We've been very lucky with childcare this pandemic. We had an au pair, so when schools closed suddenly on a Wednesday in early March we had live-in child care for Lily (6y) and Anna (4y). Having our children well taken care of without risking exposure outside the home or requiring either of the parents to take time off work has been incredibly helpful. Going into winter, with restrictions still in full, however, our au pair was not interested in renewing for another year.

We were again lucky, and one of our housemates has been available to watch the kids three days a week. They're really great, and the kids are having a good time, but this does leave two days a week without care. We decided to draw on some of the independence we've been cultivating, and I talked to the kids about how they would be watching themselves two days a week.

Over the next few weeks the kids and I worked through some plans. We went over their day, talking through the different places where they currently rely on adults, and we figured out how we were going to handle each one. Some examples:

  • Lunch. This wasn't something they were going to be able to do on their own, so I agreed I would still make them lunch. When possible, I eat lunch with them and read to them. It's nice to have time together, and I think they also do eat more that way.

  • Snacks. We talked about what food they would like to have available in case they got hungry (peanut butter pretzels, Ritz crackers) and made a small shelf for them to use.

  • Drinks. They can already get themselves water whenever they want to, but they like to drink milk. The milk jug is heavy and easy to spill, so we decided that each day I would fill a cup with milk and leave it in the fridge. I'm still doing this, though mostly they've ended up just drinking milk at meals when an adult would be able to give them milk anyway.

  • Classes. Lily is in school remotely, and has various classes at different times during the day. She knows how to get into her classes herself, but she was relying on grown-ups to let her know when the classes would happen. I wanted to use this as an opportunity for practice at telling time, but practically she wasn't going to get good enough quickly enough. She has a tablet that she uses to listen to podcasts, and I set up alarms on it to go off two minutes before each class was supposed to start. She doesn't always have it with her, and sometimes someone else (Anna, me, a housemate) will hear it and let her know it's time. I don't think she's missed any classes yet.

  • Assistance. Sometimes there are things the kids need help with that we didn't foresee or that they can't handle. We built a buzzer together, so there's a button outside of my office that makes a noise at my desk. We agreed on a system: one buzz if you would like help, two buzzes if you need help, and three buzzes if it's an emergency. For one or two buzzes I would come if I could, depending on how interruptible what I was doing was, while for three buzzes I would definitely come regardless. I warned them that if it was not actually an emergency, I would be very grumpy, and they have not yet (a) used three buzzes or (b) been in a situation in which three would've been appropriate. We talked through some examples, and my favorite was when Anna told me that forgetting about movie day merited three buzzes (Lily clarified for her that it does not). Sometimes they will buzz once for things that I have to say no to, and Anna took some time to learn what to expect: "Papa, I pressed the buzzer once because I wanted to ask you if you would have a tea party with me?"

  • Outside. The kids can bundle up, go out through the kid door, and play in the backyard any time they want, but they haven't wanted to. They'd rather go to the playground. Sometimes I have meetings that I can take while walking, so if the timing lines up I'll walk with them to the park while I take a meeting on my phone. They are fully responsible for getting themselves ready; I tell them to buzz me when they're ready to go.

  • Boredom. This is not something I help them with. We have a lot of toys and different things to do, and if they can't find something they want to do that's their problem.

  • Conflict. Sometimes they get mad at each other, and I am not generally available during the day to resolve things. One firm rule does a lot of heavy lifting here: if they ask you to leave their bedroom you have to leave. They both know that I will be very unhappy if they violate this, and it gives them both a reliable option for deescalating a conflict. They value playing with each other enough that withdrawing, or the threat of withdrawal, is also quite useful in bargaining.

Yesterday I tracked what I ended up needing to do during work, both planned (feeding them lunch) and unplanned (buzzer presses). I started work at 8:40am, and Julia took the kids at 5:30pm.

  • 9:02, 1min: Lily buzzes once with a Zoom issue for her class.
  • 9:16, 1min: Lily buzzes twice with a different Zoom issue for her class.
  • 9:45, 2min: I go downstairs and tell the kids that I can take them outside during a meeting if they want.
  • 9:50, 1min: Lily buzzes once to say they don't want to go outside today.
  • 12:00, 35min: Feed them lunch, read to them.
  • 2:00, 1min: tell them to get ready for naps
  • 2:11, 1min: Lily buzzes once with yet another Zoom issue.
  • 2:13, 3min: Anna buzzes once for me to brush her teeth, then I put on a story tape and put her down for naps. Lily will put herself down when she finishes her class.
  • 2:18, 1min: Lily buzzes once with a school question.
  • 2:38, 1min: One buzz, unanswered because I'm in a meeting
  • 4:19, 8min: Get the kids up from naps, make some popcorn, start movie day.
  • 4:27, 1min: One buzz, which I knew without answering was that they wanted me to tell the Chromecast to start the next episode.
  • 4:45, 1min: Ditto

This is pretty typical except for more Zoom issues than usual and the kids not wanting to go outside. This level of interruption doesn't bother me, though I think it might bother someone whose attention worked differently more?

Some of this working as well as it does likely comes from our parenting approach, while other aspects are more likely us being lucky in which particular kids we happen to have. It's hard to tell what the balance is.

I'm glad this is not our situation all week long, and there are lots of things that our housemate does with them that I'm happy they get to do. I so also think, however, that having some time when they are (in their minds) fully responsible for themselves is likely good for them.

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