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Working with a Bowling Alley in Your Brain

Tips About Working from Home With Kids From a McGraw-Hill Learning Scientist

By: Dr. Annie Snyder, Senior Learning Scientist, McGraw-Hill
Tags: Personalized Learning, Article, Classroom Best Practices, Social Emotional Learning, Study Tips, Corporate

A quick story:

A few days before my first son was due to arrive, I asked my dad what it was like to be a parent.

After a (disturbingly) long pause, he quoted Martin Mull:

“Having children is like having a bowling alley installed in your brain.”

Indeed. And when you are suddenly working from home with kids, it can feel like that bowling alley has suddenly gotten very loud and crowded, especially when the bowling pins go flying just as you’re about to start speaking during a video conference call. 

But, now is the time to let go of the guilt we might feel from having a day go not quite as planned. You are already doing a great job, and we will all get the hang of it a little more each day.

I thought it might be useful to share a few of the tricks that have helped me over the past few years as I’ve navigated working from home with three sons.

Younger Kids:

Incorporate them into your workday.

Babies and toddlers are programmed to want to be near you. It’s their main mission in life. So, when my little ones weren’t napping, I just embraced this fact. In fact, when my littlest was a baby, I would lay out a blanket or his tiny seat right next to me, put on some music, and get to work. Now that he is a toddler, I have small gated corners with toys right near my workspace, and as long as he isn't eating dirt or wailing, we have a pretty good dynamic. 

Create busy boxes.

I rolled my eyes the first time I saw this idea on Pinterest, but these have been lifesavers during hectic workdays. The key is to change the contents of the box up. Each week, try to make a new box filled with little toys, bubbles, crayons, letter tiles, new books, or playdough (if you're feeling brave). The other key is to put the box away as soon as your meeting is over, or the kids start to lose interest, so it seems like a special treat the next time you pull it out.

Prepare activities ahead of time.

Things that adults would never find entertaining can keep little bitty ones occupied for ages. Throwing ice cubes off the deck. Sitting in an empty bathtub (yes, I have brought my laptop into the bathroom) and drawing all over with bath crayons. Bubbles. Sorting blocks into different colored buckets. You name it. If you have a bunch of these lined up in the morning so they are ready, you’ll thank yourself later!

Somewhat Older Kids:

Communicate with them the most important parts of your day.

At the beginning of the day, I suggest clearly telling your kids about the times when you have your most important meetings or deadlines. Those are the points in the day to bring out the big guns (you know what I’m talking about: YouTube, Roblox, iPads, TV, etc.). Challenge your kids to see if they can possibly hold out on electronics until those times and find little rewards for them if they succeed.

Occupy them with fun ways to clean!

Set aside cleaning supplies that are just for use by the kids. You can even put their names on the supplies. Throughout the day, ask the kids to be your assistants and encourage them go on a hunt for dirt or dust spots on the floor. You’d be surprised how much fun a spray bottle of water and a few rags can offer throughout the day. 

(Side note: my 11-year-old has caught on to this, though, so don’t be surprised if your older kids don’t buy into the whole thing).

Give them a job that will help you with yours.

Speaking of assistants, you can also ask kids to assist you with work! For example, I sometimes have asked my son to sit in the background and “take notes” during a meeting. It keeps him busy for a while and the result is usually hilarious (one time, he wrote a whole page that said “BLAH BLAH BLAH”).

For All Kids:

Kids are actually pretty good at staying occupied if we give them the freedom to do so. Boredom is good for humans and can serve as the foundation for creativity. Don’t feel like you must fill every minute with activities - it’s actually better for kids if you don’t.

When kids come to you for attention, if you can, look away from the screen and listen for two minutes to what they have to say. Hug them, often. Nearly all kids benefit from lots of hugs and the chance to express what’s on their minds. Those two minutes of listening and hugs will carry them for a while, and you know, they might carry you, too.

If you can, you might also want to try scheduling “teatime” each day with your kids. During those few minutes, you can drink tea (okay, maybe it’s actually milk), eat cookies, and talk. When I do this with my kids, it often ends up being the best part of the day!

In addition, long-term projects that can be done in chunks over time are great for kids in preschool and up. For example, if ever there was a time to have your kids start building a time capsule, it is now! This sort of project can buy you a few minutes each day and is a great learning experience.


What to Do When You Don’t Feel Productive

There are going to be times when everybody is cranky and nothing is going right and you feel like you are getting nothing done. It’s going to be okay! During those times, I suggest trying these two things: 

  1. Have a list beforehand of very short mindless tasks that need to get done. When you can knock those little annoying tasks off the list in between a kid crying because the brownies didn’t have enough marshmallows and the washing machine breaking down, you will be a winner.
  2. Remembering that you are getting things done even if it’s not in the way you’d like.
  3. At night, record yourself reading to your kids. Picture books, chapter books, comic books, whatever you on hand – it’s all good! Play those during the next day and you can both work and read to your kids at the same time! It’s the next best thing to cloning.

Above all, I suggest being honest with yourself and your colleagues. This is a new, chaotic, stressful time with lots of changes for everyone. If things are tricky in any given moment at home, we all understand. We will flex to the moment, laugh, and adapt as we work together to keep things going.

You’ve got this.