Working from Home with Young Kids Around

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There are times when you’ll be juggling your little ones at home and needing to accomplish professional tasks. In the Spring of 2020, we all learned that there are times that almost EVERYONE will need to do this for some amount of time. Crazy times. Here are some tips on organizing your home and your work so maximize success and minimize stress.

Adjust expectations

First, lower your expectations for how things should look on the surface level. Don’t lower your expectations for the quality of work, or the quality of attention your kids will get overall. But your work may not look like you sitting quietly at a desk for hours, and time with your kids won’t look like a TV ad for a board game, with you all sitting happily in a circle laughing together. You’re going to figure out levels of work that require full, partial, and minimal attention (we all do this), and activities for your children that require full, partial, and minimal attention. You kids do not need your full attention all day. They need your full attention for a few minutes each day, and the rest of the time, it’s fine for you to be paying attention to other things too.

Categories of work: full, partial, and minimal attention

Break up your work into categories you can do in different places/conditions.

Calls: If you are making a presentation over video, you need quiet, private space. If you are listening on or participating minimally in a longer call, you can have kids playing quietly in the background, needing the occasional input from you, or you can be on this type of call while on a walk outside or watching your kids on the playground.

Writing, programming, or creating other types of content: Idea generation and some background research/note taking can often be done while mobile. Take your laptop/phone/notebook to the front stoop and get plan going while your kid plays with chalk. Sketching out your outline to anything from a blog post to a big programming project is a candidate for the kitchen table while your kids are reading or playing games. Diving into the nitty gritty, doing highly detailed work, or getting into focused flow will have to happen during nap time, after bedtime, or while someone else is taking full responsibility for the kids.

You will have extra time

Remember that when you work from home, you are cutting out a lot of extra tasks that take time that you don’t need to do. Examples are, putting on a full face of make up, ironing your clothes, commuting. Make use of this extra time to spend on household duties and with your kids.

Speaking of household duties, when there are people living in your house all day, the house is going to be much more lived in than when everyone is out of the house all day. There will be exponentially more dishes with everyone eating at home. Anticipate this, and make a plan for dealing with it. In our house, we do our best to get the dishes into the sink, and then whenever an adult has a minute, that person fills the dishwasher. If the dishwasher is above 70% full, it gets run.

Multiple adults at home working

If there are multiple adults working from home in your household, tag team. Each day (or the night before), figure out who needs how much 100% focused time, and if those time slots need to be at specific times. Schedule meetings so they don’t overlap. Maybe one person gets the morning shift with the kids, and one gets the afternoon shift as the primary caregiver while the other completes high-focus work tasks. Tag team your work and childcare if you have multiple adults available in your household.

Don’t let your kids get stressed by current events

If your living situation is new to you, it’s new to your kids too. They aren’t in their usual routine, and they aren’t getting the face-to-face time with teachers and peers that they’re used to at daycare or school. Make sure your kids aren’t hearing too much scary news, seeing adults around them get stressed out, or feeling invalidated for worrying about the upheaval in their life. Call friends, FaceTime grandparents, and do your best to make sure your kiddos (as well as yourself) are staying connected. If everybody is less stressed, the days will be easier.

Strategies for managing small kids at home

To be clear, this is not parenting advice. You know how to parent your kids. But we can all use reminders and new strategies to help make the household function more smoothly when everybody is at home.

Snacks, bathtime, independent/parallel play

A few things that keep kids occupied for the longest amount of time are snacks, bath or shower time, and when they get caught up in independent play and flow.

When your kids are hungry, slice up and apple and throw some cheese at them, and sit nearby doing some work. Kids are notoriously slow eaters. Lean into that at snack time, and let them nibble for as long as they want while pound out some content.

Bath time can happen any time of day that mama or daddy need a minute. Kids are contained, usually decently happy, and do NOT want to get out of the bath. Grab your computer and whatever else you need and head to the bathroom. Now’s the time to bust out the cool bath toys, the measuring cups and ladles, the squirt bottles, and the big bubbles. For a change of pace, throw the kids in the shower for a while instead. If your babe is past the everything-into-their-mouth stage, epsom salt and clay are great additions to bath time that inspire a ton of play activities.

We tend to interrupt our kids a lot while they are playing: don’t do this. If it is naptime or lunchtime or bedtime and they are playing happily and you were able to get some work done just go with it. Any time they are playing quietly by themselves in a way that doesn’t involve disassembling the furniture or drawing on the walls, let them be. Encourage open ended activities that they can get caught up in without supervision. This is not only useful for you as a parent, but it’s great for the kids’ executive function development.

Some of our favorite open-ended toys that encourage independent play include squigs, blocks, duplos, magnatiles, train sets, toy animals, stuffed animals, stickers, puffy stickers, playdough, play kitchen toys (or your real kitchen pots and pans), a tool box, tangrams, river stones, painters tape, popsicle sticks, q-tips, fuzzies, blankets and pillows to build a fort, a Nugget, big blocks, letters, & puppets. Our toddler’s favorite books that keep him occupied for a shockingly long amount of time are Even Firefights Go to the Potty and Dr. Seuss’s ABCs. I also find that these office stickers get a ton use with our toddler. A lot of these toys are great for a wide range of ages. These items are just examples; you’ll likely be able to find toys and objects you already have that fulfill similar open-ended activities. Half the time the tangrams get played with at our house, it’s as ingredients in a recipe for a latte for mama.

To be clear, you do not need all or any of the items linked above. To a certain degree, less is more when it comes to toys. Kids are more likely to dive in to a play space with less clutter and fewer toys to choose from, ironically. If you have too much clutter, consider throwing everything in their space in a couple of boxes at the end of the day, and populating it with 3-5 toys or activities, drawing on their current favorites or the suggestions above for a new exciting option.

Outside time is best

If you’re able to take your littles outside to play, this is ideal for a number of reasons. Everybody sleeps better and is in a better mood after spending some time outside. The mess making gets temporarily pushed out of the house, there is tons of sensory play and kinesthetic stimulation, and you don’t have to manage any activities for your little ones. It’s not always possible to get outside, but if you have a front stoop, a back yard, a neighborhood playground, or a state park, take full advantage of getting your kiddos’ energy spent there.

I will often dig into a tricky problem, and then go out for a walk with my kiddo. While he’s exploring and playing, I’ll mull over my challenge, and by the time we head home I’ve got some solid next steps and ideas for a solution. I’ve been doing this since before I’ve had kids, but it’s an excellent strategy to employ when multitasking is required. Katy Bowman might call this “stacking your life“. Spending time outside is great for the circadian rhythm, lowering stress levels, and getting more movement into your family’s day (even if it’s just sitting and standing from the front steps). More movement and outside time means lower stress levels for everyone, and kids who are feeling less stress are much easier to manage in a household that’s got a lot happening.

DIY sensory bins

If you’re cool with vacuuming at the end of the day, a sensory been is really excellent for a wide range of kids. You can use an IKEA Flisat table with Trofast bins, or a cheap bin from the local store. The fillers we’re currently using or rice and lentils and beans. You can also use pasta, pompoms, water, cereal, or many other items. Throw in a few measuring cups and other containers, and lay down the ground rules (“no throwing, no dumping, no eating. The toys stay in the box.”) and let your kid go to town. Bonus points if you can do this outside so there’s no real clean-up later.

Water on the floor

We’ve been doing an even more simplified version of the sensory bin since my son was about 10 months old. I put an old towel down, with a handful of kitchen towels nearby. I give him a few cups, pots, measuring spoons, and whatever other kitchen items seem fun, and some amount of water. He loves pouring the water back-and-forth between all the containers. It’s a great learning and development activity for him and will engage him for up to an hour sometimes. Yes, all the water will end up on the towel. Then you just pick up the towel and put it in the laundry.  

A Note on Unschooling

I think this is also a really great time to familiarize ourselves with the concept of unschooling. This approach to education provides that kids will naturally work on what they are interested in. This is a great time to lean in to your kids’ interests and allow them to dive into self-directed learning. This doesn’t mean to ignore your kids all day and provide them with no structure. It means don’t feel bad if your child, especially a young child, is playing with train tracks or blocks all day. Older kids may want to spend lots of time practicing the guitar, reading, drawing, or baking cookies. Let them.

There may be period of times, short or long, when you need to get some work done with kids around. Take a deep breath, make a plan, and get to work. You can do it!

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