If you manage parents, at some point one of them will have a child-related crisis of some sort. You should know how to navigate this scenario before it happens.
Kids are a complex challenge whether you show it or not. One of the most common stress correlations that we’ve seen in the last 1.5 years of WFH is caring for young children. Kids demand attention, have nearly infinite energy, and get bored easily – all-in-all, their presence around the clock can be exhausting.
Although parental leave policies at tech companies tend to be generous, parents still face structural challenges. Companies frequently have an always-on culture, hours can be long, and the industry often has a bias towards youth – many private tech companies have young leadership. As a result, parents often try to avoid any appearance that their children have an impact on their working lives. It’s simpler and more relatable to say that traffic was bad, rather than explain how your morning started with a parliamentary-style debate with your toddler on whether they could eat cake for breakfast.
“Little Timmy is Sick”
If you manage a team of sufficient size, inevitably something will happen to one of your team’s kids. Kids are clumsy but brave, and prefer to learn by putting things in their mouths. They get hurt or sick constantly. If you manage parents, this conversation will happen.
To be a good manager: When someone comes to you with a childcare issue, give them the time that they need immediately – it’s common for parents to downplay severity and many issues are actually crises. If someone showed up to a meeting with food poisoning, you wouldn’t ask them to finish up their status report. You’d let them take care of it right now. And since most parents want to avoid giving the impression that their kids are impacting their performance, things are often serious by the time you’re hearing about it, even if raised in a casual way.
To be a great manager, actively follow up. Issues with kids are like software bugs – a small symptom can expand into a long and complex remediation. What felt like a 30 second interaction to you (“Kid’s sick, I need to head out for the day”) might be the start of 2 weeks of stress for a family:
- Kid gets sick for unknown reasons
- Since the cause is unknown, an urgent doctor’s visit is in order
- You ping your manager: “Little Timmy is sick – mind if I take the rest of the day off?”
As a manager, this may be the last signal that you hear of the situation, although…
- No school = no daytime childcare
- We need to find a caretaker for the next few days
- I guess nobody has time to pick up the car from its inspection – we’ll need to call them back, maybe get a friend to help out
- During the covid era, we all need to get tested just in case
- I guess we need to tell grandma to cancel her flight to visit this weekend
- Someone needs to schedule and attend next week’s doctor visit
- Oh crap, now we’re sick too?!
It isn’t your job as a manager to fix this situation, but it is your job to not actively make it worse. The simplest step: check up on the parent the next time you speak with them one-on-one, and offer to help out or accommodate if you can. Or, if your next conversation is not for a while, check up on them in the next 36-48 hours using whatever method of communication is most informal for your organization, whether Slack, text, or email.
You don’t have to say much – just a simple “how is Little Alice doing?” or “hope Little Bob is all right.” But make sure that you do it.
Why It Matters
Checking up shows that you care. If there’s a mountain of stress being added to someone’s life, the least you can do is not pile on more. One of the most important ways to make your team feel supported is to acknowledge that they have a lot going on that you may not know about. Almost as bad as the immediate stress is the bitterness that comes with feeling like your manager truly doesn’t understand your situation.
More importantly, checking in invites people to ask for help. If the underlying issue has gone from a boil to a simmer, some parents might be reluctant to ask for more help. By starting the conversation, you’re giving them an in to ask for assistance that would make a difference to them.
Eyes are on you as a manager and standards are higher in emotionally charged moments – and that includes charged moments in your team’s lives, not just events related to work. So take a moment to check-in with your team members if they have a sick child. It’s easy and can make a difference. The hardest part is remembering to do it, which is exactly why I’m writing this.