June 15, 2024

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Lessons From A Week Of Working At Home With A Three-Year-Old

So, trapped inside the house with your wife and three year-old-son, while two of you try to hold down full-time jobs; and one of those is me. After a week of it, the set-up is best described as hostage situation meets niche reality show. I think we’ve done just enough to please our captors/progress to week two. But it’s touch and go.

We’re lucky, of course; we currently have jobs, we only have one kid to look after, we have a study where one of us can work/hide in, and a small garden where we’ve so far resisted the urge to let him run feral, mainly because there’s a small hole in the fence through which he may be able to escape from if left unguarded and I haven’t had the time to shore it up yet.

Time. I have only sketchy memories of what ‘having time’ felt like. This is made worse by the fact that everything I read right now seems to suggest most people have so much of it that today they are pondering whether to rebuild Notre Dame out of matchsticks or chronologically work their way through the 10 Best Gary Busey Films on Netflix.

We’re operating a 12-hour rota where my wife and I tag-team between the study and childcare, then catch up on the rest when he’s in bed. Who gets which slots and for how long has depended on who has a deadline, who has a meeting or who is closest to cracking up.

On Monday last week, I was braced, ready and – astonishing looking back – excited at the novelty of it all.

We kicked off with a scheduled ‘free play’ slot (it would soon become clear that there was no other type of slot), building an assault course, a Lego police station, a rudimentary prison for dogs, and a recycling truck out of furniture. Somehow only ninety minutes had passed.

If you’re at an age when you think time is starting to rattle away at an alarming rate, try home-pre-schooling a kid. The only comparable activity with the power to slow down time is listening to a Melvyn Bragg documentary all the way through to the end. Tectonic plates have come together quicker than the slot between 3.15 and 4.30.

Yes, this is hard. And knackering. And the knowledge that it will stretch on for months doesn’t help. However, there are good things too, and with the first full week out of the way, I have sifted through the debris to work out what’s worked so far and what hasn’t. These are very early days after all.



Going All In

With a kid this age, you’re either in or you’re out. Fully focused or fully distracted. And they know. The cry of ‘Play with me’ starts at around 6.30am. And the boy’s commitment to staying in character during role-play is only recommended by some of the more extreme schools of method acting. Even Daniel Day Lewis didn’t go to the loo in character.

A subtle check of emails on your phone to break character can result in a serious dressing down: “No Fireman. Get. Back. In. The. Truck. Now.” As tempting as it is to lower the bar, tell yourself ‘these are extraordinary times’ and slip off for a phone call, I quickly discovered that this approach benefits no one.

You get a disengaged, resentful kid while you get extra doses of stress and guilt. Better to engage fully, sit tight and do your time. The parole board will look more kindly on you. And there’s more chance of you enjoying it.

Children's TV

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Making Peace With TV

It sure is tempting to let the kid eat up episodes of Paw Patrol, Octonauts or any other of the countless animal-based rescue operations on television to buy some valuable minutes.

On one afternoon last week when we both had work clashes, and the Netflix autoplay function went into overdrive, the sight of his pale, blinking face as he emerged from a marathon of canine emergencies told us that perhaps (ahem) there’s a healthier middle ground.

When the pull of the TV proves too much, for him and us, I found that sitting down with him to watch some of the more educationally-geared TV shows on BBC CBeebies – Numberblocks, Alphablocks, My World Kitchen – and chatting about it as you watch might actually provide some mental nourishment.

That’s what I’m telling myself anyway. At the very least you won’t beat yourself up as much.

A Chance To Reinvent Yourself

This level of one on one time is going to expose a lot of your own shortcomings as a parent. l realised early on that my status is largely as a collaborative ‘nice guy’ playmate, whose attempts at authority feel tokenistic. The Nick Clegg of home schooling.

So I finally skimmed a book I’d been meaning to read called ‘How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen’ by Joanna Faber and Julie King in a fast-track attempt to lose Clegg and find my inner Obama. Well, we’re going to be here a while so we may as well aim high.

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The 10,000 Hours Starts Now

We’ve all heard the stories about child prodigies that say this is when early talents can be honed or even created from scratch. Tiger Woods, Beethoven, the Williams sisters; all the product of a ‘motivated’ father. Is this the chance I never thought I’d get?

Perhaps looting and fighting lessons might be more useful skills for the next few decades but being more optimistic, I’d settle for a Championship-standard utility full-back/midfielder in the James Milner role. So we’ve started with daily kicking practice.

Parkinson’s Law Is Real

Oh yeah, work. Working from home is more efficient and less distracting anyway. Working from home when you know that in two hours time you’ll be setting up a car wash business made from cushions? Really helps you focus. That thing called Parkinson’s Law – however long you have is how long it will take – has really showed itself.

The rhythm of prioritising the big stuff and catching up with less important stuff in the evening is what productivity books are built on. Given I am writing this in the public domain and my employers may read it, I probably would say this, wouldn’t I.

You’re Going To Need (A Lot Of) Ideas

Successful experiments last week included putting every cushion we could find in a pile for an impromptu soft play area and burying old coins in the garden as pirate treasure.

A less successful experiment was to start using poker chips as a bartering system for TV credits which sounded innocent enough but the long-term implications around gambling are unclear and it felt a bit too much like prison currency.

It’s also easy to forget that with a three-year-old, fixing the hinge on a cupboard door amounts to an activity in itself and then at least you are also getting something done.

In the last week, I’ve tried a book called ‘Quick Crafts: For Parents Who Think They Hate Craft’, a site called Five Minute Mum and while I haven’t yet found myself on Pinterest, I feel it’s coming. These are, indeed, strange times.

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