Writing With Young Kids in the Home

writer-babyTrying to write with little humans traipsing around your home and causing havoc can be challenging to say the least. They drool everywhere, put everything in their mouths, drag their bums on your dirty kitchen floor and then over onto the clean living room carpet, and they make the strangest noises you’ve ever heard uttered from a human mouth. (If you have boys, that part gets a lot weirder as they enter the primary grades. I’m warning you now.)

You’re likely reading this post because you’re in this phase right now, or you know someone who is. Let me start by saying this: You can survive!

I somehow made it through that initiation ritual and can offer a few tips for you. But there’s one thing I need to get out of the way first, a reminder. It may sound harsh, but whenever I find myself in conflict between my kids and my writing (both my paid and unpaid work), reminding myself of this centres me again so I can better deal with the issue at hand.

This is my reminder: I chose to have a family, which includes marrying a man and having children with him.

So when I find myself thinking, “If only they’d stop talking!” “Can’t they see I’m busy?” “Of course the stomach flu has to go through the house while I’m on deadline!” I remember that this was all my choice. I could have lived the single life and become a sworn spinster. But I didn’t. I chose this, so I have to take responsibility for it.

That doesn’t mean I’m a doormat. This reminder just affects my way of solving problems. Balance is important in any life. Even when I was in my 20s and just a grad student, I lost my balance: I dated, studied, worked, and socialized in the same department. If one minor problem appeared, my life turned upside down. No family or husband in the picture yet.

So keep that in mind as you read these suggestions.

Be Realistic

Most toddlers have the attention span of a fruit fly and a propensity to explore without any idea of government-issued health & safety standards. Set your office somewhere where you can easily supervise your child (or restrict your child to an area you can easily supervise from your office).

Also resign yourself to the fact that you’ll be lucky if you get 10 minutes of writing time in one chunk while your child is awake.

Of course, longer periods of writing are necessary to get into deep thought, or “the zone” as some call it. But, as I said, be realistic. Don’t expect a 28-month-old to be capable of leaving you alone for two hours. Either arrange for childcare or write when your child is asleep.

Expect Interruptions

These are the normal day-to-day interruptions, like when they hit their funny bone, or when siblings get at each other. But also remember that kids get sick at the turn of a dime.

Do not leave major projects until the last minute; start them as soon as you get them. You can easily lose a few days to illness, maybe even a week or more, depending on how easily everyone in your family gets sick. Daycares also send kids home for any number of reasons, so there’ll never be a guarantee that you’ll get a full day’s worth of work in.

Don’t fight it, accept it. Generally, until your kids move out of the house, plan for interruptions.

Teach Your Children That You’re Writing

And here I really mean teach. Don’t scold, don’t shout, don’t expect a toddler to read an adult mind; instead, explain, be firm if you need to, and demonstrate. Keep it age appropriate, too. For example, there’ll be very little you can teach an 18-month-old, but a child who’s three can usually be taught to knock before entering your office.

I’ve also heard some luck with using the kitchen timer: for example, you set it for 10 minutes and your child can’t interrupt you until it goes off. You’ll need to be firm and consistent here but also know when your child really does need you.

Kids are Wired to Seek Your Attention

So accept it. They’re not trying to annoy you. They know you’re responsible for their well-being, and being humans themselves, love social time. When you’re spending time with your child, keep the focus on them, not your phone or other device.

I cut down on my television because of this guideline, which is to say, I don’t watch much anymore. I used to watch while cooking supper, just to hear adult sentences being strung together.

However, if my kids wanted me, and I was trying to pay attention to the TV, and I had the stove and oven going while I was cutting something…that was too much strain on my mental resources, and I lost my patience with my kids. So now, the TV is rarely on while I’m in the kitchen. I’ve become more patient, supper’s ready faster, and the overall change has been remarkable.

My experience was and still is this: if I give my kids some undivided attention during the day, they’ll usually leave me in peace at times, too.

Is the Television a Babysitter?

I know doctors would like us to say no. I’d like to say no. But I’d be lying if I said my kids never watched TV so I could get a half hour of work in. I didn’t have a doctor’s salary to pay for childcare, so it was inevitable.

If you do let your child watch TV without you, keep the times short. Kids should be exploring, not sitting in a chair, their eyes transfixed to a screen. But if we are to respect my first tip (Be Realistic), we have to acknowledge that most of us no longer live in extended-family situations, which means we don’t have live-in babysitters.

Balancing Phones and Children

Invariably, your phone will ring while you’re spending time with your kid. This happened in 80s as much as it does now, only now, your phone is with you all the time. As the phone rings, explain to your child that you have to talk to someone else for a moment, but you won’t be long. When you hang up, apologize for the interruption like you would to any adult. In the end, you’re treating your little human the same as any other human in your company: would you answer your phone without excusing yourself from the present conversation?

I know most toddlers and preschoolers won’t fully understand what you’re saying, but they’ll hear the patient (and possibly firm) tone in your voice. Once the call is done, put all your attention back to your child.

Have patience with this and keep it age appropriate. Remember, you’re teaching your child how today’s world works and how to behave in it.

Use Your Child’s Temperament

When my boys were old enough to play with each other (i.e., when I had a toddler and a preschooler), I found they generally played well after a meal and horribly if mealtime was not too far away. So, where possible, I scheduled my writing accordingly and left cleanup, which didn’t require any concentration, for later.

Be Creative With Where You Write

For example, an easy task, like editing a short text, could be done on paper at the kitchen table, while your kid is colouring next to you. Or teaching your older preschooler that they can do a quiet activity in your office next to you may also work. Again, keep your child’s temperament in mind: If they’re a bundle of energy, it’s probably best to go outside with them after a meal so they can burn some of that energy.  Then try working.

In the End…

View this as a balancing act, not as a competition. This is why I find it so important to remind myself that I chose to have a family. Once I’ve repossessed that responsibility, it’s easier to handle the interruptions. Also be flexible, your kids will change as they grow up, and the easiest thing you can do is change with them. After all, you’re the adult with experience.

If you’re in Waterloo Region, I’ll be part of a panel discussion on self-publishing, taking place Wednesday, May 3rd @ 7PM at the Kitchener Public Library, Country Hills branch. I’ll be contributing advice on balancing writing and family.

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