The Joyful Parent: How to Get There
Wanna know how to be a joyful parent? On FamilyLife Today, authors Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey share habits that build joy into you --and your kids too!
About the Guest
fueled by joy or fear, over-parent or under-parent because of fear…need joy instead
The Joyful Parent: How to Get There
Dave: Alright, so bringing our first-born home from the hospital—
Ann: Oh, yes.
Dave: —you know, what?—30; how old is he?
Ann: Thirty-five years ago.
Dave: Alright—so CJ, 35 years old now, married—but when he was an infant, brought him home; put him in the crib in a rental house; remember that place?
Dave: And literally, stood over the crib, looking down; and what was I thinking?
Ann: “I have no idea what to do with this child.”
Dave: That’s exactly what I was thinking. I was like, “I have—
Ann: Yes, because I was thinking the same!
Dave: —"no clue.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: You were thinking it too. But I also was thinking, “I never had a dad, so I don’t know how to be a dad. I’ve never had a baby.” I remember picking up your brother, Ted, when he was a baby. Everybody in the house was throwing him up in the air. I’d never done that, because I’d never been around babies. So I take him and throw him up in the air, and he hits the ceiling; remember that?
Dave: Everybody looked at me like, “Are you clueless?” [Laughter]
So there I am—now, I’m a dad—and I have no clue what to do.
Ann: I think most parents feel like that. They bring their baby home; and they’re thinking, “Now what?” Then they enter the toddlers; or the two- and three-year-olds that’s hard; and then they have teenagers. Each stage, you’re trying to figure out: “Now, what do I do?”
Dave: So we’re all looking for help. I’m excited to tell you we have, in the studio with us today, help for all parents. We have two dads; right?—who we’ve had here before. You know what? Ann and I call you guys—you’re the brain guys—we’ve got Dr. Marcus Warner with us today and Chris Coursey. You’ve been with us before; we’re going to say, “Welcome back to FamilyLife Today.”
Marcus: Thank you.
Chris: Appreciate it; it’s good to be here.
Dave: Two years ago you were here. You wrote a book called The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages. I’ve got to tell you—you don’t know this—but after that time with you guys, we stole that material: [Laughter] I preached it at my church. We actually did a message on it on the FamilyLife Love Like You Mean It Cruise®.
Ann: We did.
Marcus: Oh, nice.
Dave: They asked us to do a workshop.
Ann: We gave you credit.
Chris: Thank you.
Dave: No; I don’t think we gave them any credit; we took all the credit. [Laughter] No, we actually did; because it was enlightening to us—and to anyone that reads and hears this—how the brain functions in terms of joy.
So let’s talk about your new book, The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids: A Simple Model for Developing Your Child’s Maturity at Every Stage.
Ann: Parents are leaning in right now; they’re like “Wait, we’re going to talk about this; and we’re going to talk about brain science with it?”
Dave: Yes; I mean, that’s why/explain what I mean by: “You’re the brain guys.”
Marcus: Well, both of us were mentored by Dr. Jim Wilder, who is a brain science researcher. He ran a counseling center in Southern California for 30 years. He was in on the original stuff coming out of the UCLA Med Center when they first were able to take three-dimensional pictures of the brain. He’s been studying this stuff; he’s really about ten years ahead in creating exercises and putting this in practice: “How do you actually help people get better?”
Chris was mentored by Jim. The two of them/it was working with Jim that Chris began developing exercises to help people learn: “This is what it looks like to live with greater joy.” Because one of the things we find out is nobody ever says, “You know what my problem is? I just have too much joy. [Laughter] I think I’m going to go to therapy this week because I just…”; you know, nobody says that; right?
So what is it about joy that is so contagious/so important? And finding out that it’s literally the fuel, on which the brain works, has been driving a lot of what we’ve been doing.
Dave: I mean, every person I know—including all of us sitting here right now and every person listening—is longing for joy; we’re on a search for joy. You’ve even talked about how the brain has a joy switch; that’s one of your other books.
Chris: Well, you know, your brain’s an amplifier; God made our brain to amplify something. Usually, it will amplify whatever is in the environment. If it’s trained on joy, you can even go into a bad day, and yet, you can still amplify joy, even under the really tough conditions.
But if your brain is not trained by joy: you know, you ever talk to someone, and they’re mad, and the next thing you know, you’re mad?—or they’re anxious; and the next thing you know, you’re anxious.
Dave: That’s called marriage.
Chris: Yes; yes! [Laughter]
Ann: And it’s contagious.
Chris: So Marcus and I wanted to give a language that: “You know what? Joy is possible. God designed the human brain to run on glad-to-be-together joy—where faces light up; you hear it in the voice; you see it in the mannerisms; you see it in the body—that you walk into that room, and somebody is glad it’s you that just walked through that door.”
Ann: And you’re saying this is really important; because those words, “joy-filled,” are both in your marriage book and in this parenting book. Joy-filled—you’re saying this is one of the most important things you can bring into a family or a home—why is that?
Marcus: Most people think joy’s the icing on the cake of life, but it’s actually the fuel that drives it. What happens: your life is either going to be run on joy or fear: it’s really those are the two fuels.
What we’re saying is we want joy-filled kids, and the opposite would be fear-filled kids; right? Nobody wants to raise a fear-filled kid. If you’re going to help them overcome those fears, they have to learn: “How do I get back to joy from my various emotions?” Because we all feel shame; we all feel anger; we all feel all the emotions. The question is: “Can I recover from those? Can I stay myself when I feel those?” That’s what maturity is all about.
Joy and maturity are actually directly related. Think about: the most mature people in your life are the ones that you go to when you need to get some joy back; right? It’s like: “I need to talk to somebody, who’s going to help me get my joy back.” You look for someone mature, who isn’t going to be overwhelmed by what you’re saying/isn’t going to get blown away by this. They’ve got enough capacity to handle what you’re talking about.
In the same way, we want our kids to have capacity. We want them to have that emotional capacity—to be able to do the hard things in life—and still live with joy.
Ann: I mean, I’m thinking of James 1; did you think that too?—like: “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials.”
Ann: So is James saying that too?—“No matter the trials that you’re going through/the persecution”—which the church was going through—“you can still be joy-filled, regardless of your circumstances”?
Chris: You know, that’s right. That’s a very important distinction that Marcus and I make in the book:
- That happiness is just: “You know what? I’m happy because a new movie is coming out, and I’ve been wanting to see this movie.”
- Joy is: “I’m going to share this with you, even the trials/even the tribulations. You know what? I’m not alone for Someone is with me.” We have a God, who is a Good Shepherd, who is glad to be with His sheep.
When we think about God being with us, I mean, part of what’s beautiful about heaven is we know that joy is going to be there/that God is going to be glad to be with us. So what Marcus and I are trying to do here is share this message that: “You know what? Joy is a reflection of heaven. And the brain is designed for joy; that literally, when you see someone light up to see you, it physically changes your brain. Your brain is changed every time you see someone light up to see you.”
Dave: And I think, as a parent, when you were talking about fear-based/joy-based with our kids, my first thought was, “Well, what about us as parents?” Because I think we live, often, in fear; as a parent, we’re afraid of so many things. When they’re little kids, you think you’re afraid they’re going to get hurt. Then they become teenagers; you’re like—“Oh, I used to be afraid; now, I’m really afraid,”—because now, they’re making decisions that are life-altering. So how do we get from fear to joy?
Marcus: You know, that’s kind of shocking; isn’t it?— most of the problems that we run into, as parents, come from our own fears. So our opening chapter is: “Why Is Parenting So Hard?” And the fundamental answer is: “We’re afraid.” We can be afraid, because we know we don’t have skills; we know we grew up in a home that lacked skills.
Ann: So you’re like—this is Dave and I when we bring our son—
Ann: —“We have terrible backgrounds; we’re going to mess this up”; so we’re fear-filled.
Marcus: So you start off, fear-based; and that leads to one of two results. You either under-parent or you over-parent. So if you under-parent: “I’m avoiding parenting, because I’m afraid I’m going to mess this up.” When I over-parent: “I’m trying to control everything, because I’m afraid I’m going to mess this up.”
Ann: You have just diagnosed the two of us. [Laughter]
Marcus: Well, there you go. We—
Dave: Who’s the over/under? [Laughter]
Ann: I am definitely the over.
Dave: And I’m the under. I just wanted to make sure she knew. [Laughter] And I always thought I was right, and she was wrong; but you’re saying both are wrong.
Ann: Well, you’re saying both are fear-based.
Marcus: Both are fear-based.
Chris: It’s a completely different system in the brain. So when you run on fear, you’re just trying to solve a problem. It’s not relational—you don’t need the relational parts of your brain to just solve a problem—my son’s about to cross/run into the street; I just have to stop that. Your brain doesn’t need all the relational pieces; it just: “Okay, there’s a problem; fix it.”
Joy is desire-driven; that means: “Hey, I really want to be with you. I’m glad that you’re here; I’m glad that it’s you,” and “I’m glad we’re in this together.”
Dave: So I’m the under sort of guy—and again, you’re making me sound like I have no rules and no boundaries—I always had that, but there was a tendency for me to say, “Let them go.” What’s the fear in that? What am I afraid of?
Marcus: Well, some of that is good. What we want is our kids to learn how to face their fears and not be afraid of them. But what makes that possible is that they know we’re going to be there with them; they’re not going to be alone in it.
What really messes kids up, to a certain extent, is when they get in these overwhelming emotions—and they’re essentially [told] “Well, go to your room until you figure it out,”—like I’m three years old, and I’m feeling rage. I just called you an idiot; right?—because I’m three; and you’re standing in front of me, and I’m mad—you’re like: “We don’t do that here. You go to your room, young man.” We’re dealing with the problem, but we’re not dealing with the person; right?
So what we’re talking about here is getting away from that left-brain parenting, that treats our kids like problems to be solved, and getting into the right-brain parenting that treats them like people—connects to them/attunes to them like people first—and then gets to the problem-solving second.
Chris: At the end of the day, as parents, we have to learn how to manage what we feel; right? I’m as good as my ability to manage what I feel. So my children are watching me: “How does Daddy handle this big feeling?” Because, ultimately, our children will learn by our example—good, bad, or ugly—right? Your relational brain learns by watching other people. That’s why we will sometimes do things we resent: like, “Oh, I sound like my dad,” or “I sound like my mom.” Because your relational brain learns by watching other people.
So with that example that Marcus gave, the child has to learn: “Show me how to handle this big feeling, because I’m going to act out right now; and then you show me a better way.” So when we punish them—and we don’t stay relationally-connected to show them a better way—they’re just going to learn whatever they have to work with. Often, the things we come up with on our own are not very good. We need other people, who have traveled this road before who have a very clear idea: “This is who we are, and this is how we behave under these conditions.”
Ann: Well, I thought it was good, too, that you start out—and you’ve been talking about characteristics of low-joy parenting—you know that I was reading some of those, and identifying, like: “Oh, yes; I have to admit this: “I did everything wrong!” [Laughter] That’s what I thought: “I did it all wrong.”
So talk about that: “When we talk about low-joy parenting, what are we seeing?”
Marcus: Low-joy parenting comes from the fact that I am fear-based in my parenting; and it’s, usually, because I didn’t get what I needed. We talk about six big negative emotions. The idea is that on the right side of your brain there are six core emotions that we feel, instinctively, as a reaction to things. It’s not because we’re thinking about something—it’s not like cognitive therapy, where we thought our way into it—we’re just reacting to these things. Every child has to learn how to keep the higher levels of their brain on and functioning with all six of these emotions. So to whichever one you don’t learn to keep your higher-level brain functions on, you have a hole in your maturity development.
A lot of us are good with parenting our kids when they’re having shame, or they’re having sadness, or they’re having disgust or something; but we can’t handle it when they’re having something else, because we never developed that capacity; we’re missing that. So our low joy is coming from the fact that we don’t know how to handle these emotions, because nobody ever taught us how to.
Ann: So let’s say we’re triggered when our kids do something—like if our kids get super angry, and they lash out and say terrible things; and now, we’re triggered; and we start lashing out—is that a low maturity? Should that be a little clue, like, “Oh”?
Marcus: No; that’s a clear sign of low joy, low maturity, low capacity; because essentially, I’ve now gone down to their level; and we’re two kids having it down. [Laughter]
Chris: It’s really helpful to know your children. They’re looking for an example of: “You show me how to navigate this/show me how to manage what I feel; and right now, I’m really mad; and I’m going to do what I know to do.” Sometimes that’s really ugly—right?—it’s really messy.
Parents—when that joy tank is a little low—then what will happen is: “I will just get angry. I will see them—and I will raise it ten more—and I will get more intense and bigger consequences.”
Dave: I’ve got to ask this though—
Dave: —I mean, because I’m sitting there, going, “So what do we do?!” If I’m that dad—
Ann: Yes, every parent is thinking—
Dave: —and I know what the spouse is thinking: “I’m married to that guy. I don’t have the problem, but he has the problem,” or “…she has the problem,”—so it’s like the dad or the mom isn’t mature enough to even see what they’re doing. You know, a third party can see it—you can see it at the grocery store in aisle seven, like, “Look at that parent!”—but we have a hard time seeing it when we’re doing it.
So how does a—it’s like an immature parent is what you’re saying—right?—a low-joy parent: “How do we grow up?”
Chris: One of the things Marcus and I talk about in the book is, in those moments, we want to remember quieting is a good thing. Anytime I can pause and quiet, that actually helps me to catch my breath. So with my children, it’s in those moments—where there’s a blow up, and I find I’m really angry—the first thing I’ll do is I’ve got to pause; I’ve got to breathe; I want to get relational again.
We also have exercises in the book—where we have parents get together with other parents and tell your failure stories, but how you learned something valuable—so you hear these redemptive stories from others: “Okay, well, give me an example when you lost it with your child and how did you recover? How did you handle that?” Your brain also learns from stories.
Chris: So if I don’t have that joy or I don’t have that particular skill—but I know some friends who are really good at that skill—I could say: “Marcus, hey, I notice you are really good at handling your anger with your children. Can you tell me some stories of times…” “How did you learn this?” “Give me some examples of how you did this.” That basically updates your brain; so the next time you get angry, your brain says, “Oh, wait a minute; I have something on file here. I can pull from that file and use that.” A lot of the times, as parents, we just need examples.
Dave: And you know, that’s something I don’t think parents do a lot of. We do marriage—
Ann: —because we’re shame-filled.
Dave: —I mean, in some ways, even in a church, we have married small groups—you don’t have as many parenting small groups, where you get parents in a room—like you’re saying—and say, “Hey, let’s talk. You’ve got teenagers; I’ve got a four-year-old; what did you learn when you had a little guy, and what do I need to do?” and vice versa. There should be a small group that comes out soon about that—maybe, there is one called No Perfect Parents—okay? Anyway, [Laughter] that’s the end of my little ad.
What were you going to say, Marcus, about that?
Marcus: The title of our book is The 4 Habits…; right? The first of the two habits are directly related to this, and the first one’s “Attuning.” What attuning is, essentially, is reading body language. The first job of the parent is to read your kid’s body language. If you see that they are really angry from their body language, then you go to the next one, which is help them “Bounce back” from their anger.
So you do that by validating it. You validate it nonverbally; so you’re like, “What do I do?”
- First, you nonverbally validate the emotion. So you maybe get an angry face look on your face, too, like, “Oh, you’re really angry; aren’t you?” Then you use words, like: “Clearly, you’re really angry about this. This is really making you mad. Why don’t we both take a deep breath?” [Breath sound]
- Right now, I’m going to comfort this—I’m going to say: “Don’t worry; this isn’t going to happen…” “This isn’t going to happen…” “Let’s look at it a new way; let’s come up with a new plan,”—my goal is to get them back to feeling like themselves.
- And then, we’ll do a correcting [on] what’s going on. So that’s the “C”: “Correct with care.”
Dave: “Attune,” “Bounce back,” “Correct with care.”
Marcus: “Attune,” “Bounce back,” “Correct with care.” So you take terrible twos, for example. The biggest mistake most people make in the terrible twos is they’re completely behavior focused, and they just want this to stop; right? “I don’t want this attitude,” “I don’t want this explosion; I just want it to stop.” So they skip attuning, and they skip helping the kid bounce back emotionally; and they go straight to correcting the behavior.
What we’re saying is that correcting the behavior is a left-brained task; that is, treating the child like a problem. We need to make sure we treat them like a child first—help them recover emotionally; give them a model of how/that “I’m not overwhelmed by your anger. It’s not in my world that you’re mad at me,”—that’s a sign of maturity; right? If them getting angry at me changes who I am into a different person, that says more about my maturity level than them.
Ann: Every parent right now is like, “Oh, no!” [Laughter]
Chris: And it’s very important here, because this is really helpful for parents. Look, the worst conditions for the brain to process pain is when I feel alone. The moment I feel alone, that puts me in the toughest conditions to manage what I’m feeling. So what Marcus is saying is very important; because what we’re saying to our children is: “Look, there might need to be some consequences here; but right now, I see you; I hear you; we’re in this together; we’re going to get through it.” That says, “Hey, you’re not alone.” That actually helps your child to have the best chances of recovering and correcting the behavior afterwards, so this is big.
Ann: When I was reading this, and as I was thinking about this attuning part, that’s the part that I didn’t do. I skipped straight to correcting; because I’m thinking, “This is my job as a parent. I’m going to teach you, train you, and correct you.”
But it was interesting—we’ve just had lunch together, and it’s been great as we’ve been talking about this—like Chris, you are the most attuning person and validating person I’ve ever met. I felt like, “This guy hears me; he sees what I’m saying.”
Dave: I’m feeling like, “Uh, [Laughter] like you’re saying the guy you’re married to doesn’t?” [Laughter]
Ann: No; what I’m realizing is I didn’t do that to our kids, like just to validate: “Oh, you’re really mad.”
Dave: And what you guys are saying is: “What Ann feels is what our child feels—right?—
Dave: —“when we, as a parent, attune”?
Chris: Yes; it’s like weeping with those who weep would be the biblical way of looking at this: “Let’s just weep. I see you’re sad; I’m going to share it.” The good thing is, with a little bit of practice, this is a habit. I don’t even realize I’m doing it; I didn’t realize I was doing it.
Ann: Do you see it, Marcus?
Marcus: Oh yes; Chris is definitely the most attuning person, male especially, that I’ve known.
Chris: I don’t even realize it just because it’s just these habits I’ve learned. Now, when I started my journey, there was no way—I would have minimized; I wouldn’t have been able to enter in—I definitely wouldn’t have been able to validate, because I didn’t grow up with these skills. This is just because of some work in my own life to get here. It’s encouraging to hear that, because it didn’t come naturally.
Dave: Well, we’ve actually—
Ann: That is good to hear.
Dave: —spent most time on the first of the four habits, the attuning. But let me end with this: “What would you say to a person—or mom or dad—who’s like, ‘I’m just really bad at that. How do I get better at attuning?’”
Marcus: Yes, that’s a good point. You learn to pay attention to body language first of all, and remind yourself you have to make it a task that you’re learning. It takes, at least, 30 days for your brain to develop a habit; right? So you’ve got to make it a task at first—say: “I’ve got to pay attention to their body language; what emotion am I seeing here? Can I name that emotion accurately? Can I name how big that emotion is?”
A lot of times, Chris mentioned minimizing. Sometimes, we minimize our kids’ emotions; because it doesn’t feel like it should be that big to us, so we assume it can’t be that big for them.
Ann: And we’re afraid they’re going to become whiners and dramatic; and so there we get, again, into the fear.
Chris: That’s right.
Marcus: Exactly; so the thing to do there is to meet them in how big it is for them and then help them dial it back down from there. Instead of just saying, “Don’t ever get that big with your emotions,” we need to meet them in how big this is for them and then help them dial it back.
Chris: That’s why this is good for parents to do as a group, like you mentioned. To do these things as a group, we can see where I’m weak, you’re strong; where you’re weak, I might be strong. So doing this with other parents really is valuable.
Dave: And it’s interesting as I—I’m smiling because as I listened to you, I’m like, “That takes so much maturity,”—it’s like you’re being so rational. When I’m in that moment, I’m so irrational. [Laughter]
But you said it earlier—it’s like it’s a moment to pause and go, “Okay, take a deep breath”; this isn’t just for the kid; this is for mom and dad to go, “Take a deep breath. What’s the first habit? Oh, attune; okay,”—I mean, it actually can be done; right? I mean, as I hear you say that, I’m like, “This can be done. This can change a home’s culture, and environment, and atmosphere if a parent can learn to: ‘Okay, I’m going to start with understanding their emotion, and matching that, and then walking them with me out of it.’” That’s a beautiful process.
Ann: I was thinking, too, Dave, as you said that—I think, as we take a breath, and we take a step back just to say a quick prayer, too—because God’s in it. He helps us to kind of regulate and to take a breath and to get perspective. And the Holy Spirit—I mean, when you look at the fruit of the Spirit—even love, joy, peace, patience, kindness; He’s always there to help if we ask Him.
Bob: I’m just thinking to myself, “What parent hasn’t longed for some help to adjust the emotional thermostat in your home?” I mean, there are days when the thermostat is way chilly, and you’d like to warm things up a little bit; and you just don’t know if it’s safe to do that. I think what we’ve heard today from Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey is a great first step for us, as parents, to know how we can begin to warm things up when our children have made it chilly in the house/when their emotions are causing things to be tense in our home. How can we move toward joy?
Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey have written a book called The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids, and we want to make this book available to every FamilyLife Today listener. Those of you who are tuned in, we’d love to send you a copy of the book. We’re just asking if you would help with the cost of producing and syndicating this program by making a donation. Every dollar you donate to FamilyLife Today helps us extend the reach of this ministry/helps us reach more people, more often, with practical biblical help and hope for their marriage and for their family. What you’ve heard today has been made possible because of listeners, like you, who have given in the past.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear from Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey about how we can pursue a joy-filled home and raising joy-filled kids if we struggle to get to joy ourselves. With everything that’s going on in our lives—the stress and the pressure—if joy is hard for us, how can we raise joy-filled kids? We’ll hear more about that tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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