The Great Balancing Act
By Matthew Gatt, CFP® and Jena Regan, CFP®
North Berkeley Wealth Management Advisors
Home and work have fused together in uncharted ways this spring as the pandemic closed schools and families were required to shelter-in-place. Businesses have moved to work-from-home practices at incredible speed, and schools and families have been forced to adapt similarly. With distance learning in place, and summer camps and vacation plans uncertain, working parents are now balancing their own responsibilities with expanded roles in their kids’ education and activities.
Interestingly, our nation has seen something like this before — almost 100 years ago. In 1937, Chicago’s school system faced an outbreak of polio and closed its schools to 325,000 children. Teachers, parents, and children bridged this divide with schoolwork delivered to homes, and teachers sharing lessons via a relatively new technology: radio. Switchboards were set up with teachers at the ready to answer parent’s questions. This ingenuity was impressive then and is being played out similarly as this school year wraps up across the country, online.
Today, distance learning looks different, but the building blocks are the same. Teachers have created libraries in their garages, collected and distributed Chromebooks to students without computers, and posted assignments on Google Classroom. The technology of bringing school into the home is more advanced, but the challenge for parents to take on a role for which teachers receive years of training is no different. In this realm, they face unusual demands in being part of the team that keeps the delivery of their children’s education on track.
“I Don’t Believe in Squares”
The power of ‘let’s take a break’ has been a revelation. While explaining the difference between a rhombus and a parallelogram to a child who just stated they “don’t believe in squares” — taking a break can be the perfect solution. It allows everyone to refocus on less charged topics such as, “what’s for lunch?” More importantly, revisiting schoolwork following a break often provides a clean slate and new energy for learning or creativity. Parents can take a lesson from this as well, incorporating real breaks into their workday. They can get up from their home office to check in with the rest of the family or stretch their legs in the backyard, taking a break from back-to-back screen-based meetings. Everyone deserves recess.
Everyone is adapting to more screen time, whether Google Classroom or Zoom, and this is a tough psychological shift. Younger kids are accustomed to constant stimulation from interaction with teachers and friends, and may not know how to use a computer or even type. Parents stuck behind a computer screen can no longer rely on body language and eye contact to provide nuance in work conversations. Work teams are finding themselves spending more time in deliberate gatherings to maintain the community once created in passing and “at the watercooler.” Like their parents’ experiences, kids’ interactions don’t translate as well to the screen. “Zoom fatigue” applies to kids and parents alike.
Creating daily rituals during the school week has helped some parents create structure and a sense of routine. Similar to a regular school day, starting school work and projects in the morning, having lunch outside at a consistent time, taking a walk together each afternoon, or squeezing in exercise time — all these provide some remedy for boredom and listlessness as we all venture through this new normal.
We’ve had the chance to improvise in new and unexpected ways. Birthdays have been a perfect time to bake cakes together and let imaginations run wild with decorations. A child-sized violin gifted from a neighborhood exchange presented an opportunity to dive into YouTube instruction and experimentation. Previously, baking together or picking up a violin would have become quite the project — now, there is a sense of exploration and flexibility.
Unavoidable Tensions, and Unexpected Connection
This is an unprecedented time for kids. Resources for helping them resolve conflicts and frustrations in the school environment don’t translate to home via a screen. The social distance that allows teachers to manage behavioral rules in school is at odds with the close emotional connection that parents have with their children. Sometimes you are most expressive with the people you are closest to; kids may yell at parents when they usually would try to control their emotions in a public environment, and it wears everyone out.
Kids likely can’t fathom that this is an unprecedented experience for their grownups too. Proximity for everyone in the house means that the sounds of the classroom and the sounds of a conference call act as a background for one another. Parents may now be spending some of their time in the “classroom” with their kids, but kids are also spending time at “work” with their parents. The overlap leads working parents to push their kids out of their new “office” and shush them continually. Effectively, they are enforcing unfamiliar office norms on children, which feels awkward and sad. Just as children may feel bad about acting out, parents feel bad about enforcing a sort of discipline that feels foreign within a household.
In the midst of these challenges, parents are feeling more connected with their children. The struggles and successes with school work and school relationships now dovetail with the work from the home environment: when an updated background curtain was needed for one parent’s home office, her daughter proudly showed off the newly acquired 3rd-grade math skills and helped with measurements.
Evenings and weekends are spent away from the work and school mashup, and family time can have a more deliberate pace. Fewer opportunities for social gathering mean that social obligations don’t chop up continuity in family time, offering new appreciation for the quiet moments with children at home, games invented together, classic movies shared. We’ve had the opportunity to grow together.
A Sense of Accomplishment
What does success look like? Sometimes it’s a day without tears. Sometimes it’s finishing a book report on the California gold rush, where both the child and parent become experts in the process. Sometimes it can just be getting outside and enjoying the sun in each other’s company. Whatever it looks like, we’ve had to give ourselves permission to back away from the image of perfection we might have held for ourselves as parents and as professionals, and reconcile prior expectations with current realities.
For the summer there are limited camps opening, and parents are still trying to figure out their plans, and what form school will take in the fall. Adapting to protocols at camps and schools will present a second phase of adjustment, and a new round of innovation. Whatever is ahead, we know that we are better prepared after these last few months of shared family experience and able to continue this great balancing act.
1 Rani Molla, “Office Work Will Never be the Same”,Vox, May 21, 2020
2 Valerie Strauss, “In Chicago, schools closed during a 1937 polio epidemic and kids learned from home — and over the radio”, The Washington Post, April 3, 2020.
3 Quote from an interaction between advisor, Matthew Gatt, and his seven-year-old daughter, Stella Gatt.
4 Rae Jacobson, “Supporting Kids During the Coronavirus Crisis — Tips for nurturing and protecting children at home”, Child Mind Institute.
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