This post is based on a talk we gave to the Moms & More preschool moms group at Christ Presbyterian Church.
Week 1 of the quarantine: we’re rearranging our homes to start the new and exciting, if unexpected, process of homeschooling our kids. We’re sitting by the fire and reading books. We created a sourdough bread starter. We stayed up playing cards past bedtime. This was an adventure—a scary, dangerous one—but were were strong like Rosie the Riveter, up for the task.
Week 8 of the quarantine: Our kids are basically on screens all day. Not sure when we showered last. Ordering new yoga pants because we’ve worn holes in our other pairs. The sourdough starter has molded. Only shopping in the prepared freezer meals section of the grocery, because we literally cannot cook another meal.
Does this sound familiar?
The burnout is real, but we have found some tips that have worked for us to create more meaningful time with our kids, even when we’re drained and emotional. We hope they’re helpful for you too.
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First: You can’t fill others up if you’re empty
Self-care has really had it’s moment recently, but it’s more than finding time for bubble baths and Netflix binging. While your time for self-care is limited during quarantine, focus on what fills you up the most. For me, it’s time alone, so I’ve made time in the mornings to get up before everyone else, make some coffee, and read. I’m NOT a morning person by any means, but the time to start the day calmly has been worth the missed sleep.
Create a loose schedule
Strict schedules stress me out, because we never stick to them, but having a loose idea of how we’re going to spend our day gives me a structure to work out of that helps a lot. When my kids come to me, bored and wanting to be entertained, I can scroll to my schedule: “Oh, it’s reading time right now. Go pick a book and look at it in the hammock for 30 minutes.” The biggest way this helps is that they know certain blocks of time are for mom to work or do household things, and other blocks of time are for me to spend with them. If I’m not with them now, they know I will be before long.
Ask for what you need
Right now, we’re having to operate in full team mode: everyone pitches in. It’s not a good time for me to hope my kids or husband figure out what I need from them. I need to be clear and direct. For my kids, this comes in the form of a list of activities for them to do each day, from school work to chores to “play a game with mom.” With my husband, it means we’re talking ahead of time about how we’ll break down the household and child-raising duties together.
Identify your priorities
During this time period, you don’t have the normal system of supports in place that you’re used to. You can’t call the babysitter, Grandma can’t come watch the kids, the therapists you rely on for services are only working remotely, and there’s just no break. Ever. So, it’s time to figure out which expectations you can let go of and which you need to double down on. Maybe the perfectly clean playroom can be messier than usual, but you’re going to be more strict about the kids pitching in in other ways.
Give your kids your full attention…for a few minutes
This post by Caroline about how much attention our kids need from us has been a game changer for me. Bottom line: If your kids feel like you really want to be with them, they won’t bid for your attention as much while you are with them. Shift from your work (whether it’s the dishes or checking your phone) to play with them by giving them two to three minutes of focused attention. Then you can back off and let them play, and your time together will be more relaxed and peaceful.
Fun activities that create meaningful connection with your kids
Don’t feel like you need to be your kids’ personal cruise director, with a constant stream of exciting, entertaining activities for them. But choosing 2-3 activities you want to do each day, from going on a walk to reading a book out loud to doing an involved craft, will help you to have ideas when your kids come to you saying they’re bored. And when you’re prepared ahead of time, you’ll feel less rushed and more able to enjoy spending time with your kids.
Read books—out loud, or on your own “together”
Keep in mind that most kids need to be doing something with their hands in order to listen well. Let them paint, work on a puzzle, or even just play with a fidget spinner while you read. (Or, join them and play the book over Audible, since their kids’ content is free right now.)
If your kids are old enough to read on their own—or look at books and pretend they’re reading—it’s also great to “parallel read” with them. Everyone gets quiet reading time, parents included. This has been some of the most peaceful time of our entire quarantine.
In terms of what to read, here are some of our favorite chapter books the preschool set will enjoy listening to:
- Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, or pretty much anything else by E. B. White
- B is for Betsy by Carolyn Haywood
- Sideways Stories of Wayside School by Louis Sachar
- The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
- The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
- Betsy Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace
- Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
- Princess in Black by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale
- Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol
- The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case by Alexander McCall Smith
- The Jesus Storybook Bible (Read Aloud Edition) by Sally Lloyd-Jones
- Stand Up Guys: 50 Christian Men Who Changed the World by Kate Etue and Caroline Siegrist (and our free activity guide, too)
- Wild Animals of the North and Wild Animals of the South by Dieter Braun
- National Parks of the USA by Kate Siber and Chris Turnham
Caroline also shared some of her favorite book picks for moms at Cool Mom Picks, if you’re looking for something to read yourself.
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Get out in nature
If you’re not an “outside person” or you have nothing left in your energy tank, that’s okay. You can still get quality time outside with your kids without wearing yourself out further (because self-care is crucial right now too). Here are some ideas:
- Take a mini nature exploration. Set a hula hoop on the ground (or just designate a space about that size) and let your kids explore. Give them spades and magnifying glasses, and ask them to look closely at blades of grass or worms. Sit nearby and exclaim over their discoveries.
- Start a nature journal. This is a calming activity that opens up kids minds and allows their imagination to run. You can use any blank notebook, a prepared nature journal, or even just blank paper and a three-ring binder. Arm them with colored pencils and the freedom to go anywhere within sight, then come back and show the family what they saw and drew. You can use this time to restore your energy, but I recommend getting out there and drawing too. Your kids will love it, and you’ll find a surprising level of satisfaction from it.
- Set up a mud kitchen. You can find tons of these on Pinterest—parents taking old workbenches or even old play kitchens and setting them up as outside workspaces for their kids to play with mud. Give them buckets, spades, pitchers of water, and old pie tins. Get in there and get messy with them, since we don’t have fresh manicures to worry about right now. You’ll love the memories.
- Garden. Every year as I watch my seeds grow, I’m reminded of the life that comes after death—those dry, brittle seeds go in the ground and water and warmth and sun bring them to life again. It’s a beautiful life lesson, whether you have a huge plot across your backyard or just a few containers on the window sill.
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Play board games
The idea of playing round after round of Candy Land can be mind numbing. Here are some games we’ve played with preschoolers and young elementary-aged kids that are actually interesting to us parents too. None of these require a child to be able to read on his/her own in order to play, but often it’s a little easier if they’re on a “team” with an adult…at least the first few times they play.
- Color Brain: Disney edition — This is a super basic game where you are challenged to remember the colors of different characters or objects from Disney movies, using a deck of cards that are all solid colors. (There are non-Disney versions too but we’ve found this one easy with young kids who know these shows.)
- Shadows in the Forest — In this game, one person (probably an older child or adult) plays against the everyone else as a team, so it’s great for young kids to participate in with the rest of the group. Your task is to keep your creatures hidden in the shadows. You play it in the dark by lantern light. So fun!
- Carcassone — There is a My First version of this game for young children, but we’ve successfully played the adult version by just eliminating the “farmers” aspect of the game. That way you can also play it without young kids without having to spend money on a new version.
- Ticket to Ride: First Journey — (shown above) Ticket to Ride is a favorite of our kids because it’s simple but still interesting. You collect cards to buy trains which complete routes between cities on this map-based board. You get bonuses for extra-long trains.
- Forbidden Island — In this game you all play together as a team to beat the board, so preschoolers can get along in the fun alongside parents who are playing and guiding them. Your challenge is to collect all the elements before the island sinks.
- Pandemic — Another fun cooperative game that kids could play alongside their parents as a team. Maybe a little scary for sensitive kids, but also (ahem) timely?
- Also revisit classic games like Chinese Checkers or simple card games like Pass the Trash.
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Learn a new skill together
Think about a new skill you’d like to teach your kids—or, learn alongside your kids—and dive in!
I grew up sewing, and my kids have all enjoyed learning this skill too, from cross stitch and knitting to making their own pajama pants (a super-simple sewing project, if you have a machine you know how to use). They made theirs right along side me as young as 3 or 4 years old, and making a new pair each fall is still a tradition they like to keep.
For you, maybe it’s baking your grandmother’s poppy seed bread recipe or watching a YouTube video on how to draw cartoon characters. You could learn how to set up a tent or rent a pressure washer and clean off the driveway.
At our house, we’ve also ruined batches of macarons and baked hockey puck-like loaves of bread. They aren’t all wins, but that’s okay. Learning to keep on trying after you fail is a great life lesson.
It’s also totally fine if the new skill is more practical than fun. In fact, I heard one mom say that she gives her kids two chores every week, one they know how to do and one they don’t. That way they keep learning new skills around the house, from folding laundry to using the Dust Buster, and they’re helping too, which makes them feel valuable to the family.
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Start new dinnertime traditions
Trying to meal plan right now has been crazy, and I’m usually exhausted by the time dinner rolls around. That means our meals have been less of a connecting time and more of a “shovel it down and get in the bath” time. But I’ve started a few new habits that are working well.
First, I’m letting our kids help pick the meals, and we’re using themes. We might have Greek, American, Italian, and Mexican recipes during the week. Or make Wednesday night “Chick-fil-A and board games” night and Friday night “picnic night” (even if it looks nowhere near as peaceful or beautiful as this picnic dinner). We post our menu on the refrigerator, which eliminates so many questions about what’s for dinner. If your kids aren’t reading yet, use pictures. In fact, let your kids draw the pictures!
I’m also getting the kids to help me cook, which makes it less of a “go away and let me cook in peace” and more of a “let’s have fun together” time. But the key is to prep everything with them early in the afternoon when I still have energy. When dinner finally rolls around, I just stick it in the oven or on the grill, and it’s basically done. And as the mom of a teenager now, I can promise that having them cook when they’re young really pays off when they’re older.
Now is the time to be honest with your partner about what you need, and for me it’s help cleaning up after we eat. He’s more than happy to take that on with our older kids while I relax for a few minutes.
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Making Quality Time with Your Spouse
In China, when couples exited their homes for the first time in weeks after being quarantined together, the divorce rate spiked. Even if your marriage wasn’t in trouble going into quarantine, this situation can be difficult. Tensions are high, kids are anxious and stir-crazy, finances are uncertain, and your normal outlets for relieving stress are unavailable.
But right now, more than ever, it’s important to invest in your marriage. In fact, having your kids see you prioritize your relationship is one of the best things you can be teaching them right now.
Be honest and be gracious
Be really honest with your spouse about what you need right now. It’s not the time to hope he figures out what you’re thinking or wonder if she’ll catch your hints. Take a minute to lock your bedroom door and establish some new ground rules: I’m going to tell you what I need without beating around the bush. I’m going to ask how I can support you right now. And we’ll both be gracious to the other, knowing we’re doing our best. (Then, do your best.)
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Make time for date nights
It’s important to still find time to connect with just the two of you now more than ever. So prioritize date nights together. Your kids may be a bit jealous that they’re not invited, but they’ll also get a sense that their parents are solid—and that’s a good thing.
Here are some ideas to get you started. Don’t be embarrassed to suggest them to your spouse! These are weird times, and date night will look different from dinner and a movie. Try:
- Movie night . . . in the car. After you put the kids in bed, lay down the seats in your minivan and take your iPad and some blankets out there and watch a movie together, uninterrupted. If you have little kids that you need to keep an eye on, take your baby monitor out with you. Sometimes, just the change of location can be enough to help you reconnect.
- Dinner under the stars. Our favorite restaurant porches are just starting to open up, but lots of us are still deciding too tay home a while longer. To recreate the feeling at home, pull out the Christmas lights and string them up on the back porch or the apartment roof for a romantic dinner together with takeout from your favorite local spot.
- Day date walk. If your kids are old enough to stay home alone, leave for a walk with your partner for a while. Getting out of the house and on a hiking trail is a great mental-health break when you feel “stuck” at home, but even if it’s just around the block it’s still a good way to get some fresh air together.
- Plan a vacation. I’ve found that looking forward to the future—especially when times are uncertain—can be very soothing. And right now, flights have never been cheaper, so go ahead and plan that trip you’ve been dreaming of.
Pray and read the Bible together
It’s not January 1, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start reading through the Bible in a year together now! Make a commitment to wake up early in the mornings, go out on the back porch or share some coffee at the kitchen table, and read through the Bible together.
We have monthly reading plans that go chronologically through the Bible, meaning all the events are told in the order in which they happen. It’s been a great part of our year this year, and it’s a really good way to start each day together during this crisis connected and focused on what’s most important in your relationship: Christ.