How to manage kids in the Home Office

Sooner or later, even the most dedicated of web workers settles down a bit. When the caffeine buzz of working at the local cafe wears thin, it’s nice to have a home base where you can spread out, use a full-sized monitor, and maybe even raise a family. Which leads to a new set of problems: how do you deal with the younger part of that family invading your home office? Here’s some advice from the collective experience of several slightly battle-scared web working parents.

The question of the door: The raging argument that divides work-at-home parents into two camps is whether to shut the kids out entirely or not. Should your home office have a door that you close between the hours of 9AM and 5PM, with the kids safely on the outside? Certainly having the door (and someone on the other side who takes care of the children) makes your working life simpler, but to my mind it removes one of the main benefits of the home office lifestyle. If I wanted to be away from my family all day, I’d put on a tie and go into a real office somewhere. We “no-door” types prefer to watch our kids growing up, even if that makes work more difficult at times. But you have to find the balance between work and family that works for you.

If you do decide to leave the door open, read on!

Make it their office too: It may be your office, but if the kids are going to wander in, you’d better have something handy for them to do. Keep a toybox in one corner and let them stash some of their toys there, and encourage them to play quietly while you work (assuming that you’re not one of those people who needs absolute silence to stay productive). If you don’t do this, you’ll soon discover that everything is a toy to a four-year-old, including your coffee cup, PDA, keyboard, and telephone.

Pass on your old computer: Nothing makes the kids happier than to be doing the same thing you’re doing at work. When you upgrade computers, put the old one on a cheap desk and make it the kids’ computer. They can use it at a younger age than you think: ours enjoyed key-banger programs like BabyType by the time they were a year old, educational software by three, and were cruising the web by five. (Remember the popup and virus blocking for that computer!) Though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding TV for children under the age of 2, they’ve yet to make a similar recommendation about computer use. With younger children, use your judgment and make sure they’re using software they can easily navigate to avoid frustration and tantrums.

Adapt to their schedule: Many of us enjoy web work because of the flexibility it offers to set our own hours. Particularly with younger kids around, you may have to give up some of this flexibility to their needs. If there’s a part of your day that requires the utmost concentration, schedule that part during their nap time, or after their bedtime, or while they’re off at school (assuming that you’re not trying to juggle homeschooling into the mix as well). Working slightly crazy hours is a much better outcome than yelling at kids for acting like kids when you’re trying to enforce absolute silence.

It can be a learning experience: You’ve got the whole internet at your fingers: use it! Between search engines, YouTube, Wikipedia, and all the other resources that you already know and love, you don’t have to be that parent who gets stumped by their childrens’ homework. When the “what did dinosaurs eat?” or “who was Dr. J?” questions interrupt your day, you have the ability to provide answers with an infinite variety of rich media. (Speaking of resources, a search for “coloring pages” will bring you thousands that you can print out; combine this with a box of crayons for a quick distraction).

But it doesn’t have to be: Little Billy has plenty of time to learn to be a web site designer or a computer programmer. There’s no need to make every interaction with the computer an educational one. If your daughter wants to search for pages featuring My Little Pony pictures, there’s nothing wrong with that. Give the kids time to be kids.

Be up front with customers: If the phone rings and your toddler is in the corner throwing blocks at the wall, just mention to your client, “oh, I’ve got our two-year-old in the office with me at the moment.” Assuming that they already know you work at home, this will usually get a reaction ranging from sympathy to envy. Just make sure you’re using a headset with a decently directional microphone, and keep your finger near the mute button in case of a sudden screaming fit.

Don’t be afraid to set limits: You’re the parent, remember? If you don’t want the kids taking things off your desk, say so, and enforce it. If you need a few hours a day with the door closed, and then start visiting hours in the afternoon, go for it. The key is to find the balance that works for you, so that you can have a successful career and raise children, while enjoying all the benefits of web work. If you’re like most web working parents, you’ll discover that the smiles
and hugs make it all worthwhile.

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