Working at home with a child? Set a mutual agenda.

My daughter is a smart, sassy 23-year old with her own place. I’ve been a work-at-home freelance writer for over 25 years. That means I was working at home when she was a toddler, which begs the question: how did I work at home with a toddler? Did I ignore her? Was she underfoot? How did I, and did she, cope?

Some parents say it can be difficult to work at home with a young child. And I agree. There were, however, strategies that I adopted to help me succeed. My wife is an actor and author of Standing Naked in the Wings: Anecdotes from Canadian Actors. She took care of our daughter in her infancy. When our daughter approached toddler status, in the pre-school and early school years, there were often times when my wife was working or researching her book and daddy had to pitch in with his share of childcare.

How did I combine work and childcare? Here is my strategy. I’m not saying I was perfect; I am saying it worked for me. For us, I should sat.

Making lists. That was my strategy.

First off, it helped that my schedule was, to an extent, flexible. Writing can be done during the day, in the evening, on weekends. However, when you have pressing deadlines — and as a fulltime freelancer I had many of them — writing has to be done when it has to be done. Also, if you are a freelance journalist, as I was, there is not a lot of flexibility around interview times.

Secondly, ask my daughter what she does when she is busy or has to work on a big project. She will tell you: “I make a list of things to do.” Ask her where she picked up this habit, and she will laugh and tell you: “From Dad.” Ask when she learned how to do this, and she will say, “Oh, when I was about three.”

When I took care of my daughter, and had work to do (and I always had work to do) I started the day by making breakfast. After my daughter and I had eaten, we sat down and negotiated the day — who would do what, when, where and how. That was the key: negotiating the day. We set expectations — hers and mine — through negotiation.

I would tell my daughter what I had to do that day — the interviews, the research, the writing, the marketing, and so on. And I would ask her what she wanted to do that day — movies she’d like to watch, games she’d like to play, friends she might want to play with, food she’d want to eat, places she might like to go. And then we’d set our priorities and combine them into one big list — with my things to do down one side of the list and her stuff to do down the other side.

For instance, on one side of the list it might say, phone interview with client, research on particular job, write certain article. Beside each of my to-dos would be her to-dos. Watch a particular movie, color for a certain amount of time, read a book. Of course, we would schedule joint activities too, like lunch, snacks, play in the park, call a friend for a play date, go to the library… Beside each activity would be a time.

Once the list was made, my daughter could plainly see the time she’d have to amuse herself — but she’d also know what she was doing during that time and that while she was engaged in an activity she liked (after all, she had chosen the activities) daddy would be busy doing his thing. And she knew, right off the top, that we’d be doing some stuff together throughout the day.

And it worked.

As part of the deal, I couldn’t interrupt her movie watching, colouring or playing with a friend, and she could interrupt daddy. Yes, if there was an emergency, she could call me — but seldom if ever did that occur.

In short, we both had a full day of me and us activities. If she got bored colouring, say, all she had to do was look at the clock and she’d know that in 30 minutes we’d be off to the park or library or her friend would be coming over and they could go into her room and jump on the beds or I’d be taking them both to the park. And, I must admit, there were times I finished my work before the allotted time had elapsed and I’d want to do something with her — but I’d restrain myself. After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, no?

You know your child better than I ever will, so I’m not going to tell you what to do with your child. I am going to say, though, that if you work from home and have a toddler with you, set up a combined schedule of activities. Let your child participate by getting your child to think about what he or she wants to do for the day.

And heck, maybe when your child gets older and has a schedule that is jammed pack with must-do stuff, you might find your child making a list and setting priorities. Nothing wrong with that.

And if you are particularly lucky, your child’s list just might even include a visit with mom and pop!

[Paul Lima is a freelance writer, business-writing trainer and the author of a dozen books on business and promotional writing, self-publishing and the business of freelance writing. Learn more about Paul, or read about his books, at]


One thought on “Working at home with a child? Set a mutual agenda.

  1. I was home with toddlers, but it was before I got into the freelancing work. I did however do some volunteer work and so was working at home on that stuff, and sometimes out during the day. A friend and I had a good “co-op” babysitting arrangement, but there was one time I had to do a tv interview to promote the activity I was organizing. Our then 2-1/2 year old son happily sat eating cheerios and raisins and looking around the tv studio while I did the interview. He got taken out to lunch ( a rare treat) for that one. You make it work. Sounds like you and your daughter made it work just fine.

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