April 17, 2020

I have worked remotely with my children and husband home for 20 days, eight pounds, 24 stories and a lot of long walks. I was a guest on an NPR show from inside my bathroom with two locked doors between myself and one family member, who, it turns out, has a very loud phone voice. I’ve given up on my Zoom poker face and regularly drag the unlucky passerby in to say hello to the strangers on the screen. And my aim, when throwing soft objects from my office into the loft where my 12-year-old is noisily gaming while I’m on a call, has much improved.

A little over a month ago, I wrote a story about how to work from home with kids and spoke with the moms and dads of every age group. After working remotely for 12 years, often with a sick kid around here and there, I felt prepared to work from home with kids in virtual school in the middle of a global pandemic.

“I was born for this,” is a thing I actually told my sister.

I was not born for this. None of us were.

“Oh God … I was so optimistic,” said Bethany Erickson, deputy editor of People Newspapers in Dallas, when I emailed for an update.

Amy Elliott Bragg, special projects editor at Crain’s Detroit Business, also emailed some updates.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about this and wishing I could go back in time and talk to the me of two weeks ago (a much younger, wider-eyed, more relaxed me!) about how this was all going to play out,” she said.

Several of the parents in that first story got back to me with some updates. Like the first story, this piece is organized by age group and includes tips. Unlike the first story, the age groups are now a bit mashed together because that’s how we live now.

Here’s the advice that they all have in common: Give yourself a break right now. We’re all doing the best we can.

Fresh air is good. (Image by Amy Elliott Bragg)

Babies and toddlers

  • Stock up on snacks
  • Work in shifts, if possible
  • Reset your expectations
  • Trim down that to-do list
  • Communicate with your work team often
  • Go easy on yourself and anyone else who’s around
  • Screen time as necessary
  • Sunlight and fresh air as necessary
  • Cute kids make Zooms more bearable
  • Accept that this is really hard and you’re not a failure
  • Be kind to each other

“We’re doing all the things I expected we would be: Screen time is basically unlimited (so are snacks! SO MANY SNACKS) and my spouse and I are tag-teaming/working in shifts,” Bragg said. “It’s also pretty much impossible to work at the same level either of us do when we have childcare.”

Here’s some mid-pandemic advice for those of you with arguably the toughest job right now:

Reset your workday expectations.

Eight to 10 hours for uninterrupted work isn’t reasonable with little people around who count on you for their very survival.

“Be ruthless with your to-do list,” Bragg said. “Make sure you are communicating often with your team and your boss about your priorities, your capacity and your availability.”

Be kind and don’t take it personally.

“There is a difference between working from home because you want to and planned to and working from home because a global pandemic has made going to the office unsafe,” said Dawn Araujo-Hawkins, news editor for The Christian Century in Kansas City, who works from home with a 3-year-old and 6-month-old. “Both are hard. but there is an inherent level of stress in the latter that should not be taken for granted. Give yourself lots of grace. Sometimes you will feel like you are failing at parenthood. Sometimes you will feel like you are failing at your job. On really bad days, you will feel like you are failing at both. But we are all doing the best we can right now.”

And make adjustments as you go.

“A really helpful tip I heard was something like ‘don’t make the process personal.’ That first week working with all three of us home was beyond difficult as we all adjusted to our new normal, and my feelings were hurt every time my spouse ran 10 minutes late on a call. If you and your partner are splitting childcare and work it’s so important to communicate frequently about what’s working and what’s not — with an eye toward tweaks and improvements and avoiding blame or assuming bad intentions. We’re all in an impossible spot. Be kind to each other and try to make tomorrow a little better.”

Relax your normal limits.

It’s true. Screen time won.

“Screen time as much as you need it but it does help us all be a little less crabby at the end of the day if we take a break from screen time every hour or so and: Go outside, climb up and down the stairs, roll cars down the hallway, do some dancing, whatever,” Bragg said.

Make time for yourself.

Getting up before the kids do, even if you can’t leave, can be a balm.

“A 20-minute walk alone in the morning helps,” Bragg said. “Twenty minutes of reading a book before bed (or just … not looking at the news on your phone …) also helps. It’s easy to feel like you absolutely cannot spare a moment for yourself in all of this madness but this could go on for months. Put a little back in the tank for yourself every day, if you can.”

Just go with it.

Little ones can’t stay quiet for your umpteenth video meeting. So bring them along.

“Everyone is delighted to see your kid on Zoom,” Bragg said. “Sometimes your kid is even delighted to be on Zoom. Not usually! But sometimes.”

Melissa Davlin, the host of the public affairs program Idaho Reports, was just coming off of maternity leave when we spoke last month.

“I’ve mastered the art of subtly nursing off-camera while in endless Zoom meetings,” she said.

Maya and Liam McNeil hard at work/snacks. (Photo courtesy Kari Cobham)

Grade school

  • Arrange virtual playdates
  • Stay in touch with the teachers
  • Figure out what work they can do independently and what work they need help with
  • Make work fun
  • If possible, get outside
  • Use this time to teach them how to be a helper
  • Inform them without overloading them
  • Don’t try to mimic the school day
  • Food bribery works
  • Be gentle on them and yourself, this is tough

When we last spoke, Maya McNeil was 6-almost-7, enjoying going back and forth with the neighbors and anticipating her weekend birthday.

Shortly after that, updated social distancing guidelines ruled out in-person playdates.

“That was particularly hard on her because not everyone nearby was being as stringent as we were and she could still hear others outside,” said Kari Cobham, senior associate director of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism and Media at The Carter Center.

I checked in with Maya and her mom again recently.

Online school was good, Maya said.

“It’s kinda, like, boring because I don’t get to see my friends,” she said. “I have things to do like play with my toys. I can play on my pad or laptop or play with my brother when he’s not sleeping. I have lots of stuff to do other than play with my friends. Mostly I’m learning.”

Erickson has a third-grader, who asked “if after this year he gets to go to college because of all of this.”

I mean, he has a point.

My third grader, Leela, had this update about mid-pandemic life: “I like it and I don’t like it,” she said.

She likes being home and getting lots of breaks, but “I can’t see my friends or my teachers.”

Here’s some updated school-aged kid advice:

Keep those playdates going.

School-aged kids probably don’t have phones and aren’t on video game platforms that let them talk with friends. So be the playdate matchmaker just like you would in real life.

“You can still do virtual playdates with your child’s friends or family members,” Cobham said. “She does this regularly and it’s a joy. And I don’t need to be around!”

My mom gets a call every day around 2 or 3 and FaceTimes with my daughter and nephew. I’ve also reached out to my daughter’s friends for video chats. They see each other in virtual class, but there’s no time to catch up, and hearing that other kids are in the same situation makes it not seem quite so awful.

Check in with the teachers.

“Reasonable, weekly lesson plans have been great, but we also FaceTime with her teacher twice a week, so they can check in and work together,” Cobham said. “It’s been incredible for the connection and accountability.”

I was upfront early on that 4 p.m. homework deadlines weren’t going to happen in my house, we don’t get to homework until at least 6, and our teachers quickly adjusted for us.

Make work fun.

“Learning comes in many forms,” Cobham said. “She chooses between suggested lessons and we try to engage her in ways that don’t ‘feel’ like work — like drawing the planets, making positive affirmation signs, starting a gratitude jar, getting creative with leftovers, writing a list of questions she’s always wanted answers to and researching one every day, going out in the yard to pick up sticks or to look at how leaves feed trees.”

Figure out what they can do on their own, too, to buy yourself some solid work time. 

“The former is especially helpful when our toddler is napping and I need to pack work in during that window,” Cobham said.

It’s OK to turn on the devices.

“You don’t have to fill every minute of the day with educational activities or fun,” Cobham said. “There’s screen time for that.”

“I’ve given up on screen time limits,” Davlin said. “I’m just glad there are quality, educational options for him. I have also bribed him with chocolate to be quiet while I record.”

Also, if you can, get outside.

After the first week, my husband and I gave in and bought a big backyard trampoline. My kids are on it every day, and I head out there after tough stories. We may be stuck with more screen time right now than we’d like, but if you can get outside safely, fresh air and sunlight are good for everyone.

“We go onto the porch or into the yard for fresh air,” Cobham said. “Open a window, watch the rain fall, breathe.”

Be a helper.

“Sheltering-in-place is particularly hard on more vulnerable populations,” Cobham said. “Get your kid involved in helping others, whether it’s writing thank you notes to first responders, supporting the school district as they provide meals, donating delivered meals from local restaurants to medical personnel or setting aside tips for grocery cashiers. The reality is that there’s staggering inequality; don’t hide that. Keep teaching kids how to support others and lay the foundation for helping to build a better system.

They’re old enough to have some understanding of what’s happening, but they’re also sensitive to our moods and reactions. And they have tough days, too.”

Be open in an age-appropriate way.

My kids hear my interviews: layoffs, business closures, deaths. When they’re nearby for those, I try to follow-up with the details that are appropriate for where they are. Remember: what we don’t talk about sends kids messages, too.

Davlin and her husband have struggled with how much to share with their 6-year-old.

“Especially now that I’m broadcasting from home,” she said. “Since I’m doing COVID-19 coverage exclusively for the foreseeable future, we can’t exactly hide it from him. One thing that’s helped: He decided to start his own news program for kids with tips on having fun and staying safe during isolation. He’s done a handful of episodes, and he loves the messages he gets from parents and kids. He has taken over my home studio, and I now have to ask permission to use it for my job.”

You can be open about what we’re all dealing with without overloading them with information, Cobham said.

“Everyone is just doing the best that they can, day by day.”

You don’t have to explain your situation.

“I’ve learned that everyone is in the same boat — if I’m not starting an interview by saying, ‘Oh, you may hear my kid complaining about fractions in the background,’ the interview subject is,” Erickson said. “I also think that in a world where journalists can be subject to a lot of demonization right now, hearing our kids in the background, or even just acknowledging that we’re doing our jobs while trying to teach and locate hand sanitizer and everything else humanizes us with our readers. I’ve had some terrifically candid interviews in the past week or so, because we all have this common ground, this shared experience. Turns out, being terrified and in the weeds when it comes to being in charge of how your child learns is not a liberal or conservative fear — it’s universal and deeply felt.”

Yoga while on deadline. (Image via Bethany Erickson)

Middle school/High school

  • Trust them to do their work, then follow-up
  • Flex on bed time
  • Flex on screen time
  • Set limits
  • Give them space to talk about what’s happening
  • Now’s the time to teach/reinforce digital citizenship
  • Enjoy them
  • Watch screen time to make sure it’s also being used for school work

With my middle schooler, I’ve adjusted to his virtual learning platform and making sure he’s seeing messages that get lost easily and details about assignments. We have regular talks about what good digital citizenship looks like. We also spend some time, usually around the dinner table, talking about what’s happening in the world and how we can process it.

And PJs have to come off afternoon (not my rule, but I agree.)

For Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president and editor-at-large, the only changes with his three teens is mandated outdoor and exercise time.

“The poor dog is exhausted and confused by all the walks she’s going on,” he said.

My 6th grader may be the best-prepared to handle all of this in my family. He’s definitely taking everything in stride. I asked him what updated advice he’d offer other parents.

“Give your kids some attention, too. Don’t devote yourself to your work,” he said. “Take advantage of the fact that you’re at home.”

I looked up guilty when he said this after he’d asked, several times, if I could join him on the trampoline. He reassured me that I was doing everything right while also guaranteeing that I’ll be outside with him every afternoon from now on.

Now, please excuse me, I gotta bounce.

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org and writes a weekly newsletter on the transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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