Kids shrieking. Whining. Interrupting your zoom meeting with no pants on, to ask if you'll wipe their bottoms. If you're trying to work at home with kids off school because of the coronavirus pandemic, you've already discovered that begging and even threatening kids to be quiet doesn't work.
What does? Meet your child's developmentally appropriate needs for connection before you ask them to play independently. Stock up on interesting activities. Be realistic about how much supervision they need. And have a backup plan to handle emergency bathroom calls before you go into your zoom meeting.
Some top parent-tested tips:
1. Trade off shifts if you have more than one adult home.
If you're lucky enough to have two adults at home, trade off so that each of you gets some time to concentrate, so you can get your most important (or interactive) work done. Save routine work that can be interrupted for those times when you're on-duty. That might mean one of you gets up earlier to concentrate, and the other stays up later in the evening. When you do need quiet, be sure to communicate that in advance to your parenting partner, so they don't initiate a game of roughhousing just when you're starting your conference call.
2. Fill your child's cup before trying to work....
... but still don't expect that you'll be able to work for long periods. During the times of the day when you're "on-duty" with your child, expect to interact. Children who are home without their usual routines and friends will need help from adults to structure their time. But if you make it a point to fill your child's cup with connection, and then get them busy doing something they love, you'll find that you can gradually stretch out the length of independent play times. Just expect that most of your work will get done after young children are in bed.
3. Be clear about expectations with your workplace.
If you're expected to do professional work from home, stay in touch with your boss about how and when you expect to get things done. Your boss knows that you and everyone else now has kids to deal with and will give you some slack, especially if you answer communications in a timely way AND set reasonable expectations about when you will get to things that are asked of you. Reduce your own stress level by not over-promising.
4. Make Sensory bags and boxes.
If you've read my book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, you'll know that I highly recommend working in advance to make sensory bags and boxes to keep your child busy while you're tending to a new baby. They're also invaluable for short periods of time when you absolutely need your child to let you focus on work. You can find lots of suggestions online to make simple sensory bags or boxes for kids of all ages. For toddlers, use lots of duct tape!
5. Facilitate Independent Play.
Most of our children don't know how to play independently, because their lives are so structured and they're addicted to screens to manage "free time." But there's another reason. Since they were babies, we've interrupted their play. (Think about how we grab the rattle away from a happily playing baby and shake it in her face to show her how to do it!) So retraining kids to play independently can take some time. But there things you can do to encourage it. Watch for a whole post on this soon, but here's one of my top tips.
Every day before you need to work and your child will have some "free play" time, set aside ten minutes to admire your child as you watch them play. That's right: ADMIRE. Set a timer. Say "Soon we will have free play time, while you play whatever you want and I do a little work. But before we do that, let's take ten minutes so I can watch you play. I LOVE to watch you play."
Then, turn off your phone. Get other children busy with something else. Sit and admire your child while he or she plays. Consciously pour your loving attention into your child. Comment so your child knows that you're really present, but resist judging, teaching, or making suggestions. Instead describe: "You're adding a bridge to your train track," and empathize with your child's excitement: "That engine is going so fast!"
Your admiration is filling your child's cup, but you're also validating your child's play as something that your child knows how to do that is of value. Over time, your child will begin to pursue deeper play.
6. Use screens judiciously.
If you follow my work, you know that I am not a fan of screen time for children. But this is an unprecedented and highly stressful moment, and I don't think any parent needs to feel guilty right now about using screen time as a babysitter. What better use is there? So relax your standards and don't feel guilty for a moment.
That said, to keep screens from taking over your child's life, try making a schedule that includes specific times when screens can be used (Clue: When you need to get on the phone for work!)
And do put some energy into helping your child use screens in ways that will inspire the mind, replenish the spirit and combat isolation. Why not set your child up online to:
- Read a book to Grandma. (She can babysit from afar!)
- Have a playdate with a friend. (They can chat while they do art together, or play Hangman or Battleship or Chess.)
- Take a tour of a national park or art museum.
- Start an online book club. (This will take some supervision from you but is great to help children connect with friends and feel less isolated.)
- Play fun online math games or do some other educational app.
- Learn to draw with Kennedy Center Artist-In-Residence Mo Willems on his daily "Lunch Doodle."
You get the idea. There are so many possibilities. It's worth investing a little time up front to buy yourself time the next day.
7. Coach your child -- and give them something to look forward to.
If there's no other adult present and you need to hop on a call for a minute, set your child up with an activity. Set a timer next to them and show them that until the timer beeps you will be on the call. Tell them that if they have an emergency, they can stand in the doorway of your office and wave, and you will help them.
Then, review various problems they might have. How can they solve each problem themselves? Which ones count as emergencies? Promise them that AFTER the timer goes off, you will do something fun together.
After your call, lavish attention on your child. Tell them how impressed you are that they were able to use their inner strength to solve their own problems and not interrupt you during that critical work time. Then, get them laughing and do something fun and active together. It takes hard work for your child not to interrupt you, and you need to make that work worth it for them.
Keep the times short at first and don't expect that things will always go smoothly. You almost certainly will need to hop off calls sometimes, so warn your colleagues in advance. But every time you and your child are able to pull this off, your child is building inner resources and self-discipline. Soon, you'll be amazed at how much you can get done, even with your child nearby. And you'll notice that your child is developing the ability to focus deeply as well.
Most important of all? Your attitude. Give yourself some grace and don't expect to be working at your usual capacity. Years from now, when your child looks back, they won't be thinking about your conference call. They'll be remembering how close they felt to you during this difficult time.
8. Enroll your older child as a babysitter.
In normal times, it is not your older child's job to babysit your younger child. They're busy with schoolwork, peers, activities and important developmental tasks. But these are not normal times and we all need to pitch in as a family. If you need to work to keep your paycheck coming in, there's nothing wrong with enrolling your older child to watch over younger sibs for short periods of time. But give clear guidelines so they know how to guide the younger child's behavior appropriately, how to handle specific issues, and when to interrupt you. And be sure to make it worth their while, with appreciation, special privileges, and an increase in allowance.
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