I have worked remotely for 12 years, in three cities, at four jobs and with two children. I covered an earthquake with the happy music of cartoons playing in the background. I conducted an interview from inside the bathtub with two locked doors between myself and a screaming 2-year-old who decided naps were, in fact, optional. I've perfected my poker face in video calls while my youngest silently writhes on the ground outside my home office, holds up signs demanding more snacks or sometimes just stares at me with more contempt than she should in any way be capable of.
Working from home with kids around is tough. As schools close, people get serious about social distancing and workplaces mandate going remote, the coronavirus presents us with yet another twist—doing all the things at the same time. Bonus twist—this will impact people with kids differently depending on the age of those kids.
I've collected tips from moms and dads who shared their ideas about working from home with kids. And since my 12- and 9-year-olds will handle this very differently than babies or teens, I've also divided this into different age groups, and consulted some of the kids themselves.
One thing that works for all ages but those sweet babies: Give your kids age-appropriate jobs. They can earn a salary while they're home (I give out stars, which, when accumulated, can be traded in for things like late bedtimes, screen time, Robux or candy.)
Okay, get your crayons and tablets ready, we're doing this.
How to work from home with a baby
- Wear that baby.
- Schedule calls in the evenings if it works for you and your sources.
- Experiment with writing in the early morning before the baby wakes up.
- Work on a platform you can access from different devices.
- Find tools, like dictation apps, that let you work and parent at the same time.
- Use those nap times.
- Be up front with colleagues about your situation—many parents are in the same boat right now!
- Enjoy that baby.
People working from home with babies have a lot working against them—sleep deprivation, near-constant care and, yeah, the babies themselves. This is not a group you can reason with.
Parents of babies also have one very big advantage kid-parents don't, though: nap time. Those gloriously quiet stretches can be predictable times for getting work done (though my daughter taught me never to bank on it).
Here's what some parents working from home with a baby say works for them:
Dawn Araujo-Hawkins works from home with a 3-year-old and (almost) 6-month-old. "I find babywearing to be essential," she said on Twitter.
Araujo-Hawkins keeps all her work in Google Docs so she can move from computer to phone "if I'm trapped under a napping baby." If you're new to working remotely, these digital tools for maximizing work-from-home productivity (whether or not you're glued to your laptop) might be your new best friends.
Melissa Davlin is a radio host just off of maternity leave, who says, "Last week, I dictated a public records appeal letter using voice-to-text in a sing-song voice to keep the baby entertained. (It worked.) And I just wrapped up a couple hours of work with the baby asleep on my shoulder. Using my phone to type instead of my laptop isn't ideal, but I'm far more productive than I thought I would be."
"I schedule phone calls during my husband's flex time or in the evenings," says Dawn Araujo-Hawkins. "You'd be surprised how many people are amenable to evening phone calls."
One thing you should do at any age—especially with record numbers of parents dealing with your exact situation—tell people what you're working with.
"If you don't have a partner (or they don't have flex time) and you can't do phone calls or meetings at certain times, tell people what your situation is and what ambient noise they can expect. People get it!" says Dawn Araujo-Hawkins.
How to work from home with a toddler
- Loosen up on screen time rules.
- Be flexible.
- Experiment with working in the early mornings and evenings.
- Plan meetings and work that needs full attention during naps.
- Take turns if there's another adult in the house.
- Enjoy that toddler. No really.
No doubt about it, working from home with a toddler is a particular challenge. At this age, kids can communicate but not fully comprehend that the world isn't actually spinning around them. They have sweet little sing-song voices, make the most darling observations about the world, and know how to stop everything with a good old tantrum.
Here's what some experienced toddler parents said worked for them:
Make the most of naps.
Make the most of nap times, which hopefully your toddler still takes, and schedule meetings in that block.
Beth Erickson, who worked from home in Dallas when her son was a toddler, shared her advice: "I would put him down for a nap, wait til he was out cold, then go to my garage with the baby monitor to do calls from my car (with the engine off). I once had to abruptly stop an interview because I looked down to see (on the monitor) him climbing over the child gate I put across his bedroom door."
Toddlers are crafty like that.
Amy Elliott Bragg, working from home with a toddler in Detroit, swears by the tag-team approach if you have a partner at home. "We split up the day, so I'll get a 1- or 2-hour block to work while he parents, then we switch," she said. "And catch up on less time-sensitive work before your child gets up in the morning or after bedtime."
"We are lax with screen time these days," says Bragg. "An episode of Sesame Street can make it possible for us to get through a conference call or power through some emails."
How to work from home with preschool and young elementary school-aged kids
- Coordinate virtual playdates with friends.
- Loosen up on screen time. You won't ruin them.
- Start a movie just before an important call.
- Look for online games that reinforce learning and are fun.
- Tag team, if possible.
- Tell them what you need. They might not listen. But they are capable at this age.
- Enjoy that little kid.
I was able to speak to a true expert about this age range: Maya McNeil is 6 (almost 7), in the first grade, loves science, math and engineering, and is home from her Atlanta school because of the coronavirus. Talking to her reminded me of everything delightful about kids in this age group.
I asked her what it's been like for her mom, who was making lunch while Maya and I chatted on the phone. Maya told me her mom has had "a hard workin' day."
Maya's expert tips for this age group?
Play by yourself. Play with your toys.
"Or maybe if they're bored or they don't feel like they want to do anything, play with your little sister or brother," she offered. "I think that would be successful for them."
Maya's mom, Kari Cobham, had advice, too: "My partner and I have been trying to tag team as much as possible regarding who manages the kids, especially on days packed with conference calls. He's not yet on mandated work from home, but has some flexibility."
Educational screen time
Screen time is okay right now for this age. "I've been open with the amount of screen time and encouraging her to play some of the educational games she likes from school alongside TV shows and other games," says Cobham. "Other activities include coloring, drawing and writing a book (keeps her occupied for chunks of time!). Starting a movie right before a call also helps."
"When I have a call, I straight up say I have a call, ask not to be disturbed and lock myself away. She doesn't always listen, but fortunately there's mute for that!"
How to work from home with elementary school-aged kids and tweens
- Give them a fun way to communicate with you.
- Set and enforce expectations.
- Work together to create a fun to-do list for them.
- Coordinate playdates with friends/neighbors.
- Create ways to communicate what kind of work zone you're in.
- Relax your screen time rules. Really, they'll be okay.
- If safe, send them outside.
- Designate a kid-free space.
- Create fun zones throughout your house.
- Tag team, if possible.
- Invest in craft supplies.
- Enjoy that big kid.
Leela, my daughter, is nine and in the third grade. She's what I like to call my "high-touch" client. She loves attention, loves to tell stories and use her imagination and wants me within looking distance when she's home and I'm working.
She's less maintenance than she used to be, thank you TikTok, but that means I need to know what she's up to, thank you TikTok.
I asked her this morning on the way to school what advice she'd have for parents of kids her age.
Make communication fun
Leela suggested buying cool sticky notes and giving them to kids so they have a way to jot down questions and save them for when mom and dad are free. (Maybe make a suggestion box!) She also thought it would be cool to have an "on air" or "do not disturb" sign on the door to my office so she'd know if I was in the zone even if I wasn't on the phone.
Set kids up for independent + semi-independent work
My own advice for this age group: Work with them to create a menu of things they can do and keep it on the fridge—or somewhere they can easily find it when they're so bored they literally cannot take it anymore you don't understand. Make slime. Watch cat videos on YouTube. Draw. Practice cartwheels. FaceTime Grandma. Build in Minecraft. Cut Barbie hair. Take a bath. Watch TV. Make fake YouTube videos with that old phone.
Set expectations, and be sure to reward them for being followed at this age—you catch more bees with honey. And when you're done working or can take a break, set a timer on your phone for 30 minutes and lavish that kid with attention.
Get those kids outside
Kate Wehr, a freelance writer, editor and business manager in Montana, is the mom of four kids (8 years old and under). She shared what's worked for her: "If it isn't too cold/windy, and your kids are old enough and you live in a safe neighborhood (lot of caveats there!), hand the kids a snack and kick them outside for an hour."
Create some space for them
"We have one child's bedroom that functions as an alternative play space during the day, because our house is too small for a real playroom," says Wehr. "If the kids are too disruptive out in the family spaces, I send them in there. We also started keeping a LEGO table in another part of the house, where older children can periodically escape to entertain themselves."
"I keep a bin of craft paper, glue, markers, kid scissors and other supplies that our elementary aged children can dig out if they want to work on a project," says Wehr.
How to work from home with middle schoolers
- Create a schedule they can follow.
- Set daily goals for school work and reward them.
- Relax your screen time rules. (Just kidding, by this age that's already happened. But they are gonna need limits.)
- Check in to see what they're up to.
- Use breaks to go on bike rides, walks or do something together outside.
- Talk about what's happening.
- Use this as a time to help them become savvy news consumers.
- Enjoy that tween.
We have entered a whole new phase in my house with middle school, but I think the conversation my son, Max, and I have every morning in the car line works for this situation, too.
Me: "What's the goal of middle school?"
I'm new to this one, but learned very quickly that while tweens don't need their parents around for some of the basic jobs younger kids need them for, they still need us to be around. And paying attention.
Max's advice on the way to school this morning: "Give your kids a routine that they can do without your help."
Sweet, independent kid.
More tips for the middle school age range:
Control screen time
For us, that's as simple as getting an hour on video games and then taking an hour off. You can remind them, or tell them to set an alarm on their phones if they have them. This works for us because he's able to talk with school friends on his Xbox and get some social interactions in, then he draws, writes, reads, rides around the neighborhood or watches TV in the hour off.
With school cancellations driving even more middle schoolers online for school work, we'll need that schedule — with rewards like bonus family time or virtual hangouts—more than ever.
Get outside together
Kids at this age don't "play" like younger kids do, but they will join you for a long bike ride or hike if you can take a lunch break. If you can leave the house for a park, a no-touch Nerf war could be cool.
Talk about what's happening
Tweens are likely to know what's happening in the world and are processing it through the media they consume, including worrying about coronavirus. Talk with them about what they're reading and watching and how they're feeling. Help them sort through all of that to find reliable information. (Now's a good time to tell them to follow Poynter's MediaWise on Instagram. It's led to lots of great conversations on the way to and from school.)
How to work from home with teenagers
- Watch screen time to make sure it's also being used for school work.
- Set clear limits on screen/gaming time.
- Ask for the daily schedule.
- Flex on bed time.
- Make the most of those weekend-like mornings.
- Enjoy that teenager.
Create separate spaces for work
Rob King, ESPN's senior vice president and editor-at-large, has a teen-free space where he and his wife can work.
Make it clear when the screens go dark
King says that when schools close, "That will mean some policing of their respective screen time to make sure they're on task. We'll make it clear when they're expected to close everything down, as well."
Make a plan together
Ewa Beaujon is a teen-mom and a freelance writer, editor and fact-checker. "I've worked from home for so long now that I've learned that it's good to have a plan," she says. "So in the morning, I go and ask my kids what their plan for the day is," including school work, chores, friend time, screen time, and off-screen time. "I find that if you have even a basic plan of what the day is going to look like, it sets up the expectations for the day for everyone and the day goes a lot more smoothly."
A version of this story originally appeared on Poynter.org. Republished with permission.