Click here for General Assembly coverage

How to survive social distancing with your family

Guest commentary by Matthew J. Skolnik

Some of my friends are celebrating that their introverted nature finally feels useful. Others who have traditionally had multiple social engagements planned for each day of the year are less than pleased.

Then there are those families who don’t know how they will survive at home — together. Yes, together. Schooling is taking place at home. More adults are working from home. Play dates are canceled. Sports and recreation activities are postponed. Sanity is also apparently a loosely-defined reality with kids bouncing off the walls and with human spawn begging for more screen time. Can anyone say cabin fever? Or maybe better put, cabin hostility.

While I am no expert, my office is 10 feet from my living room, and I have made plenty of mistakes over time that hopefully some will find of benefit.

Mistake 1: Lack of schedule and routine

We may not need Major Payne running our households, but disciplining, directing and defining time is not a bad idea. So plan out your day together. Everyone needs a sense of autonomy. Let everyone help choose. Even if you choose the time allotment (such as an hour of reading per day, or two hours of playing in the backyard each afternoon), let your kids help choose the order. (This is a Crestfield nurturing leadership hack.) Some major categories of time can include: education, chow, creativity, alone, group, exercise, home improvement

Mistake 2: Viewing boredom as a problem and not an opportunity

Every parent has heard their children say, “I’m bored.” These are perhaps the most curious two words in the English language. While it would take a robot 1.5 seconds to read them aloud, children have the ability to extend these words 3 to 18 seconds. Can I get an “amen” from your house?

I have learned that when my kids say this phrase what they really mean is that they are not overstimulated. The truth is that kids actually need and desire quiet time. However, they also need to be directed how to live into this countercultural way of life.

Some years ago when I was a local pastor, we had a midweek ministry called “The Way of the Child” (named after a curriculum authored by Presbyterian Christian education Wynn McGregor).  I found it to be extraordinary how the children loved to be quiet for an hour! Surprisingly enough, it was typically the most rambunctious children who enjoyed the peaceful connection with God the most.

Mistake 3: Expecting that my love ones know, experience and understand my stress

As adults and as leaders we all face stress. Sometimes the strain is significant. While working in the church we have administrative challenges. We also have spiritual challenges that are wrapped up in human need and pain.

We may not be able to share every detail with our loved ones, but there is an appropriate amount of communication needed. Otherwise, we lose our temper and react in ways that we regret. At least I do.

Yesterday afternoon my daughter came to me and very politely said: “I’m going to be on a very important conference call with my cousin. We will be talking about redesigning her bedroom.” On one hand, it hurt me that my daughter has learned this language from me. Why does life have to be so serious for her as a tween? On the other hand, I am thankful that she is learning to communicate.

Some helpful phrases to start your communication include:

  • “I need you to know”
  • “Currently I am experiencing …”
  • “It is important to me that …”

Mistake 4: Not distancing work from family

One of the most frequent mistakes that I have made while working from home is not having the ability to turn my work-brain off because my desk, my email and my to-do list are typically within reach. Our population as a whole struggles with this, but working from home makes it all the more difficult.

This means that when I am not working, I am also not always fully present for my loved ones.

Have you ever heard yourself saying “sure” or “that sounds like a good idea” to your loved ones while at the same time your mind is striving hard to solve a problem? I really struggle with this.

Some practices that have helped me include:

  • Have a period of silence before stepping away from my desk;
  • Shut my office door when I leave;
  • Periodically put my phone on airplane mode;
  • Approach my loved ones before they approach me;
  • Thank God for the gift of family.

Mistake 5: Prioritizing task above people

When people are my agenda, I am good to go. I can demonstrate compassion, care and encouragement that are appropriate to my calling. Yet, sometimes in the middle of a project, I just want to be done with the work and I am not as patient with loved ones as I could be.

Our family is doing our best to make the most of our time together as we work and school from home. One way that we are doing this is by attending to all those little things that we typically don’t have time to complete. For example, the other day we were working on disposing of our “shred pile.” During this process, after instruction, guidance and encouragement I found myself gritting my teeth and saying, “Just. Do. It. Right. The. First. Time.”

I suppose we all have our limits. But we also all know that loved ones are more important than menial tasks.

Some helpful ideas include… I’m kidding, I don’t have any helpful tips! That isn’t quite true. I have a few:

  • Turn the job into a game;
  • Provide relational rewards such as a special time together;
  • Tell “remember when” stories;
  • Check in on other’s emotions, feelings and relationships.

As we are temporarily discovering a new and more isolated way of life, this additional time without chaotic schedules and with family is truly a gift from God. It is an opportunity to celebrate family, not destroy it.

I have shared some of my mistakes, and I am doing my best to address them. What are your mistakes at home? More importantly, what solutions, tips and suggestions do you have to offer others? Your guidance could be invaluable to others as they walk through the same challenges that you do.

Matthew J. Skolnik

MATTHEW J. SKOLNIK is the general presbyter of Muskingum Valley Presbytery in eastern Ohio. He enjoys motivating mission, equipping leaders and encouraging the church. Matt has lived with his family in Ohio for 12 years, loves nature and laughs frequently.