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Can you work if your child needs attention?

Gouri Dange tackles the space-time issues of when parents with young children need to work from home

Find a distraction-free environment for your child. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint <br />
Find a distraction-free environment for your child. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

My husband has started working from home, out of an alcove we’ve created in the living room. Sometimes, he finds it quite difficult to focus, especially when the children, aged 6 and nearly seven and a half, fight or make a noise. Recently, I realized that the children mimic him, shouting “I am busy," their faces and body language radiating anger, or knitting their eyebrows, “Shhh, I am working." We both feel bad that the children are equating work with irritation on his part. But it is really a difficult and demanding time, and this arrangement will continue for at least a year. Please advise us on what we should do.

Essentially, your husband is sharing home-office space with two active children, so it may be a good idea to set down some rules and schedules. Perhaps the first “evasive" technique could be to reserve the important and demanding part of his work for the time when they are asleep or away in school. If the nature of his work is such that he needs to be on call, and get to the main part of his work in accordance with the demands of other people, another evasive technique would be for him to either go to a neighbourhood coffee shop or park when they are home. Or, you could move this office-alcove into your bedroom, so that there is a physical barrier between him and the children. Particularly if he needs to be on the phone.

If none of this is possible, and the children and he do have to be in the same space quite a bit, he could try to synchronize his core working time with their homework time. Now that you know the children see “work" as “stress" in his case, perhaps he can also have conversations with them (age-appropriate ones) so that they understand what he’s doing, and the fact that he enjoys his work. This may dispose them to cooperate readily when they are required to be quiet.

Also make it clear that they cannot leave their things around his work-area, or take any stationery or other objects from his desk. Let them know that such stuff will disappear into a “confiscated" box; and touching any of his things will mean that they have to forfeit one of their things!

A more inclusive approach, if you do not want to be this severe, would be to tell them that their dad is answerable to people, and that if he loses something, it puts him in a spot, just like they would be if they lost their books or other things in school. You could have some kind of lock-up arrangement for the more important stuff that they simply should not go near.

Their father will also need to know that his space and time are being respected. He may not then need to send out the stressful message about leaving him alone.

My five-year-old has started getting a moderate amount of homework. She is bright and enjoys school. But when I sit her down for writing, she begins to yawn, complains of stomach ache, hunger, drops her pencil, then her eraser, etc. I really do not want her to associate school homework with feelings of boredom or of being trapped. But the teachers tell us (and we agree) that it is best to have them do a little something at home every day, just to keep the continuity and get used to the idea of homework. I try not to lose my temper, but she takes over 45 minutes just to write a few lines.

Yes, it is important to set the tone for homework being just a way to refresh the mind, rather than some imposition and drudgery. From what you describe, however, your child has already taken the first few steps down the wrong-attitude path.

Some parents find it useful to find a distraction-free setting, away from her toys or the television (even if it is off). You too would need to keep away from social media interactions on your phone, and other such activities which signal that you’re “having fun" while she has to do her homework. If writing is what puts her off currently, perhaps you too could sit down to do some writing—even if it is simply a to-do list, or any other kind of paperwork that you need to do. You could just read while sitting by her, undertake some mending activity, or other such things which would signal to the child that you are taking responsibility for something and making short work of it.

It makes sense for both parents (and a grandparent or godparent) to share in this homework activity. Even if her father can take it on once or twice, he will bring a freshness to the activity that a tired, overstretched mother, obliged to do it every day, may not be able to.

The usual reward-punishment combination also works when it comes to getting children to do homework, but it is important (and doable) to make homework completion feel like an accomplishment on its own. This can happen particularly smoothly after a while, especially if you reinforce it with positive feedback rather than actual things like incentives or threats and negative talk such as, “If you don’t do your homework you will become a dummy/teacher will scold you/you won’t go to the next class".

Find ways to connect daily-life learnings with something she has done in her homework, whether it is the alphabet, simple spelling recognition or simple number writing, so that school and homework do not remain some serious and taxing activity. The bottom line is, give out the message, as kindly as you can, that some things just have to be done, and you don’t need to like doing them all the time.

Gouri Dange is the author of More ABCs Of Parenting and ABCs Of Parenting.

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