dad joining video call while kids ask him for things

Well folks, here we are. Word came down over the weekend that all schools here in the Great Bold North (otherwise known as Minnesota) would close for a few weeks. Maybe longer. Our district has been prepping a remote learning plan, and while that’s being finalized, the kids basically get some bonus snow days. But my husband and I? No snow days for us. We’ll need to be working from home as normal – or as close to normal as we can manage.

Fortunately for us, working from home is our normal, as we’re both full-time remote employees. So we’ve had some practice dealing with the kiddos being at the house with us on days school is closed for parent-teacher conferences, curriculum development, and, y’know, actual snow. If, like us, you’re suddenly a stay-at-home parent and stay-at-home employee, here are a few ways to make this experience less stressful.

Manage expectations

With yourself – Real talk: you will not be as productive as you would be if your kids weren’t at home with you. Nobody is. So don’t develop an inferiority complex over this. Look at the tasks and goals you had lined up for the week and see what can get pushed out a few days or put on the back burner indefinitely (with agreement from your manager, obvi). The younger your kids are, the more grace you should allow yourself.

With your team – Let them know that you’ll be doing your best to keep up with the essentials and avoid being a bottleneck, but that ultimately, you’re at reduced capacity. Chances are, some of your coworkers are in the same boat. Consider whether doing some work at odd hours would help make your days less stressful and if so, make sure your teammates understand when they can expect you to be responsive.

With your kids – If they’re old enough to understand what’s going on, be clear about how independent you expect them to be while you’re working. Let them know when it’s ok to interrupt you (e.g., they’re bleeding), and when it’s not (e.g., their favorite app won’t load).

Kick things off with a short family meeting

This morning we gathered at the kitchen table to talk about how we were going to deal with this change as a family. We’ve never had to do this before, but it went well enough that I feel good recommending it. Here’s what we covered:

  • What is everyone hoping to get out of this time while school is closed? (My son wants to hone his hide-and-seek skills, our daughter is looking forward to more family time, and my husband and I just want to get through this with our sanity and our jobs intact. Your mileage may vary.)
  • How will we structure our days? (More on that below.)
  • Do we still have to make our beds? (Yes, but “pajama days” are totally fine.)
  • What about meals and snacks? (More on that below, too.)

The kids walked away feeling like they’d been heard, and that alone was worth the ten minutes it took to discuss all this. When you let them help make decisions like how to break up the day, they’ve suddenly got a vested interest in this whole school-from-home thing. And that goes a long way toward ensuring their cooperation.

For more on family meetings, check out these ten tips.

Create a daily routine

Structure works at home for the same reason it works in schools: kids feel comfortable and assured because they know what to expect. How granular you get with your daily schedule depends on how old your kids are. For our elementary school-aged kids, we divided most of the day into two-hour blocks filled with activities they can pursue independently.

  • 7 am – wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, do morning chores
  • 8:30 – activity books, puzzles, drawing
  • 10:30 – “quality” screen time (favorites include Magic School Bus, JustinTime, and Word Girl)
  • 12:30 – lunch
  • 1 pm – quiet time in their rooms
  • 2 pm – free play (including some time outside, ideally)
  • 4 pm – “quality” screen time, pt. 2
  • 5 pm – regroup as a family and start making dinner

So yeah: that’s a fair bit of screen time. But we’re going easy on ourselves because this is a marathon, not a sprint to see who can win at parenting this week. Besides, once the remote learning program starts up, we’ll need to adjust the routine anyway.

If your partner is also working from home, agree on who will be the kids’ go-to parent at different times of the day. The simpler the better: if one person can take mornings and the other takes afternoons, that’s easy for everyone to keep track of. Plus, it ensures half a day of heads-down work time for each parent (in theory).

Plan and prep meals and snacks in advance

In an ideal world, I’d collaborate with the kids on a menu for the week and do all the meal prep the night before. A morning snack would be laid out before I go into work-mode, and an afternoon snack would be agreed on and prepared at lunchtime so it’s ready whenever they are.

In reality, few families are that organized. But perfection is not the goal here (see “managing expectations of yourself”, above). Not having a commute works in your favor. You can use that time in the morning to lay out a snack for later and get a jump on lunch. Whip up some PBJs, put glasses of milk in the fridge, set chicken nuggets out on plates, etc. Let the kids chose from a couple of options so they have some agency in the process and will be less likely to put up a fuss come lunchtime.

Take advantage of high-quality streamed content

As a source of kid entertainment, podcasts are highly underrated. (Side note: they’re a fantastic substitute for screens in the car, too.) And there are so many ‘casts that kids can learn a lot from, sometimes without even realizing it. I find that streaming a few episodes while the kids are coloring or playing with Legos keeps them engaged in whatever they’re doing – and out of my hair – longer. If you’re new to this scene, start here:

  • Brains On – A science show for kids and tweens. Topics range from why you can’t tickle yourself to what’s up with boogers.
  • What If World – Where all your kids’ silly “what if?” questions get answered. Lots of character voices and mini-sketches in this one.
  • Forever Ago – A history ‘cast for kids and tweens. The episode about sandwiches is on heavy rotation at our house.
  • Any of these other podcasts for kids recommended by Common Sense Media. They’ve got a list for teens and tweens, too. (I will personally vouch for “Pants On Fire”.)

There are also loads of great documentaries that kids as young as four can enjoy. Nature series like Disney’s “Growing Up Wild“ or “If I Were an Animal” are very accessible for the pre-K through 2nd grade set, while shows like “The Blue Planet” feature such stunning photography that age scarcely matters. Mid-elementary students can surf short videos on National Geographic Kids for hours without getting bored. And for late-elementary school through high school-aged kids, check out this list of documentaries on everything from gardens to bullies to racial identity.

Even some zoos and museums are getting in on the streaming action. The Cincinnati Zoo is even doing daily events via Facebook Live that include follow-on activities for kids to do at home. For the art enthusiast, the U.K.’s National Gallery offers dozens of videos about the paintings in their collection, the people who painted them (including a playlist dedicated to women painters), and art restoration on their YouTube channel.

And although not technically streamed content, many (many) makers of education-focused apps are waiving subscription fees right now. Even the uber-popular apps like Khan Academy, ABC Mouse, and Adventure Academy.

Don’t forget the physical activity

Gym class might be canceled, but there’s no reason you can’t work in a DIY phy-ed. (Or should I say “DIphy-ed”? *buh-dum-dum*) Cosmic Kids yoga is a great way for younger ones to get some wiggles out, and trainers like Moe Jones offers workout videos for kids and teens on YouTube. There are tons of dance and choreography videos available, too.

Better yet, get them outside. Public playgrounds probably aren’t the best option unless your local parks and rec department is sanitizing the equipment regularly. But back yards and open courtyards can come to the rescue, even if you don’t have a swing set. Classics like hide and seek, tag, and catch are great ways for 2-3 kids to play together.

Regardless of whether they’re getting their energy out indoors or outside, they’ll have an easier time sticking to their normal school-day sleep schedules.

Invest in a little extra time together

Granted, many working-from-home parents need to squeeze absolutely as much work into each day as they possibly can. However, if you have the option to take a longer lunch break or close your laptop for a half-hour in the middle of the afternoon, take advantage. (Before you feel guilty about it, remember how many coffee runs you’re not going on these days.)

Go on a walk around the neighborhood, read together, or show the kids what happens when you drop Mentos into a bottle of soda. Create a slide show or movie chronicling this period in your lives. Build a stick-fort in the yard. Learn a new card game. This is a stressful time, no doubt about it, but you can also make it a special time by finding activities you can do together, even if it’s only for 15 minutes a day.

Stay well out there, parents. Be kinder than necessary to yourselves, your kids, and everyone else. That’ll make a massive difference as we all navigate our way through this.

How to work from home when your kids are home, too