Tips for Working with Kids at Home

A funny thing happened on the way to my computer. My intention to write this post about tips for working at home with kids was thwarted by none other than my wiley three-year old. Attempting to sit quietly and type I found my irritation growing as he bumped and twisted his way under my chair and through my legs, surfacing only for a moment to ping some plastic toy in my general direction.

He’s a talkative one too. But, he’s not talking about anything I want to hear — a chocolate chip mommy, more sweet tea, I can draw my hand, I’m hungry, I put my shoes on mommy, it’s Buzz Lightyear…yakety, yakety yak.

Oh the irony. [Insert deep breathing exercises here.]

Today’s productivity level hinges on his father’s ability to keep him out of my hair. Truth be told his father isn’t much less of an interrupting force — Have you seen my shirt? Can you get me to work on time? Should we make the girls car riders? You’re going to need gas, and milk. Can I throw out this juice?

Grrr. [Insert choice words for grumbling & mumbling between deep breaths.]

Despite the distractions (and good fodder for copy) the boys in the family are providing today, it can be possible to work from home and keep your kids at home with you. I’ve worked through a range of childcare support options from full-time childcare, flex care, daddy care, family care to no care at all. So, I’ve learned a few techniques to help get through the days when childcare is not an option.

Get mobile.

It wasn’t until after I had my third kid that I was able to invest in a laptop computer and a mobile phone. Prior to that I was tied to a wall working from a desktop. While most people have a cell phone, let me just say a laptop computer has been the best investment ever. It allows me to be mobile within my own house.

Being mobile within your own house is a godsend because let me tell ya just because you close the office door and let another grown-up take care of the kids, it won’t be long before they’re walking through the door to ask mom for something. Don’t even bother to lock the door — they knock, loudly.

So now I set up with the laptop at the dining room table — like now I am both writing this and monitoring the construction of a train track in my living room. I sit on the couch with the laptop while my kids cuddle around to watch a movie “with me.” I’ve taken the laptop to the library and I’ve even sat in the bus stop parking lot where I can get things done that don’t require wifi.

A cell phone is fairly obvious. This summer I arranged to interview a contestant competing on “Hell’s Kitchen” while on an outing with all three kids at my local aquarium. While the kids were busy looking at fish I was busy texting the chef — in a few short minutes I secured my interview time and location without any telltale background noise from my tiny crew. Mobile phones also mean you can make brief business calls while at the local playground. I refrain from using my phone to get online or to text when we’re someplace like the playground, only because my three-year old requires constant eyeballs trained on him.

Getting mobile also means getting out of the house. I’ve set up shop in the children’s section of the library (we have a small, family friendly library with a sectioned off kids room). My kids can entertain themselves with books and puzzles long enough to get something done. One afternoon I got lucky and my daughter, 18 months old at the time, passed out for a nap on a huge stuffed frog pillow.

So, getting mobile in every sense of the phrase is a huge key to success. Think creatively about where you can work and safely multitask entertaining your child.

Give your child your full attention.

I know that this sounds counterproductive, but believe me it isn’t. You can learn the frustrating way, like I did, or put my two cents of advice in your pocket.

When I began working with my first-born at home I was tied to my desk. She would grab my hand and try to pull me away from my computer to my great annoyance because I had deadlines to meet. She would come up and try to have toddler sized conversations with me. Nine years later she may not grab my hand to drag me away from work, but she does still walk up to my computer and start talking to me about whatever is on her mind.

Under the pressure of trying to please clients I faltered beneath my own impatience when my kids clearly gave me clues that they wanted my attention. I was gentle about trying to deflect their attention when they were younger, but the older they got the more snappish I have been in telling them not to interfere with work.

Trying to redirect my young child’s attention when they clearly wanted mine was never completely successful. And telling my older children to basically bug off only results in hurt feelings. So I changed my actions. I set aside my frustration and instead chose to give my kid my full, undivided attention. To my gleeful surprise I discovered that if I stopped, looked them in the eye and had the conversation with them, they went away happy. If I stopped to do what my toddler wanted for 15 minutes, she was more likely to resume playing or coloring independently again and let me get back to work.

It’s amazing. It’s not to say I don’t still have my snappish moments, and that as they get older they learn some ground rules for how to engage me when they are home on a workday.

Get some old school pens and paper.

On one hand a pen and pad of paper is an easy way to keep a child entertained but it can also help you work more efficiently. You might not always be able to crack open the laptop, so why not map things out on paper to make your computer time more efficient?

For example, I outlined the key points of this article in a spiral notebook while busy with the kids; therefore much of the work was done when I found time to get online. I find I can map out a lot of stories, map out questions for people I need to interview, make to-do lists, outline letters I need to type up and send all with a handy notebook and pen. These are things I can do sitting at a table feeding my kids, at the playground, waiting for the Girl Scout meeting to end and so forth. So, look for the parts of your day where you can multitask without taking away from your child’s needs. And figure out which tasks you do regularly in your job that could be prepped offline in order to still be productive. These things help me limit the amount of time I need to be staring at a screen. And I’d much rather have Kool-Aid stains and mashed banana on my notepad than my Apple iBook.

Schedule phone calls.

Say goodbye to the days of picking up the phone and having a conversation whenever you feel like it. Voice communication devices are, apparently, equipped with honing devices that attract your children to any quiet space you’ve hidden away to conduct a call. Even if you think that the all seems quiet on the home front no sooner that you connect a business call all mayhem will break loose — the sort that only moms can fix.

It happened to me just the other day when I made a call to go over details of a website. Thankfully the client is a friend and understands the dynamic of working at home with kids. But you can’t count on the person on the other end to have “been there, done that” and nor should they be expected to be understanding. So the best thing you can do is make it clear to clients from the get-go that lengthy phone conversations will have to be pre-scheduled and that your primary mode of communication is email, text messaging or a Skype chat. Keep in mind if you are not going to be readily available by phone, make sure you are readily available through your non-voice communication tools.

When you do schedule phone calls just be prepared that even when you pick the perfect time slot, kids happen. Not to long ago I scheduled a Skype chat with Marian Schembari for a time when my three-year old is usually sleeping. Sure enough not two minutes into our conversation a little head pops around from behind me and says “Peek-a-Boo!” to the voice on the other end of the Skype line.

Scheduling time can be tricky if you always have your kid with you. I get that. I’ve done it several ways: I schedule phone time when I know that the kids’ father will be at the house to occupy them, on the rare occasions my son sleeps late or takes a nap I consider that a bonus phone slot and, now that he goes to preschool two days a week I use those days.

If you don’t have a family member to help or childcare you’ll have to get more creative. Maybe if you’ve got a stay-at-home mom friend or neighbor they might be willing to trade watching your child one day in exchange for you watching their child one evening.

Keep office hours.

This was a freelancer writer’s advice to me long before I ever knew I had kids. And this is probably the first thing I failed to do when I had my kids. At first I thought that I would keep office hours when my started elementary school. But now I realize I should have done so by toddlerhood.

The thing is that whether you have kids or not it is so easy to find yourself constantly working. The tools are always right there and there will always be “just one more quick thing” that you could finish.

You may have been given some sage advice from your pediatrician to keep a routine schedule with your child. And while they are talking about feeding and napping, this same advice works for you as an entrepreneur.

Set your office hours and stick to them so that your children learn early that there is a distinction between what happens in the first half of the day and the second half of the day. Otherwise as your kids get older they will come to think that anytime you are attached to your computer (in my case) or on the phone (in their father’s case) that you are too busy working to pay attention to them. Trust me, they won’t distinguish that after 5 p.m. you’re actually feeding your Facebook addiction and enjoying socializing with friends.

Showing your kids what you are working on during your office hours helps. And setting it aside at 4 or 5 p.m. helps them understand, even at a young age, that the rest of the day is family time. It goes back to giving your child your full attention and garnering their cooperation. They may be more willing to work with you during office hours if they can trust that you are all theirs afterhours.

Sometimes you have to make exceptions, but communicating these needs. In the same way I alert my kids that there is only a half-hour before bedtime, I tell them when they get off the bus that I didn’t finish my article, that while they do homework I will be working to finish it and we should all be done at roughly the same time. Even if you’re sure that your toddler doesn’t understand exactly what you’re communicating, start communicating in this way. I tell my three-year old in words I think he’ll understand that mommy just needs five more minutes, or I show him how many pages I have left to fill — it sets the stage for communicating well when he is older. Don’t wait until you think they’re old enough to understand, set the groundwork now. And like I said, they will understand at any age your actions — so stick as best you can to keeping a balanced work/life schedule.

Get organized and be flexible.

A mom working with kids at home not only has to organize her own work day but also organize to some extent her child’s day at home. This means setting a breakfast and lunch routine as well as figuring out what activities will keep the little one occupied and stimulated throughout the day. No one wants to dump his or her kid in front of a television screen so figure out what your child can enjoy somewhat independently. My daughter liked to finger paint and my son likes to build with blocks.

Organize your schedule around what activities you can have your kid do. I can conduct an interview at the library if it’s also a time of day that my kid can enjoy the kiddie section. I can check email close to meal times when he is a bit rambunctious. I can write best during the early part of the day when he likes to watch PBS kids and then starts to play. So you learn to pace your day as you learn what makes your kid tick.

Be flexible though. Not everyday can run smoothly. So recognize when your kid might need to get out of the house and figure out what you might be able to do that is still productive for you — maybe that trip to the office supply store that you’ve been putting off?

And if you’re really having an off day, just call it quits early! You are the boss, right? You set your own office hours, so maybe in exchange for starting later in the morning or cutting out earlier than five you might work an hour or two before bedtime to prep for the next day, to get some of the projects you mapped out on paper completed, or to respond to emails that require a more detailed answer. Just avoid staying up all night into the wee hours. It’s a common tendency to use these hours because they are almost guaranteed to be uninterrupted, however chronic late nights can ware down your vitality so try not to become dependent upon them.

No matter what strategies you find work for you, its likely that it will always take ten times longer to get anything done no matter how organized, flexible or mobile you become. Even when you have another adult at home or an office door to close you may hear something like I just heard.

“Eli, leave your mother alone,” his father shouts from the couch.

“I want to hug her!” says Eli as he wriggles his way between my arms and the computer keyboard.