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Real-life advice on parenting during a pandemic

Parents from Vox Media talk about how they’re helping their kids — and themselves

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Photo illustration by William Joel / The Verge

Being a parent is not easy at the best of times — and these are definitely not the best of times. It was hard enough trying to keep kids happy, healthy, and busy during a summer where they might be stuck at home, isolated from their friends and grandparents, and missing experiences like camp or family trips. Now school is starting, and kids (and parents) have to deal with going to school during a pandemic or trying to learn remotely.

We asked some of the parents who work at Vox Media to report on how they are coping with the needs of their kids and with their own stress from trying to be the best parent possible under these circumstances. Here are their answers.

An Alexa routine

As a family with four kids (nine, seven, and four years old & six months old) and two full-time working parents, we found that a daily schedule with a mix of activities was really helpful in structuring our days. For the summer, we put together a weekday schedule that includes a mix of academic, creative, and fun activities. To keep them on track without us parents having to monitor the time, we set up an Alexa “routine” using our Amazon Echo. It’s set to automatically announce a handful of activities throughout the day, and the kids know that they have to clean up before they move on to the next thing. This has really helped keep the kids busy and active, and it let us focus on work. I no longer have to respond to constant requests for screentime or cajole them to do some reading — I know they’ll be reading in the morning and they know that screentime is coming up in the afternoon. 

“We put together a weekday schedule that includes a mix of academic, creative, and fun activities.”

We used this same system when we transitioned to distance learning in March, and I plan on using it again when the kids return to distance learning in September. We’ll set up a routine for school time with periodic breaks for meals and outside play and reminders for each kid to log in for their Zoom meetings — no more pressure on us parents to remember it all for them! 

Allie Gillebo
Concert studio designer

Basic interior design changes

Who knew that cordless headphones would make such a difference in my kid’s comfort while on video calls? Not me! But we switched to Bluetooth headphones and the number of times the kid walked away and dragged the computer and everything else on the table with it has gone down from 836 times per week to zero. Amazing. Additionally, requests for “Mom, can you get me X?” have also gone down (though that will never ever end) because she can “get up and get it yourself, you can still hear your call.” Thank you, technology. 

“Who knew that cordless headphones would make such a difference in my kid’s comfort while on video calls?”

Also, some basic interior design changes across the house have come a long way in helping the kiddo be more self-sufficient while I’m doing other things. Frequently used items such as craft materials, glue, tools, paper, and cardboard are all within reach so she can help herself. This has helped lower her dependency on me throughout the day and also gives her more freedom to just start things when she feels like it. Snacks, plates, cups, and utensils have also moved to the lower cabinets in the kitchen so she can help herself. While the overall organization of things in the house is not my ideal, it is kid-optimized now and it has helped keep everyone more comfortable and less stressed out about being hands-on all of the time.

Livia Labate
Principal product manager, Chorus

Lower the bar

As a family with a very energetic seven-year-old and five-year-old, we have lots of small tips for getting through this pandemic. None of them have been that helpful. The most valuable thing I could share that has helped our family is to lower the bar. As parents in a pre-pandemic world, we put tremendous amounts of pressure on ourselves to make sure our kids were getting the best education / socialization / parenting possible. What did that look like? Lots of playdates, extracurricular activities, camps, limiting screentime, and the list goes on. As the pandemic hit, not only did these things disappear, but we felt panic at all the “losses” our kids were experiencing. What would happen if we let our kids watch too much TV? What would happen if they didn’t get to socialize? Would they fall behind in school? In the beginning, that led to us overdoing it with Zooms and our own time taken from very busy schedules to fill in the gaps. It was exhausting — and, more importantly, unsustainable. 

“Whatever [the kids] lost in ‘development,’ they gained in having parents who were not exhausted and overwhelmed.”

As the spring came to an end, we decided to lower the bar. We relaxed our screentime rules. Our daily outing became a walk in the park, and no specific activities were planned on most days when we were busy with work. We decided to rent a house for a month by the beach and let them bum around without camp or Zoom school. No swim lessons or academic enrichments. They watched TV, played video games, and hung out at the beach all day. And it’s been great. Whatever they lost in “development,” they gained in having parents who were not exhausted and overwhelmed. As the summer comes to a close, we are hoping to take this no-pressure attitude into the school year and hope it helps us navigate what will be an unusual and difficult year. 

Esther Cohen
Social media manager, The Verge

Winging it

Our son will be a junior in high school this year, and we have just given in to the idea that whatever happens, it’s not going to be typical in any way. His school is going to try a hybrid model — two days in school in small pods, the rest remote — and we’re pretty apprehensive about it. Even the teenager doesn’t think it’s going to last long, but he wants to at least try it. They went all remote in the spring, and at that time, it seemed like schools were getting guidance from the state, at least. Now, it seems like school districts are all just winging it. 

“There’s only so much we can control.”

And I guess winging it is sort of what we’ve done over the summer. Our son basically became nocturnal, staying up late to game with his friends, and we really didn’t push back on it. We were strict in other ways, though, saying no to visits with friends we didn’t think were a great idea. I’d say getting comfortable with the idea of winging it has been the hardest part of parenting in a pandemic, but there’s only so much we can control. If we can wing it with the small things, it does make the bigger decisions a little easier.

Kim Lyons
Weekend editor, The Verge

A self-directed approach

Our daughter will be entering first grade. Last school year when we moved to distance learning, I ran and bought every organizational thing from The Container Store — every subject into a neat little home — and propped her up in front of her computer while offering her rewards. This year, we are taking the much more Montessori and self-directed approach. We hope she is in a classroom with a teacher for at least two days a week; the other days, I will set things up like math puzzles or reading words and let her go to what interests her when it interests her. 

“Interactive toys will be a welcomed break from screentime.”

I also have adjusted how I interact with her about things and make a more mindful approach to explaining things. Like at the farmers market, where we count out our change or play rhyming car bingo while driving — things I would not have thought to do before. Our biggest investment for back to school this year is a good printer that actually works — all those freakin’ elementary school worksheets! We are also investing in a lot more toys to get the wiggles out, like a Nugget or indoor climbing tools. Last spring, we all had serious cabin fever and the kids didn’t have the right tools to get their bodies moving. In between Zoom sessions, I think interactive toys will be a welcomed break from screentime. 

Heather Savatta
Concert solutions

Do what you can and hope for the best

We have three kids (seven, six, and four years old). Our oldest, who was in second grade, was the only one with remote “school” this past spring. When summer break first started, we were pretty lax, but there was a lot of squabbling and listlessness, and we knew we had to change things. We decided to develop a loose schedule, modeled off the work periods in Montessori: a couple of hours in the morning when they can choose more “academic” activities, some outside time, lunch, then another work period for more creative art activities. As they are on the younger side, we’ve mostly focused on reading — which they love — writing, and math. My oldest, in particular, always needs to know what’s happening next, so developing a routine adds consistency that helps us all get through the day. The older two kept a “coronavirus journal” that they had to write in every day. We’ve also been doing a lot of “Pokémon school.” The kids are really into the card game, which is great, as it facilitates addition, subtraction, and multiplication, as well as strategic thinking.

“We decided to develop a loose schedule, modeled off the work periods in Montessori.”

As we look toward the new school year, we are anxious about the remote-only option. We would have chosen remote over in-person if given a choice, yet we’re worried about how engaging and effective remote learning will be for our third- and first-grader. With one child who is easily distracted and another performing well above grade level, how will teachers be able to address their unique needs from a screen with 25+ other children? While we don’t know the schedule yet, it seems like most schools are planning on synchronous learning for big chunks of the day, which seems unlikely to succeed, especially with younger children. 

Additionally, we are worried about their social development. Our oldest doesn’t have anyone to push her socially, something she provides for her younger siblings. Our first-grader will be new to the school; I cannot imagine how difficult it will be to develop friendships remotely. We firmly believe putting the health of the children and teachers first is the most important thing, but we ultimately know that remote school will otherwise be to the detriment of the children. We’ll do what we can and hope for the best.

Jory Ruscio 
Engineering manager, data

Creating accessible spaces

I have twins who are rising kindergarteners and were very excited to start full-time school in person. So when we decided to choose virtual schooling, I focused on building some excitement for them just like I would have if they were starting school in normal circumstances, like letting them choose their own school supplies, backpacks, etc.

Since I know they will be on hours of video calls, I have set up workstations for them that are child-sized and adjustable, hoping that they will be able to be more engaged and focused if they are comfortable. I have also tried to create additional spaces suitable for schoolwork and crafts in different zones of our living area so they can have a change of scenery if necessary. This requires stocking up on power strips, extension cords, and wireless everything. 

“I focused on building some excitement for them just like I would have if they were starting school in normal circumstances.”

I also try to place food, cups, bowls, and utensils where they can access them easily and premake a lot of grab-and-go snacks for them to help themselves between meals. Creating spaces that are accessible for my kids goes a long way toward easing my anxieties as a parent while allowing them to build independence and autonomy. 

Something I have yet to set up, but would like to, is a defined area near their desks where I can display their kindergarten artwork and activities so they can be excited and proud about the things they learn throughout the year.

Melissa Young
Engineering manager, revenue product

Don’t beat yourself up too much

One of the most important things I’ve learned about myself during this pandemic is that I’m a poor substitute for a teacher. I’m also a poor substitute for a substitute teacher, to be honest. My attempts to teach my five-year-old to read over these past few months — sight-word flashcards, Bob Books, songs to build phonemic awareness — have been scattershot and have yielded poor results. I fear that I’m inadvertently teaching her to hate reading. But my wife assures me that I’m actually doing a great job. The pandemic has made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to see the forest for the trees.

So for everyone who’s said “Slow down” or “Lower your expectations” or “Don’t beat yourself up too much,” I say amen. Back in March, still reeling from the closure of schools, we did what everyone else did. We wrote out schedules, we traded off shifts, we knuckled down with the expectation that by the fall, things would be back to normal. And of course, we got played.

We tried the virtual pre-K classes, but the video quality was often bad and the experience was largely overwhelming for my daughter. Too many kids trying to talk all at the same time. The teachers tried their hardest, but it was an impossible situation. Since then, my attitude has morphed from plucky optimism to exhausted, unshowered defeat to now something that resembles the old adage, “This too shall pass.” 

“The screen is our best friend and our worst enemy.”

My wife and I have basically thrown in the towel on getting any work done during the day without sticking a screen in front of the faces of either our five-year-old or three-year-old — or both. The screen is our best friend and our worst enemy. It is the alpha and omega. I’ve read the research and skimmed the essays about other parents worried about turning their kids into iPad zombies. But there are parents who are dealing with far more pressing problems, so I try to keep that in mind as my kid presses play on the next video from YouTube’s Ryan’s World. (I freaking hate that kid.)

So it goes. This too shall pass. Don’t beat yourself up too much. I just keep repeating those cliches like a religious mantra and crossing my fingers that our school district can sustain the hybrid model (some in-person classes, mostly virtual) it set out for itself. Otherwise, I may need to fully detach from reality in order to prevent an emotional breakdown. 

Andrew J. Hawkins
Senior reporter, The Verge