Kids and offices don't mix, right? Tempting though it would be to take a leaf out of Apple's book and employ my young charges—open up a blogging sweatshop, if you like—I think I'd be on the fast track to nowhere—I'd get sacked after the seventeenth pitch of Why Haribo Gummi Bears are So Grate.
One of the most startling thing about having children around—and if you're working from home, they will be around at some point—is how much of an influence you are on them. I don't have children of my own, but my boyfriend has two—a 10-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl, but more on them in a bit. And, in the year or so I've been around them, I've realized just how much they try and emulate what you do. So, they see you putting your make-up on to go out and before you know it, that gorgeous blond cherub who just sat down with a plate of fish fingers has made herself up to look like David Bowie in his Aladdin Sane period. They see you tapping away at a computer, they'll want to do it too. Which is a good thing—a great thing, actually, as there will come a time when they're able to sort out your IT woes and download all the latest Lawnmower Metal bands for you to listen to. The downside, however, is that they want, in the immortal words of Rob Reiner's mother in When Harry Met Sally, what you're having. And if that's a slice of your computer, then that's what they'll get.
Anyway, back to my sorta stepkids. The eldest, Charlie, is an absolute whizz on the computer, so much so that every time he comes to stay he eyes up my iMac in a way comparable to how I imagine Hugh Hefner would behave on a visit to a sorority house at Gothenburg University. This has had two effects on our relationship. First of all, he has bonded with me in the only way that a 10-year-old geek (two in binary years) might. My shiny little computer is the holy grail of the household and, in the initial period of our relationship, became the center of a tug-of-love. He saw it as something to watch Doctor Who on, before he discovered the joys of e-commerce. "Can I have your credit card number?" was, I believe, the first sentence he directed at me.
I, however, see my computer somewhat differently. For starters, it's the one thing in my house that enables me to earn a crust, so to say I am territorial about it is something of an understatement. Friends' toddlers have either vandalized or permanently knocked out of action the various decorative objects I've collected on my travels. A much-loved Seventies globe light I picked up in a junk shop in Berlin was smashed to smithereens at Christmas by a one-year-old, and you just have to shrug your shoulders, usher the kids out of the way of the shards of glass and get the Hoover out. But to knock my computer out of action would render me pretty useless.
So, here are my seven golden survival tips.
1. Earmark another computer for the kids to use. Given that the shelf life of a computer is, say three to five years (let's not forget those awfully persuasive marketing campaigns exhorting us to upgrade to a newer model), there's probably a good chance that there's an unused laptop kicking around the house. Failing that, ask your friends if you can take an unwanted laptop off their hands. Wipe everything off but the bare minimum, and hand it over to the kids. That's their computer for them to do whatever they want on it—well, within reason. Understand about firewalls. Don't, however, make the mistake of putting an old desktop in their bedrooms. Call me old-fashioned, call me a killjoy, I don't care. Just don't do it, unless, of course, you want your kid to act like he's got ADHD, as that's what sleep deprivation does to them.
2. Close the door. If your home office has a door on it, then you're laughing. If it's got a doorframe, then you're halfway there. Introduce rules. Door open? Come on in. Door closed. Back off unless it's really important. You may want to consider getting a lock on the door—which works both ways, keeping you in and them out.
3. Introduce strict times about when they can and can't use your computer. If you green light your computer for your kids' use, then there are a few things you should do. Give them a separate log-in and make it clear that they can't use your settings. That way they can't go in and wreak havoc with your desktop. No food or drink to be consumed around your computer. It may anger the wildlife. (That's you.) Make it clear that you have first dibs on the computer. If you need to use it, then they're off. Make sure your Google settings are on Safe.
4. Keep them away from your most pristine (but hopefully not your only) laptop. My colleague Kit's MacBook Air suffered a severe malfunction when his son mistook it for a trampoline.
5. Manage time. Having kids around forces you to be much more diligent about working to a timetable. Most of my work is done in office hours, but there are occasions when I have to work late. And that's hard if you've got kids. Either you down tools until they're in bed (which means you're stuck at your desk until your brain resembles mashed pumpkin) or you ask them if you can have an hour between when they get back from school and supper to work. If they've got homework, then that's the time for them to do it. Tidy away your paperwork before they get home. Important phone calls are done either when they're napping or out of the house.
6. Back up everything. I've said this before, and I'll say it again. Back it up. With kids, accidents do happen, so, should the unthinkable happen and your work be sucked into a vortex of nothingness, then at least you've got a copy. It wasn't their fault, they were just trying to be like you. And if they go the trampoline route, then a decent home insurance policy can help. If you're a Machead like me, then it's worth paying a little bit extra for Applecare, which gives you three years' cover on your Apple products. I've had free batteries, new keyboards—and, in one case, a new casing around my laptop trackpad. It's saved me thousands.
7. Give them an even bigger screen. Get a pile of DVDs and sit 'em in front of the telly. And buy yourself a pair of noise-reducing headphones. And if that fails, bribe them with Gummi Bears.