working from home with preschoolers + elementary-aged kids
Set expectations + reward kids for meeting them
At the beginning of each day, I suggest clearly communicating with your kids about the times when you have your most important meetings or deadlines. Those are the points in the day to bring out the big guns (you know what I’m talking about: YouTube, Roblox, iPads, TV). Challenge your kids to see if they can possibly hold out on electronics until those times and find little rewards for them if they succeed.
Give them their own “jobs” to do
Set aside cleaning supplies that are just for use by the kids—you might even put your kids’ names on the supplies so they feel ownership. Throughout the day, ask the kids to be your housekeeping assistants and encourage them to go on a hunt for dirt spots on the floor or dust on surfaces. You would be surprised how much fun a spray bottle of water and a few rags can offer throughout the day. (My 11-year-old has caught on to this trick though, so don’t be surprised if older kids don’t buy into it.)
Hire them as temporary assistants
Speaking of assistants, you can also ask kids to assist you with work! For example, I sometimes have asked my son to sit in the background and “take notes” during a meeting. It keeps him busy for a while and the result is usually hilarious (one time he wrote a whole page of meeting notes that just said BLAH BLAH BLAH).
Tips for working from home with kids of all ages
It’s okay if they’re bored
Kids are actually pretty good at staying occupied if we give them the freedom to do so. Boredom is good for humans and can serve as the foundation for creativity. Don’t feel like you have to fill every minute with activities, it’s actually better for kids if you don’t.
A few minutes of your attention can buy you many more minutes of work time
When kids come to you for attention, if you can, look away from the screen and listen for two minutes to what they have to say.
I know this sounds silly, but I schedule tea time every day with my kids. During those 10 minutes, we drink tea (okay, it’s actually milk) and eat cookies and talk. It’s often the best part of the day.
At night, record yourself reading to your kids. Picture books, chapter books, comic books, whatever you have on hand—it’s all good! Play those during the next day and you can both work and read to your kids. It’s the next best thing to cloning.
Give older kids a project of their own
Long-term projects that can be done in chunks over time are great for kids in preschool on up. For example, if ever there was a time to have your kids start building a time capsule, it is now! This sort of project can buy you a few minutes each day and is a great learning experience.
Don’t forget: You’re getting a lot done (honest)
There are going to be times when everybody is cranky and nothing is going right and you feel like you are getting nothing done.
When you hit the wall, I suggest doing two things:
1. Remember that you ARE getting things done, even if it’s not in the way you’d like
2. Have a pre-made list of very short mindless tasks that need to get done.
When you can knock those little annoying tasks off the list in between a kid crying because the brownies didn’t have enough marshmallows and the washing machine breaking, you will be a winner.
Above all, I suggest being honest with yourself and your colleagues. This is a new, chaotic, stressful time with lots of changes for everyone. If things are tricky in any given moment at home, we all understand. We will flex to the moment, laugh, and adapt as we work together to keep things going.
You’ve got this.