As school closures swept the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, parents everywhere started to panic about putting plans into place to keep their kids entertained and educated, while also managing the parents’ own work schedules. For many parents for whom working from home isn’t an option, this is a particular hardship (as it is for parents who rely on schools for lunches, special needs therapy and aftercare). But parents fortunate enough to work from home also scrambled to figure out how they’d best balance the needs of their kids and their employers.
One viral tweet seemed to sum up the reaction best:
And though tons of resources popped up providing sample schedules for parents to follow (a popular one appears below), they could be intimidating or even surprisingly tough for parents to implement while also trying to be productive at work. (Full disclosure: I had every intention of working off this schedule with my own toddler … and that’s why it took me two full days to write this post. We got about 15 minutes into “academic time” this morning before I had to check my email and everything derailed.)
So how can the average parent try to enforce some normalcy in their home, get their work done and not lose their minds? We reached out to experts including Susie Allison of The Busy Toddler (cited as “a godsend” by parents everywhere trying to come up with creative activities for their kids); Sierra Filucci, editorial director at Common Sense (an organization dedicated to recognizing quality media that launched Wide Open School, a whole hub dedicated to quality learning materials); and Lindsay Powers, the author of You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids (on sale today!) for some advice that’s both realistic and refreshing.
(And if you’re like me and Shonda Rimes, and teaching doesn’t come to you naturally, Powers shares some advice: “Those polished photos of educational plans are close crops. What you may not see in the background is a trashed house and kids throwing tantrums. So try not to compare yourself to others … Take it one day at a time. Instead of thinking ‘I have to teach my kids for at least five weeks!’ think, ‘I have to get through today, and then I’ll re-evaluate as to what didn’t work.’)
Tap Every Resource You’ve Got
The purpose of the schedule is not to add guilt or stress to your life – it’s simply because kids respond well to routine, and a switch from a school day to a month of free play might backfire. But trying to manage a schedule and simultaneously keep up with work, calls and emails will burn out even the best multitasker. If there is another adult in the house capable of splitting up childcare responsibilities, try to assign blocks of time to each, like the sample schedule a friend sent me, below.
There are also a gazillion resources for parents on the internet, and every day it seems that someone comes up with something fun for your kid to do online, whether it’s doodling with children’s book author Mo Willems, reading books with Oscar winners including Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman (thanks to an initiative from Save the Children and Jennifer Garner), or virtually visiting the Shedd Aquarium or the Cincinnati Zoo.
Spotify just launched their Kids app in the U.S. to keep your kids moving and learning with strictly age-appropriate songs (and to keep their, um, less parents-friendly song choices from destroying your recommended playlists. Just me?). For screen-free ideas, Days with Grey and the Busy Toddler are two longtime sources of inspiration for even the most craft-challenged parent.
At my house, we’re rounding up helpful links and videos to a shared Google doc, but the amount of options can feel a little overwhelming. To get you started, the Busy Toddler’s Susie Allison shared three activities based on the length of time you need your kid to stay occupied:
1. They’ve Got Your Full Attention for an Hour: “Building Names – Roll out paper and spell the child’s name but leaving out a few letters each time. On sticky notes, write the missing letters. Have the child match them into the correct spot in their name (bonus fun: hide the sticky notes around the house for extra moving).”
Susie Allison/The Busy Toddler
2. You Need Them Quiet for the Length of a Conference Call: “Box Road – open up a box and draw a simple road map. Bring out the blocks, cars, and other toys for your child to build a city around.”
Susie Allison/The Busy Toddler
3. You Can Only Minimally Supervise for a While: “Toy Parade – Make various tape lines on the carpet and give your child their favorite toys to line up. A Toy Parade can last all day!”
Susie Allison/The Busy Toddler
Make Screen Time Work for You
“There are literally not enough hours in the day to work full-time and teach full-time, so you have to be realistic,” says Lindsay Powers, who runs the No Shame Parenting Instagram account in addition to her upcoming book. “This is no time to be holier-than-thou about screen time.”
Even organizations dedicated to moderate and healthy screen usage, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and Common Sense Media, recommend incorporating it into your routine in order to stay sane. Especially at a time where even playgrounds are off-limits, the social benefits of screen time (toddlers can group-chat their daycare buddies, while it’s a lifeline for teens who no longer have school-sanctioned activities) are incredibly valuable – and the educational benefits can be too, if used right.
This Twitter thread from the AAP has some guidelines for parents wondering how to incorporate screen time in a healthy way:
Sierra Filucci, the editorial director at Common Sense, echoes these recommendations and notes, “your kid is going to be just fine if they get more screen time than usual … stick to age-appropriate media, and for very young kids, add in some interaction and some praise.”
In addition to their Wide Open School, a centralized collection of resources from educational content creators including Sesame Workshop, Khan Academy and Scholastic, Common Sense has tons of resources for parents looking to identify quality media, including a list of free educational apps and ones that encourage movement. However, Filucci also says to be realistic about what you’re asking of your school-age kids: “If kids are doing online school, don’t worry too much about other content being strictly educational,” she recommends, adding that you can also adjust day-to-day what your limits are. “Follow your kids’ cues — if they’re crabby after too much screen time, lessen the amount the next day.”
Let Your Kids Practice Boredom
For parents who ordinarily work outside the home and see their kids for limited hours per day, the default tends to be towards giving them your fully undivided attention – which just isn’t going to happen while everyone’s under quarantine. And that may be a good thing, Powers says.
“We as parents feel like we need to schedule every moment of our kids’ lives, but we don’t. We should give them freedom to create and explore,” she suggests. “If your kid walks away from an activity after 10 minutes, take a pause. They might start complaining and ask you for another activity or to be entertained. But part of this is helping our kids develop self-sufficiency, creativity, and boredom — remember boredom? … When my kids complain, I say, ‘Go color,’ and they whine a little, but then wander off and figure something out.”
Don’t Compare Yourself to Social Media
So you tried that schedule you saw all over the internet, and your kids wouldn’t go for it, you didn’t respond to a work email quickly enough and by 5:30 you were wondering if you could convert all that hand sanitizer back into alcohol. But then you went on Instagram and saw all your friends making adorable leprechaun crafts with their kids. As if you weren’t feeling miserable enough! Powers recommends not falling into that trap.
“First of all, you don’t have to be like any other mom than yourself. Comparing yourself to a bunch of moms you don’t know who have lives that aren’t yours is a recipe for disaster,” she says. “Parents who are really excited about making this magical time should lean into it, but … in the grand scheme of life, I don’t think we’re going to look back at this time period and say, ‘If only I’d made more sensory tables for my kids!’ ”
Prioritize Your Own Sanity
You can’t be an effective parent – or employee – if you’re being crushed under the weight of your anxiety. “If the news is stressing you out, give yourself set times to check in; silence [phone] notifications except from family,” Filucci recommends. “Try to manage your own stress, as kids pick up on how you’re feeling. And take a look at these tips to help your family de-stress during coronavirus uncertainty.”
Adds Powers, “If our biggest worry is ‘My kid is watching too much TV,’ we need to check our privilege. So many parents do not have the luxury of working from home. Right now, we’re in a once-in-a-lifetime surreal event … let’s step back for a moment and re-frame as, ‘I’m doing the best I can in very bizarre circumstances.’ ”
She recommends virtual therapy resources such as Betterhelp or Talkspace, journaling, self-care (“don’t spend a lot of money – a bath, book, or favorite movie counts!”), and meditation, and adds, “This is a wild time, and we’re all doing the best we can. Adding a layer of shame or guilt over that isn’t helping anything! So take some deep breaths, and take it day by day.”
Seriously: Screen Time Is Fine
“Unless you’re starving, neglecting, or abusing them, you can’t f–k up your kids — even if you feel like you’re letting them down because you’re not a ‘Pinterest mom,’ ” Powers says of loosening up the restrictions you normally place. “Some days will be better than others. Also, judgment over screen time doesn’t reflect what the research actually shows — which is that screens are a tool, that they can be extremely helpful and educational when used in moderation and that it’s very, very hard to become addicted to them. Try to balance out screentime over a week instead of a day: If you watch three hours of Paw Patrol one day, watch fewer hours the next day.”
Filucci had similar thoughts. “We are all figuring this out, and we need to go easy on ourselves,” she says. “In order to be helpful in guiding our kids through this stressful time, we need to do what we need to do to get our own work done, take care of important tasks, and get some down time ourselves. If that means putting on Frozen [editors’ note: for the fifteenth time], that’s totally fine!”