Working, Parenting and Sheltering in Place

Tips to reduce frustration and get some work done.

For the fortunate parents who are able to transition their job to work from home during the current coronavirus shutdown, you are inevitably discovering how challenging it is to work and parent at the same time. In the recent piece, Parenting in a Pandemic, I discussed the importance of maintaining routines and limits. Family routines are important to reduce anxiety and improve behavior. They set a child’s expectations and remove uncertainty from the day. Creating a flexible master schedule for the week is the first place to start, no matter the age of your children. It is also important to recognize that your work productivity is probably going to take a hit during this shutdown. Adjust and set more realistic expectations for you and your family. The following are age appropriate suggestions to help keep your family moving forward during this unprecedented situation.

Infants

While infants require a lot of direct attention, if you plan ahead, you can get quite a lot done while taking care of your youngest children. Working to keep a consistent nap schedule is critical, because nap time provides precious hands-free moments for getting work done. But, a lot can be done during your baby’s awake time too. The key with infants is to have “stations” that you can keep rotating them through as they become bored with the current activity. A station is a zone designated for a particular kind of play. The more stations you have, the easier it will be for your child to keep occupied. By working nearby each activity area, you can be present to your baby’s needs and relocate them once they become restless with their current play option.

In our first tiny apartment we lacked space, but we had plenty of stations for our baby. He had a play pen with balls and soft toys, a mat with hanging toys for the baby to bat at with his hands, a jumper hanging in the doorway, a windup baby swing, and an exersaucer stationary activity area with a built-in seat. As your baby is able to sit up, you can add spots in the home that have additional toys for your child to explore, bang and chew on. These toys can be swapped out each week so that you get the benefit of extended play time by introducing something “new” to your child. Be sure to chat with your baby as you’re working — you can even just talk out loud about what you’re doing — which will help keep your baby satisfied that you are nearby and engaging with them.

If you can stand while doing your tasks, carrying your baby in a swaddler or baby backpack is another way to get work done. Infants like your touch and they like to watch what’s going on, so using a carrier may offer you another hour per day of hands-free time, especially if they end up dosing off from the motion.

Toddlers & Preschoolers

Toddlers also need more direct care than older kids. They need to be protected and kept safe. When you are home with a toddler, be realistic about her attention span. Frustration occurs when expectations are not met. If you expect to get 90 minutes of uninterrupted work, you will be disappointed. Instead, be strategic about when you can get your own work done. Most likely your child will need more sleep than you. Hopefully your toddler still takes naps, if so take advantage of that time. While your child is awake it will be difficult for a parent to get more than 15 minutes of work done without an interruption, but if parents are proactive these interruptions can be brief. Instead of waiting until your toddler gets bored, work close by and check-in with her every 5–10 minutes. A check-in could be a smile or a compliment (e.g. “I love what you are making.”), and these encouragements will extend their play time. When you notice that a task is becoming boring, give her a nudge to move to the next station.

Since it is unusual for a toddler to spend extended time on any one activity, having lots of “stations” for toddlers is important too. Toddler stations will be play areas with more sophisticated toys than your infant play areas. Think about an area just for building blocks, a wooden puzzle spot, a table/highchair area for potentially more messy tactile play like play dough or an art area with coloring markers and crayons (save yourself — only use washable ones!). It’s also great to have a room that is safe for playing with light balls, allowing them to throw, catch and toss around. Offering your toddler a blown-up balloon can also provide long fun stretches of play, especially if you provide some balloon challenges for them (i.e. how many times can you hit the balloon up with your head, your nose, your knee, etc.). Have a basket or shelf of favorite books that they can sit and look at by themselves. On dry days, have your yard or patio ready with an array of things to do outside too. A small sandbox can provide valuable free minutes of work, as can a non-spill bubble blower container. Now that we are stuck at home, parents can teach their child to move from zone-to-zone, finishing one activity before moving on to the next.

When 2 and 3 year-olds play with other children, they play in parallel. In other words, they play a similar activity next to their peer and every once in a while they take a peek to see what the other child is doing. You can imitate this play at home. Sit next to your toddler while she plays, but instead of playing with a toy, finish 15 minutes of your own task. Your child will appreciate your presence and your periodic check ins. Remember that there should also be breaks when you play directly with your toddler. When you do, let her wiggle to exercise her muscles and let her imagine and pretend to exercise her brain. Imagination teaches children to open their mind to possibilities. As kids grow up to become problems solvers, they will need to be able to consider the possibilities.

Children

Independence gets increasingly important as children get older and yet they still need the structure that a parent should provide. Keep routines while your child is sheltering at home and fill those routines with many types of activities such as regular meal times, physical play, imaginative exploration, artwork, building, helping with housework, cognitive activities, learning tasks, and free time. You can fit chunks of time in your family’s daily schedule for you to do your work, and explain to your child that during these times they are going to get to be a “big kid“ and occupy themselves with their own activities.

One way to give your child more independence is to offer choices within each of their daily activity categories. Parents can help kids to generate lists in advance for each type of these activities. For example, they can create a list of things that kids can build (trains, Lincoln Logs, Legos, blocks, Zoobs, marble runs, etc.) and a list of art activities (clay, painting, drawing, origami, pipe cleaners, etc.). As your child moves throughout the day, from one activity to the next, they can make their own plan or select one from the list of options that they helped to create. Lists can be used in so many ways, such as lists for things that they can do outside, list of books to read this week, and even things that they may want to do when this social isolation is over.

It may be very useful to plan a specific time for your child to watch a show or movie during the day, especially if you have an important call or meeting that you need uninterrupted. It is okay for your child to choose to use electronics during her free time, but maintain the same rules and limits that you would normally keep in place. Make sure that she views appropriate content and does not exceed her viewing time, because adding one more show today, becomes an ask for two extra shows tomorrow.

The older your children get, it will be easier for you to work at home. However, just like with preschoolers, your check-ins, encouragement, and schedules will help keep your child on task. Your older child will appreciate your interest, so be sure to comment (i.e. “Show me what you built” or “What are you reading about?”). In order to set realistic expectations for time management, use the 10 minute rule. For each year in school a child should be able to occupy themselves for 10 minutes, a 3rd grader, for instance, should be able to stick with an activity for 30 minutes and a 6th grader for 60 minutes. Use this guideline when setting up your daily schedule.

Tweens and Teens

One of the tricky things about teens is that they are capable of entertaining themselves for a long time, but often do not make good time management choices. They will stay up late, sleep in, and spend the day on their phone, gaming, or watching television if you are not planful as a parent. You might be tempted to leave them alone, if that affords you the opportunity to get more work done. However, tweens and teens — like children — still need structure and schedules.

In addition to the types of routines mentioned earlier, setting goals is useful for older kids. Teens are capable of forward thinking (like planning, anticipating, estimating), but don’t often use those skills unless challenged to do so. Goal setting is a great exercise for their brains. It encourages them not only to think about possibilities, but also to make plans on how to accomplish them. If you know your work schedule, you can meet with your child to come up with an outline for the week that gives you the flexibility you need for your job.

With all after school activities cancelled for the time-being while families isolate at home, eating meals together should be easier than ever. Try to schedule your work so you can accommodate a family gathering. Perhaps this can be a silver-lining out of this unprecedented situation: having extra unexpected shared time together with your tween and teen is precious. Use this time to learn more about your teen’s thoughts and hopes, and discuss your own. Our family takes turns at the table with each of us sharing our “high,” “low,” and funniest part of our days. It is a nice way to stimulate conversation and learn more about how everyone is handling the shelter-in-place at our home.

Without a doubt, families may be facing one of the most challenging periods of your child’s life. Caregivers and children are adjusting to cancelled school and activities, disrupted child-care, loss of in-person social situations and playdates — all with the potential threat of job loss, illness and lack of everyday familiar food items. Reassess your work at home goals each week and utilize your partner and extended family for help if you need it. Thanks to the same technology you have available allowing you to work from home, your child also has the ability to do a facetime story hour with grandparents or cousins. Be creative, be safe, and be well.

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Damon Korb, M.D., a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician and the Director of the Center for Developing Minds in Los Gatos, California, is the author of Raising an Organized Child: Five Steps to Boost Independence, Ease Frustration, and Promote Confidence.

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