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Are you a parent stuck in work-mode?

For most working parents, our work-mode involves a big helping of what I call ‘efficiency thinking’. You know the type of thinking I mean? ‘To Do’ list thinking that is always two steps ahead and focused on getting each task done with minimum waste of time or effort. Efficiency thinking typically prioritises the completion of a series of tasks in a way that achieves an end goal effectively and in the most efficient way possible.

Now, a bit of efficiency thinking can definitely oil the wheels of family life. Because family life has deadlines too. There will always be times when completing a task or moving from A to B quickly really is the priority – whether that’s getting to a doctor’s appointment on time or having clean school uniform for the morning.

But too much efficiency-thinking can get in the way of good parenting and add to parental stress levels. For the simple reason that children don’t do efficiency thinking.

Children don’t do efficiency thinking because they can’t. Their brains just aren’t wired that way. The part of the brain that enables adults to think efficiently is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This area of the brain governs complex executive functions and enables us to focus on a goal, plan a sequence of tasks and resist distractions. But in children, the PFC is still a work in progress.

In terms of learning, this is great news. It means that children are open to every possibility. Take a toddler for a walk and every puddle, insect, weed and piece of litter is fascinating and requires exploration. Toddlers simply can’t hold in their heads that there is a higher purpose to a walk even if it is something that a moment ago they really wanted to do, such as getting to the park. Park? What park? Look at that shiny wrapper blowing along the ground!

That openness to distraction is brilliant for learning about every nook and cranny of a universe which children are still trying to figure out. Children’s innate curiosity helps them to build their brains. Chasing that shiny wrapper, picking it up, listening to it crackle – these little moments create intelligence and creativity.

But those developmental moments are lost if a parent who is stuck in hyper-efficient work-mode won’t slow down. To let their child chase that wrapper. Or jump in that puddle. Or prod those leaves with a stick. If we get too fixed on getting to the shop quickly, to buy the milk, to get home, to put the dinner on in time for clearing up before bedtime, then it’s easy to interpret that shiny wrapper as unnecessary and our children as time-wasters. We pull in the opposite direction from our children with the result that no one’s needs are met and everyone feels frustrated or, worse, miserable.

In efficiency thinking work-mode, our children’s openness to distraction becomes an annoyance not a joy.

So, if you have found yourself stuck in work-mode and snapping at your children to go faster, what helps? Finding quick ways to transition between work-mode and parent-mode is essential. Close your eyes and imagine yourself changing clothes if it helps. (I like to imagine myself wearing an adult-sized version of a kids dressing up costume – no idea why, but it works for me 🙂 !). You might find that a bout of playfulness will help too. And actively managing stress through relaxation techniques or mindfulness (or whichever quick and healthy self-care mechanism works best for you) will make it much easier to stand down your work-mode thinking.

And, remember, If you are working from home juggling work with childcare or homeschooling, you are going to need to be extra proactive in making sure you step into a more present, less task-focused parent-mode.

If you like this blog post, you’ll love my book The Work/Parent Switch – it has lots more details on how to manage the demands of working and parenting in a way that is good for your well-being and good for your children. 

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The Work/Parent Switch.

By Anita Cleare

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