a toddler standing on a folding chair at a desk with three computers, pretending to type

How to Involve Kids in Modern Work

My 4-year-old son wants to help me work, but I write software—so how do I involve him?

Children need to be involved in the grown-up activities of adults around them—it’s how they learn. They’re naturally curious and want to be involved in everything. They want to do everything you do; they’ve been watching you. If you frustrate their drive to be involved, they start acting out. You get bad behavior, tantrums, and hitting siblings—children don't know how to handle the modern environments in which they can't be easily involved in adult life.

In a traditional society, involving children was easy and natural. If I were a farmer, my son would be trailing behind me helping out on the farm, caring for animals, and learning how it all works. If I were hunting and gathering, he’d be right there memorizing patterns of nature: animal tracks, which plants are edible, warning signs of rain. If I were a carpenter, stonemason, or blacksmith—anything involved in physical labor—involving children would be easier. But I don’t work with my hands.

I’m an entrepreneur and software engineer working from my home office. I spend my days at my keyboard solving mental problems and typing. My son can't help me type. He can't yet understand the problems I've solving. There's no way for him to participate—no flashlight for him to hold, no tools for him to hand me, no satchel to carry. To make matters worse, the office is the room where we hide everything that’s not child-proof. There are large glass picture frames leaning against the side of my desk, musical instruments, power stips on the floor, drawers with markers and scissors and bottles of glitter... Lots of stuff that I don’t want the kids playing with (at least not without supervision). So we have a “don’t go in the office” rule.

My son clearly wants to be involved. He copies what he can see. Sometimes he'll take my phone, inform us all that he has a meeting or a brief phone call, and close himself in my office for a few minutes. He may sit in my chair and randomly push keys on my keyboard, imitating my work in what he thinks is a harmless way, but in reality is scary—I’m certain he’s inadvertently deleted emails that I never got to see. He doesn’t understand why he can't stay in the office and "work"—he’s just trying to do what Daddy does! It’s not fair!

I can do projects with him in the garage or in the yard, and he clearly has the time of his life; nothing is more exciting than using tools with Daddy. But this isn’t a replacement for being involved in my work because it doesn’t happen very often. Being self-employed commonly requires long hours, only coming out of the office in time for dinner, cleanup, and bed. He’s old enough that he needs to be working with Daddy every day.

Sometimes he cries and begs me to stop working and come out of the office. He’ll walk in with his little guitar, a tinkertoy spaceship, or just asking to wrestle or play hide-and-seek. It can be painful to tell him to leave because Daddy needs to work. He stops smiling. His bottom lip starts to quiver. I’d love to go play but I have a Zoom meeting with a client in five minutes, so all I can say is, “I have to work. Get out. Now. Please.” He can’t understand. It’s heartbreaking.

I know some of my friends are struggling with this exact problem, too. So much of the work we do these days is not work children can participate in. It's unnatural. How can a boy learn to be a man if he can’t copy Daddy?

Mitigation strategies: How to involve children anyway

I’ve come up with a couple ideas for mitigation strategies. First, I’m going to try having my son in the office with me for 10 minutes every day. (That’s probably as long as he can sit still right now, anyway.) I’ll spend that time writing code, and trying to think out loud and verbalize what I’m doing. He won’t understand everything, but he’ll get some idea of what I actually do all day. Ten minutes won’t add significant length to my work day. Maybe my son will think I’m boring, but at least he won’t feel so excluded. This will be an easier way to include him as he gets older. Maybe I’ll set up an old laptop running a read-only Linux boot from a flash drive for him to explore on the desk beside me. As a bonus, work time with Daddy may give him some extra motivation to learn how to read.

Second, I need to make more time for my son to do activities he likes with me. I’ll be going to bed earlier and rising early, which is very unnatural for me, but a habit I'm trying to cultivate. Rising early will allow me to finish my workday with more time left for my kids. For example, maybe I’ll work from 6am to 2pm instead of 9am to 5pm. Given the entrepreneurial nature of the work I do, I’ll have to resist the temptation to work from 6am to 5pm. However I set it up, I should make better use of my flexibility. For example, my son has been asking to go fishing, so maybe we’ll do that one morning and I’ll shift my workday later.

However I manage it, I’ve realized the importance of specifically having father/son time every day, aside from normal dad activities. If I want a good relationship with my sons and for them to grow up learning from me, I have to make special time for them and involve them in my work. There are things my sons need from me that my daughter doesn’t, and it’s easy to forget that.

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

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