There was a time when I thought working from home with kids was the unattainable unicorn of the WFH life.
As a mom of three, I viewed parents who worked with kids in the house with either awe or scorn. How could they get anything done with the constant barrage of interruptions, sibling arguments, and snack requests?
I was convinced these supermoms and dads knew some secrets I didn’t, or had far more self-sufficient children than my own.
And then… COVID-19 happened, and all my preconceived notions about working from home with kids were put to a very real (and very challenging) test.
I know I’m not alone. These days, with schools and day care canceled all across the country, millions of parents have been thrust into a whole new world of juggling full-time career and full-time parenting in tandem.
Working from home with kids isn’t ideal, but if it’s a necessity, there are ways to make it, well, work. I spoke to parents and a child psychologist about how to manage kids while doing your job — and actually get stuff done. Here are their top tips.
There are so many times in life when planning ahead is a best practice — and working from home with kids is no exception. To get the most out of the day (or week), seasoned WFH parents tout the benefits of thinking ahead.
Often, this has to do with mapping out daily activities, especially those your child can do while you focus on work. Depending on the ages of your kids, this could look like anything from printing coloring pages to bookmarking an algebra assignment.
“I reserve certain assignments for the kids to do while I am teaching,” says mom of three Melissa A., who teaches music lessons from home. “Like worksheets, silent reading, and iPad learning games.”
The more experience you get with pre-planning, the more you may find it becomes second nature. As you go, you might even want to keep a documented list of options.
“I have a catalog of activities they can do independently that offer me at least 20 minutes of independent work time. I have them arranged by the kind of work I need to do and their ages,” says WFH mom Cindy J.
If there’s one thing I heard time and again from those who successfully manage working and parenting, it’s that schedules are non-negotiable. Breaking up the day into clear chunks of time for both yourself and your kids lets everyone know what to expect.
“Having a written schedule listed on your door is important,” confirms psychologist and pediatric mental health expert Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. “If your child can’t read, have pictures on your schedule and always open up the dialogue about what your day looks like.”
Don’t forget to talk through expectations with your kids, too. “If you have an urgent meeting where you can’t be interrupted, then let your child know in advance,” Capanna-Hodge recommends. “It is also important to not only give them the rundown, but show them and list things they can do. For example, ‘Jack, here are the top five things you can do when mom is working.’”
Schedules may change, of course, and sometimes work tasks get dropped in your lap on short notice, so be prepared to make adjustments as you go. (And cut yourself some slack!) “If you can’t align your schedule so you and your child can both get your work done at ideal times, then don’t be hard on yourself and do your best,” says Capanna-Hodge.
Just like adults, kids need social time. But when you’re glued to calls all day, it can be tough to shuttle your little social butterfly to playdates — and even tougher to have other kids over at your house. (Not to mention that during a pandemic, physical distancing may be a necessity.)
Thankfully, with the ease of online and phone communication, there’s no shortage of ways kids can connect with each other from home. For school-aged children who can confidently use a device, try scheduling a standing virtual playdate with a friend, or even a weekly chat with a relative they don’t see very often.
Virtual playdates are a win-win for WFH parents: Not only do they provide social interaction for your child, they keep them occupied so you can focus on work tasks.
You’re not alone if you’ve thanked your lucky stars for the blessing of kids’ shows on Netflix. But while screens keep kids’ attention engaged, we all probably know it’s not healthy to rely on them as a babysitter.
So how do you do screen time right as a work-from-home parent? According to experts, it has to do with boundaries.
“For working parents, they need to get their stuff done, and popping their kid in front of technology may seem like an easy solution, but in the long run it leads to a lot of arguments about loose boundaries,” says Capanna-Hodge. “Setting clear guidelines about how much time your child can spend on their device is very important for both parent and child.”
Include screen time on the daily schedule you make for your child, and when the allotted window has passed, try to be sure devices get turned off.
That being said, there are times — whether it’s during a global pandemic or just a more demanding workday — when your kids may get more than their usual screen time. Give yourself grace and don’t feel too guilty or stressed if you need to relax the rules at these times.
Ah, sweet nap time, how we love thee! (And we don’t mean our own nap time — though that’s great, too.) As many a parent knows, younger children’s daily naps offer a prime window of peace and quiet in which to get work done.
As much as possible, it’s smart to schedule tasks that require silence or focus when you know for (almost) certain there won’t be crying or noisy playing in the background.
When kids have outgrown nap time, consider shifting some tasks to other quiet hours, such as early mornings or after they’ve gone to bed for the night. “I’m happy to give up free time at night so that we can all maintain our sanity during the day,” says WFH mom Jessica K.
Even older children can practice a daily quiet time. Build it into the day’s schedule — after lunch, say — to make it feel more like a habit and less like an inconvenience to active kids. “We do non-negotiable rest/read time Monday through Friday,” says mom of five Monica D. “It’s totally quiet and good for the soul!”
“If you’ve got one, your partner needs to help, period,” says mom of two Melissa P. If at all possible, having support from your child’s other parent is key for WFH-with-kids success.
It always helps to set clear expectations of who does what in the child care equation, so choose a non-stressful time to determine schedule specifics with your partner or co-parent — and then stick to them.
If you don’t have a partner, try to find ways to ask for help within your tribe. Even when social distancing during a pandemic, many friends and neighbors would love the opportunity to drop a meal off at your door or take on a load of laundry — just say the word.
When you and the kiddos are home, like, all the time, you may face the challenge of additional cooking and cleanup. After all, your living room is their playroom, your backyard their playground, and your kitchen their cafeteria. (Plus, you may find you simply eat more meals at home when little ones are home — good for your health, bad for your kitchen cleanliness.)
If domestic duties threaten to overwhelm you, now’s the time to simplify them — or even outsource a few. If budget allows, consider bringing in cleaning help or scheduling an occasional meal service.
Alternatively, meal prepping one day a week or using time-saving kitchen appliances can be lifesavers. “I use the slow cooker more, so I don’t have to stop to prepare meals,” says mom of two Emma N.
Don’t be afraid to assign age-appropriate cooking and cleaning tasks to your kids on weekdays. While you wrap up email, they can start chopping veggies for dinner or pick up toys. The bonus? If chores get done during the week, you may all have more time on weekends to relax.
The WFH parent life is a give-and-take dance. It can definitely take a while to find your rhythm. But what do you do when your kids just can’t seem to respect the boundaries you’ve set? (There are only so many times you can stand to have an important call interrupted with a loud request for a wiped bottom.)
It’s OK to provide meaningful consequences to children who repeatedly overstep the boundaries of your work. Even so, with kids of any age, it’s best to focus on positive reinforcement.
“Children shouldn’t be punished for pushing the boundaries you created around your work schedule. Instead, they should be rewarded when they do a good job being appropriate,” says Capanna-Hodge. “When we reinforce the behaviors we want, including when they are being respectful of work from home boundaries, they are more likely to learn and repeat those desired behaviors.”
It’s also often useful to think about the “why” — why is the child acting out? If you empathize with their underlying need and understand the broader issue, coming up with a solution and using positive reinforcement become a little easier.
As working from home becomes more mainstream — whether due to COVID-19 or other circumstances — so, too, will working in the same space as your kids. Though it may not be easy, it does become more manageable as time goes by.
Implementing the right strategies can get you through the day with a little more productivity. (But remember that your productivity doesn’t determine your worth.)
And keep in mind that having a WFH parent can be hard on kids, too. So when work hours are done, do all you can to give them plenty of love and attention.