March 13, 2020

I have worked remotely for 12 years, for nine editors, in three cities, on four jobs and with two children. I covered an earthquake with the happy music of cartoons playing in the background. I conducted an interview from inside the bathtub with two locked doors between myself and a screaming two-year-old who decided naps were, in fact, optional. I’ve perfected my poker face in video calls while my youngest silently writhes on the ground outside my home office, holds up signs demanding more snacks or sometimes just stares at me with more contempt than she should in any way be capable of.

Working from home when the kids are around is tough. It’s also probably the only reason I’m still in journalism. If you haven’t worked from home while parenting yet, or regularly, you’re about to find out why.

As schools close, people get serious about social distancing and workplaces mandate going remote, the coronavirus presents us with yet another twist — doing all the things at the same time. Bonus twist — this will impact people with kids differently depending on the age of those kids.

It’s like a snow day, but for a pandemic.

I’ve collected tips from moms and dads who shared their ideas about working from home with kids. The assumption here is you won’t be out reporting, photographing, recording or in a studio or newsroom. And since my 12- and 9-year-olds will handle this very differently than babies or teens, I’ve also divided this into different age groups, and consulted some of the subjects themselves — a 6-almost-7-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old.

Two more things: If you’re dealing with anxiety about the coronavirus, your kids probably are, too. Kari Cobham, senior associate director of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism and Media at The Carter Center, recommended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for mental health and coping and this thread on mental health resources.

Also, one place to put that anxiety is into figuring out how kids in your community are going to be getting food they rely on their schools for if those schools close down. What’s your district planning? The PTA? Area churches? Food banks? A few calls might bring answers that help you help out.

This list is certainly not exhaustive, so send your tips and I’ll try to include them. And one thing that works for all ages but those sweet babies: Give your kids age-appropriate jobs. They can earn a salary while they’re home (I give out stars, which, when accumulated, can be traded in for things like late bedtimes, screen time, Robux or gummy Coke bottles.)

OK, get your crayons and tablets ready, we’re doing this.

Related: New to remote work? These tools will make it easier.

Dawn Araujo-Hawkins and Lucy, 4 months, after a virtual staff meeting. (Image via Dawn Araujo-Hawkins)

Babies

  • Wear that baby.
  • Schedule calls in the evenings if it works for you and your sources.
  • Experiment with writing in the early morning before the baby wakes up.
  • Work in a platform you can access from different devices.
  • Find tools, like dictation apps, that let you work and parent at the same time.
  • Use those nap times.
  • Be honest.
  • Enjoy that baby.

People working from home with babies have a lot working against them — sleep deprivation, near-constant care and, yeah, the babies themselves. This is not a group you can reason with.

Baby-parents also have one very big advantage kid-parents don’t, though — nap time. Those gloriously quiet stretches tend to be predictable, though my daughter taught me never to bank on it.

Here’s what some baby-moms and -dads said worked for them.

Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is the news editor for The Christian Century in Kansas City and works from home with a 3-year-old and (almost) 6-month-old.

“I find babywearing to be essential,” she said on Twitter. “I schedule interviews during my husband’s flex time or in the evenings. You’d be surprised how many people are amenable to evening phone calls — especially if the topic is not related to their job.”

She keeps all her work in Google Docs, so she can move from computer to phone “if I’m trapped under a napping baby.”

And, she does one thing you should do at any age — tell people what you’re working with.

“If you don’t have a partner (or they don’t have flex time) and you can’t do evening interviews, tell people what your situation is and what ambient noise they can expect. People get it!”

Melissa Davlin and baby Elias after a virtual meeting.(Image via Melissa Davlin)

Melissa Davlin is the host of the public affairs program Idaho Reports, and she’s coming off of maternity leave now.

“I’ve started getting up at 5 to get some writing done before the kids wake up,” she said on Twitter. “Last week, I dictated a public records appeal letter using voice-to-text in a sing-song voice to keep the baby entertained. (It worked. Got more than $600 in fees dismissed with that letter.) And I just wrapped up a couple hours of work with the baby asleep on my shoulder. Using my phone to type instead of my laptop isn’t ideal, but I’m far more productive than I thought I would be.”

Baby Addie helping out her dad, Mike Carraggi. (Image courtesy Mike Carraggi)

Mike Carraggi, regional editor for Patch.com for Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine, has worked from home since his daughter was three months old. She’ll be a year this month.

“Best time of my life,” he said on Twitter. “Grateful to Patch for the flexibility, and I’ve done some of the best work of my career in that time. Use nap times. Enjoy the time she’s awake. Buy good toys.”

Related: How newsrooms are preparing for the coronavirus

He's not a toddler anymore, but Bethany Erickson's son does know his way around mom's office. (Image courtesy Bethany Erickson)

Toddlers

  • Loosen up screentime.
  • Be flexible.
  • Experiment with working in the early mornings and evenings.
  • Tag team, if possible.
  • Plan meetings and work that needs full attention during naps.
  • Take turns if there’s another adult in the house.
  • Enjoy that toddler. No really.

Shivers. 

At this age, kids can communicate but not fully comprehend that the world isn’t actually spinning around them. They have sweet little sing-song voices, make the most darling observations about the world, and know how to stop everything with a good old tantrum.

Unlike a lot of the people I spoke with for this story, my colleague, Baybars Örsek, does not work from home regularly, so for his 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter, when dad’s home, it’s the weekend and lots of quality time.

They’re both going to have to adjust.

“It’s uncharted territory,” said Örsek, director of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network.

Örsek’s wife is home, so he doesn’t have to figure this out full time, but he figures he’ll be loosening up screentime allowances to get some uninterrupted time. That’s a good bet.

Beth Erickson isn’t a toddler mom anymore, but her advice via Facebook:

“Abject begging,” said the deputy editor of People Newspapers in Dallas. “I also would put him down for a nap, wait til he was out cold, then go to my car (in the garage) with the baby monitor and make my calls. I once had to abruptly stop an interview because I looked down to see (on the monitor) him climbing over the child gate I put across his bedroom door.”

Toddlers are crafty like that.

Amy Elliott Bragg is special projects editor at Crain’s Detroit Business, and she’s ill-prepared for long-term working from home with a toddler, she said on Facebook, “but it has worked decently well for us for toddler illnesses etc. when my spouse and I both work from home and split up the day, so I’ll get a 1- or 2-hour block to work while he parents, then we switch.”

Make the most of nap times, which hopefully your toddler still takes, and schedule meetings in that block, she said.

“And catch up on less time-sensitive work before he gets up in the morning or after bedtime.”

Here’s another vote for screen time flexing.

“We are always lax with screen time on these days — an episode of ‘Sesame Street’ can make it possible for us to get through a conference call or power through some emails.”

Related: How local newsrooms are covering the coronavirus outbreak

Maya McNeil hard at work on a ‘realistic fiction story’ about her friend’s birthday party. (Image courtesy Kari Cobham)

Early school-aged

  • Coordinate playdates with friends/neighbors. (Editor’s note: This article was written before “social distancing” was recommended. Please follow the advice of your local officials and limit contact with others.)
  • Loosen up on screentime. You won’t ruin them.
  • Start a movie just before an important call.
  • Look for online games that reinforce learning and are fun.
  • Tag team, if possible.
  • Tell them what you need. They might not listen. But they are capable at this age.
  • Enjoy that little kid.

Maya McNeil is 6-almost-7, in the first grade, loves science, math and engineering, and is home from her Atlanta school because of the coronavirus. Talking to her reminded me of everything delightful about kids in this age group.

She’s excited for her birthday this weekend and her friend’s birthday and a sleepover “and we’re gonna have a blast.”

I asked her what it’s been like for her mom, the Carter Center’s Kari Cobham, who was making lunch while Maya and I chatted on the phone. Maya told me her mom has had “a hard workin’ day.”

Maya’s tips for working from home with this age group around?

Invite friends over (she’s been hanging with her friend from across the street.) Play by yourself. Play with your toys.

“Or maybe if they’re bored or they don’t feel like they want to do anything, play with your little sister or brother,” she offered. “I think that would be successful for them.”

Maya’s mom had advice, too, which she shared with me on Facebook.

Work with your friends and neighbors. This is the age where kids keep each other busy, and it’s magical.

“We’re fortunate that the 6-year-old has a friend across the street from us. They’ve pretty much been in and out of each other’s houses. If I need to buckle down with work or some breathing time or to run out for errands, I can send the kid over and I do the same for her friend’s mom. A classmate also lives in the neighborhood and yesterday she had a bunch of kids over. Obviously, the larger gatherings we’re avoiding. But if you have a small village, lean on it while you can.”

Tag team.

“My partner and I have been trying to tag team as much as possible regarding who manages the kids, especially on days packed with conference calls. He’s not yet on mandated work from home, but has some flexibility.

Screen time is OK right now.

“I’ve been open with the amount of screen time and encouraging her to play some of the educational games she likes from school alongside TV shows and other games. Other activities include coloring, drawing and writing a book (keeps her occupied for chunks of time!). Starting a movie right before a call also helps.”

Set expectations.

“When I have a call, I straight up say I have a call, ask not to be disturbed and lock myself away. She doesn’t always listen, but fortunately there’s mute for that!”

Related: Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Inside it said 'My favorite thing about you is every single thing but not really your makeup.' Radical candor is overrated. (Photo by Kristen Hare/Poynter)

Elementary schoolers

  • Give them a fun way to communicate with you.
  • Set and enforce expectations.
  • Work together to create a fun to-do list for them.
  • Coordinate playdates with friends/neighbors. (Editor’s note: This article was written before “social distancing” was recommended. Please follow the advice of your local officials and limit contact with others.)
  • Create ways to communicate what kind of work zone you’re in.
  • Relax your screen time rules. Really, they’ll be OK.
  • If safe, send them outside.
  • Designate a kid-free space.
  • Create fun zones throughout your house.
  • Tag team, if possible.
  • Invest in craft supplies.
  • Enjoy that big kid.

Leela, my daughter, is 9 and in the third grade. She’s what I like to call my “high-touch” client. She loves attention, loves to tell stories and use her imagination and wants me within looking distance when she’s home and I’m working. 

She’s less maintenance than she used to be, thank you TikTok, but that means I need to know what she’s up to, thank you TikTok.

I asked her this morning on the way to school what advice she’d have for parents of kids her age. She suggested buying cool sticky notes and giving them to kids so they have a way to jot down questions and save them for when mom and dad are free. (Maybe make a suggestion box!) She also thought it would be cool to have an “on air” or “do not disturb” sign on the door to my office so she’d know if I was in the zone even if I wasn’t on the phone. 

I love those. My advice on this age group: Work with them to create a menu of things they can do and keep it on the fridge or somewhere they can find it when they’re so bored they literally cannot take it anymore you don’t understand. Make slime. Watch “PrestonPlayz” on YouTube. Draw. Practice cartwheels. FaceTime Grandma. Build in Minecraft. Cut Barbie hair. Take a bath. Watch TV. Make fake YouTube videos with that old phone.

Like Cobham said, use your village. I met my best mom friends at the Saturday morning dance class four years ago. They’ve given my kid snacks when I’m in the car on last-minute interviews, rides home when there’s breaking news, hugs, sleepovers and usually have wine waiting for me. I’m guessing we’ll be rotating children from house to house very soon. (Hey Siri, remind me to stock up on wine.)

Also, set expectations and reward them for being followed at this age (honey vs. vinegar and all that.) And when you’re done working or can take a break, set a timer on your phone for 30 minutes and lavish that kid with attention. 

Kate Wehr, a freelance writer, editor and business manager in Montana, is the mom of four kids 8 and under. She shared what’s worked for her on Facebook.

Get those kids outside.

“If it isn’t too cold/windy, and your kids are old enough and you live in a safe neighborhood (lot of caveats there!), hand the kids a snack and kick them outside for an hour.”

Claim some space for yourself.

“We have one child’s bedroom that functions as an alternative play space during the day, because our house is too small for a real playroom. If the kids are too disruptive out in the family spaces, I send them in there.”

Create some space for them.

“We also started keeping a LEGO table in another part of the house, where older children can periodically escape to entertain themselves.”

Tag team, if possible.

“My spouse is self-employed, so if his schedule permits it, he’ll sometimes take a child with him to run errands. (That usually doesn’t get allll of them out of my hair, but it helps.)”

Get crafty.

“I keep a bin of craft paper, glue, markers, kid scissors, etc., that elementary aged children can dig out if they want to work on a project.”

Related: Have to teach virtually on short notice? We’re here to help.

Max with the best part of the paper. (Photo by Kristen Hare/Poynter)

Middle schoolers

  • Create a schedule they can follow.
  • Set daily goals for school work and reward them.
  • Relax your screen time rules. (Just kidding, by this age that’s already happened. But they are gonna need limits.)
  • Check in to see what they’re up to.
  • Use breaks to go on bike rides, walks or do something together outside.
  • Talk about what’s happening.
  • Use this as a time to help them become savvy news consumers.
  • Enjoy that tween.

We have entered a whole new phase in my house with middle school, but I think the conversation my son, Max, and I have every morning in car line works for this situation, too.

Me: “What’s the goal of middle school?”

Max: “Survival.”

I’m new to this one, but learned very quickly that while tweens don’t need their parents around for some of the basic jobs younger kids need them for, they still need us to be around. And paying attention.

Max’s advice on the way to school this morning: “Give your kids a routine that they can do without your help.”

Sweet, independent kid.

For us, on sick days or days when there’s no school, that’s as simple as getting an hour on video games and then taking an hour off. You can remind them, or tell them to set an alarm on their phones if they have them. This works for us because he’s able to talk with school friends on his Xbox and get some social interactions in, then he draws, writes, reads, rides around the neighborhood or watches TV in the hour off.

I’m guessing, if school here is cancelled after spring break next week, that he’ll be doing school work online, and that means we’ll need that schedule — with rewards like bonus time, hangouts or sleepovers — will be even more important.

Kids at this age don’t “play” like younger kids do, but they will join you for a long bike ride or hike if you can take a lunch break. If you can leave the house for a park, a no-touch Nerf war could be cool, too.

Tweens also know what’s happening in the world and are processing it through the media they consume, from worrying about World War III to the coronavirus. Talk with them about what they’re reading and watching and how they’re feeling. Help them sort through all of that to find reliable information. (Now’s a good time to tell them to follow Poynter’s MediaWise on Instagram. It’s led to lots of great conversations on the way to and from school.)

Teenagers

  • Watch screentime to make sure it’s also being used for school work.
  • Set clear limits on screen/gaming time.
  • Ask for the daily schedule.
  • Flex on bed time.
  • Make the most of those weekend-like mornings.
  • Enjoy that teenager.

Rob King has teenagers and doesn’t often have to work from home with them around, but he does have a teen-free space where he and his wife can work, said King, ESPN’s senior vice president and editor-at-large, in an email.

School hasn’t been canceled yet, but the Kings do know how they’ll have to learn using their Chromebooks if that happens.

“I suspect that will mean some policing of their respective screen time to make sure they’re on task,” he said. “I’m guessing we’ll also make it clear when they’re expected to close everything down, as well.”

Ewa Beaujon is also a teen-mom and a freelance writer, editor and fact-checker.

“I’ve worked from home for so long now that I’ve learned that it’s good to have a plan,” she told me on Facebook. “So in the morning, I go and ask my kids what their plan for the day is. If there’s anything they have to do, like school work, we make a time that they will work on that.”

Chores have to happen, too.

“I find that if you have even a basic plan of what the day is going to look like, it sets up the expectations for the day for everyone and the day goes a lot more smoothly. Saying that, I could see those plans going to hell if we’re stuck for a couple of weeks!!”

I can see that, too. Here’s hoping we figure it out together.

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org. She 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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  • This article includes many good tips, but the repeated advice about coordinating “playdates” with neighbors flies in the face of everything I am learning about social distancing. Yes, life with my five-year-old would be a lot easier if I could let him get together with “just” one or two friends. But that isn’t what I’m hearing I should do if I am truly trying to “flatten the curve” and prevent deaths.

    • Gabriel, this article was written before “social distancing” was recommended. Please follow the advice of your local officials and limit contact with others. I’ve updated the article to mention this.