How to manage kids in the Home Office

79 Comments

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.

79 Comments

Bob

Working at home can be a real tough job, and the hours, though flexible, can be pratically non-stop if you’re not disciplined to manage them well. Add family responsibilities on top of that and you have a nice recipe for stress. Bottom line, it can be the best or worst of times, depending on how you manage it all.

Bob Walton

My wife and I have home schooled our six children from kinder garden on; 3 done, 3 more to complete.

Prayer, stamina and organization have been key. Thanks for sharing this blog post; it appears rather popular.

Blessings.

Mother of Hana

I create some kind of a desk for my 3 yo daughter with her laptop toy but she still asks for the real computer her father and I own each–my hubby also works at home.

Well, hopefully we’ll be having enough money soon so she has her own computer and doesn’t have to take over ours.

:-)

Alex

I own an Internet cafe and i have internet at home and i wish to be monitering my internet cafe at home which software is the best for me to do that.

Brad

Hey,

On the secondary computer for the kids you should check out edubuntu. It is a Linux distribution packed with kids programs (maybe age 3 to 12), especially the gcompris suite of kids programs. My favourite is the inclusion of a logo clone (the one from commodore 64s where you programme a turtle to draw stuff). It also has cute graphics and most of the included apps have big friendly icons ;)

tummymouse624

Hi Lots of great ideas, thanks I have worked from home now for about 5 years, starting in the spare bedroom and them migrating up into the loft office/bedroom, which means we (my wife and I) are more physically seperated from the rest of the house, but can still keepan eye on things.

It gives us the felxibility to manage a 10 and 7 year old who go to school in the village where we can drop off and pick up, saving £ hundreds in childminding.Our 7 year old often sits in the office drawing which is a pretty special time for me when she comes home and her older brother is charging around the garden playing football (soccer).

We run a small health and social care training company having previously worked at a local university I echo the comments of Andrew Macarthur about getting more done because I can concentrate on the job not the politics, or rather manage the politics of the two universities who accredit our programmes when I want to.
Trevor

Carl

I work from home as well and find that boundaries work most of the time. I have a dedicated home office and had to set up the family office in another room because of the distractions. The main issue is usually phone calls and distractions while they are going on. So I plan blocks of time where my kids are occupied in some activity and I can concentrate on them.

I think the best work from home strategy is the one that works for you!

May C

Great article! I am blogging, not really “working” since it’s really a hobby more than something that pays me a wage, but I am doing work at home and making calls and writing a blog and doing reviews. I’m hoping that it could become something but this is a great article. I can relate to the headphone thing since I am now using SkypeOut for calling out since I disconnected my home phone and it works fine for about a year now.

Unfortunately, I’m in the kitchen and very accessible but it’s actually my preferred place since I can easily fix myself something to eat, drink and watch TV while I’m doing stuff and when my son is home, he’s only a few steps away in the livingroom.

AKM

I have been working from home permanently for about 6 months. I have two children, 5 and 2 1/2. As much as I do not want to close the door, there are times when I need to (generally conference calls). It has taken some time (about 3 months) for them to understand that if the door is closed that means mommy is on a call, but they have it down. Other than the calls, the door is open and they can come in and play or “do homework” as my 5 year old says.

I definitely agree with understanding your schedule, as well as, your child’s schedule. I try to schedule the majority of my conference calls during the early morning when they are both very independent and want to do “what they want to do” and during their nap time, so that the office door can be open the majority of the work day.

Thanks for the article.

Nick

Nice article.

As someone who has been a stay at home dad, er I mean “Trophy Husband”, while building my microISV I can offer two more pieces of advice. There are times that you can entertain them while using the time to your advantage…

– Take walks. That gets them out and gives you thinking time. It’s amazing how many problems I’ve solved in my head while getting out and taking a walk with my son.

– Don’t always work on the computer. Use a pen and paper too. You can sit down with them, give them some paper and crayons while you’re working the “old fashioned way”. Paper prototypes, data flow diagrams, pseudo code, and many other things can be done during play time.

My2c

Our child is either at daycare or with my spouse while I work from home. This arrangement started due to my employer’s policy (more details below), but now I think that it’s good for the child as well. Our child gets more loving attention while I work than I could give them in a corner of the home office — or in front of a second computer. I realize that not everyone needs such an arrangement, some people are single parents, and good daycare can be costly and/or hard to find. I’m simply grateful that it’s working out for us.

My employer’s policy is that working from home is not a replacement for daycare. I must give our customers my undivided attention on the phone — child noises or interruptions would not be acceptable. I must also concentrate fully when responding to customers’ e-mails. Their questions are complex, the stakes are high, and they are often facing hard deadlines.

I managed to arrange working only 4 days a week. It helps work-family balance a lot. The reduced income is somewhat offset by lower daycare costs. But on my work days, I cannot work around a child schedule as I must be available during set hours.

Of course, I still enjoy zero commuting — no rush-hour stress, wasted time, expenses or pollution! When my work is done, I can be with my spouse and child as soon as they’re back home. Sometimes, I even manage to have dinner ready by the time they walk in the door — this certainly increases my popularity :-)

Anonymous

When I work from home, I am lucky to have someone on the other side of the door to help. Otherwise, I cannot understand how anyone can get any work done with the open door policy. Kids need constant attention and the fact that you are working only makes them crave your attention that much more. You can schedule regular breaks to play with them etc, but if you leave the door open, you are working at 30% efficiency. Putting toys in your home office would only encourage more “visits” which is not something conducive to getting work done.

Andrew McArthur

I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for 7 months now. My wife took a faculty position and I left a my own faculty/research position where I led a large research program. I have some contracts that I work on but only when the kids are in school (2.5 hours a day). Frankly, I’m getting more done now than I was as a prof as the academic nonsense is gone – I just focus on science. My office is in the family room on the main floor and is open to the dining room, living, and kitchen. It also has extensive windows to the fenced back yard. While my the real math and difficult work gets done while the kids are at school (nap time is reserved for cleaning/cooking), the flow of parenting and plan leaves windows to deal with smaller tasks throughout the day. All within the swirl of children around me. They grab paper from the laser printer to draw, use the unplugged fax machine to call imaginary friends, ask to use the internet to look up answers to a thousand kid questions, and sometimes video chat with Mom. As dad’s office is just part of everyday life, it is never a big deal. They adapt/play easily if I tell them I need a few minutes to polish something off or reply to a contract email. Much better than when I had a closed office door – they hated that.

duchess

I’ve noticed that my son tends to be more independent earlier in the day than in the afternoon, so I try to schedule my phone calls and any thing that requires focus in the mornings. This way, while I am working, he is contentedly playing and is fine with minimal interaction with me. If I tried to do this around 4pm, it would be impossible because he needs more attention then.

backroadpictures

I think it’s great that Moms can stay home, work and be a Mom in the same building at the same time…In this world today, kids are best home with their parents. or Grandparents. and working around the kids I think is the best way to go..A lot of moms are opting for home schooling too..

George

I can confirm your advice on passing on an old computer to your kids. My 3 year old son likes to “work” quietly while I work. He even often tells his mom that he is busy when she comes to visit us. I often end up laughing when he says that.

Char

I have been working from home for 10 years – since my first of three was born. My office is located in once was the “formal” dining room. It does not have doors but is a defined space. From my office I can see my kids playing in the playroom – the best part is the wood/glass pocket door on the playroom – I can see them, but I can close the door and won’t hear them.

There is also a second computer and desk in my office so my “creative staff” can work, too, when needed.

It has been a juggle at times, but by adapting my work habits and training my children to be SILENT when the phone rings. I have been able to survive the terrible twos, three times over. My youngest goes to full day Kindergarten this fall. I’m not sure if I am going to really enjoy silence ALL day – I’ve gotten used to having at least one of them around at all times.

Josh Maher

Interesting…I do most of my work and school from home….so I am constantly on the computer/head in a book. My kids know what I’m doing (after a few arguments) and are now comfortable with the fact that if I look like I’m working (even if I’m not)….they stay away and play somewhere else or wait patiently until I acknowledge them. I usually work at my desk in the family room, on the couch, in the kitchen, in my bedroom, in the back yard, and in front of the fire place on the floor. There is no need for a door or any other barrier….just a few months of working through the issues!

They are both in school and know that they go to daycare/school on my schedule, not theirs and if I send them outside to play….rain/snow/sun/whatever…they need to go and let me work. They are 5 & 8, but understand the benefits and downsides of me working from home.

Lisa

I am not yet a parent, but trying !! When I do have kids I would like to work from home. Your post has been very helpful. I am sure everyone has their own approach and that different things work for different situations, but at least I know what to consider.

Thanks.

Izual

Great article. Should have been here sooner so I would have had an easier time myself.
I’m only missing 1 point. You say adapt to their schedule, but who creates that schedule before they go to school? The parents do. Make a schedule that works for you and the kid(s) even after they go to school. Learning them the schedule is easy, making changes to what they know is a lot harder. Make sure you are very consistent in that schedule, well actually in everything you do with kids.

Margaret

I’ve had a home office since my daughter was born, and she’s now in elementary school. What I’ve learned is that you always have to be adapting! When she was tiny, I tried to do the absolutely-cannot-be-disturbed-work while she was napping. If it’s something that I didn’t need to be on the phone about, I would work early or late at night. As she got older, we began to make some rules–playing quietly, etc.–,and giving her her own space to “work.” Now, we have it that if the door is closed, she can’t barge in unless it’s an emergency (once we worked through being out of hot chocolate is not an emergency, it’s worked fine.), but she has to knock before she enters.

One unexpected thing I’ve learned throughout the years is not to treat the home office as an off-limits spot or someplace that’s not for children. I discovered that reverse psychology works well. The more I tried to keep her out, the more she wanted to come in! The more I set up the office to make space for her, the less she came in. The challenge, it seems, was gone!

stuart

I usually don’t leave comments, but this was a great article! I am having a son in April and the advice is appreciated. Thanks!

Deirdré Straughan

In my extensive home-working days, we lived in a 3-room apartment in Milan – my home office was a corner of the “master” bedroom, and closing doors was not really an option. My husband woke every day to the sound of me typing.

The upside was that my daughter learned to use the Internet from my secondary computer, which sat right next to my primary computer, so I knew exactly what she was doing online at any moment. She quickly grew into a savvy Internet user who needed no supervision.

Brian Norman

Im just a month away from being a dedicated homeworker and with a 2 yearold around this page was VERY interesting.

I have to admit the no-door approach worries me, but I would love the benefits of having the kids playing if I can actually get something done as well.

The best advice I think is being upfront with customers, Im really going to try this and see what the reaction is, wether clients just accept it or judge us to be less professional becuase of it.

Time will tell as always, but thanks for the experienced advice

John Engler

When I used to work at home, my solution to the “kids, dogs and doorbells” problem (that’s the problem where you’re on the phone with someone, and the kids scream, or the dog barks, or the doorbell rings – and if you’re on the phone trying to sell something to a client, this can sound completely unprofessional in the background) was to build an external office out in the backyard, away from the house:

http://englers.org/archives/2005/07/10/dads-clubhouse-is-done/

The cool thing was that I had a completely seperate space, with no distractions, but I was 20 feet from the backdoor, and could watch my kids play in the backyard with the wife… so…

I could go inside 5 times a day to play with the kids for 10 minutes each, or, I could step outside to push them on the swing, but none of that impacted my work, other than to take up a small amount of time, here and there. It was probably less time than you’d normally spend in an office bullshitting with co-workers, or getting up to get coffee and then doing the water-cooler discussion thing with people that you didn’t really want to be talking to, but had to, because you were waiting for someone else to get the hell out of your way, so you could get back to work.

Long story short, it was awesome, and I’d highly recommend it.

One More Option

Those are all excellent ideas. On a practical level, also creating a physical boundary to keep children away is sometimes needed for children who always want to ask for things. When doing so, verbally giving them a time expetation how long they will be separated can also help put their mind at ease and help keep their attentions elsewhere.

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