Parenting: Passing On Healthy Habits For Kids
About the Guest
Joy-filled kids know how to work for and wait for what is truly satisfying in life. Authors Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey share life habits to instill in emotionally mature kids.
Parenting: Passing On Healthy Habits For Kids
Marcus: Instead of saying we want to raise mature kids—which can sound like, “Oh, that’s labor intensive,”—it’s like we want to raise joy-filled kids; but it’s really the same thing; it’s like: “How do you handle the big emotions and still be okay?”
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!
I talk to a lot of moms and dads, but especially moms. I think most of them would say, “I want my home to be filled with joy.”
Dave: Oh, I think every parent wants that. I’ve got to say this: “I think you achieve that.”
Ann: —joy?—in our home? Ohhh!
Dave: Yes; I knew you’d be surprised. You are the most joy-filled joy-giver I’ve ever been around in my life.
Ann: That’s nice!
Dave: I mean, it is—it’s just like, when you walk in a room—now, as a grandma, Noni, you walk in—I mean, the grandkids they know joy just came in. When they see me, it’s not so much joy; [Laughter] but when they see you, it’s joy.
I think every parent is hoping their kids and their grandkids would say, “My home, if it wasn’t completely joy-filled, it was a sense of joy in that home.”
Ann: I think we’re all attracted to joy, and we all want to be around those people.
Dave: And so we need to talk to two joy-givers. [Laughter]
Dave: They are sitting in the studio today. Dr. Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey are with us—back again—written a book called The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids.
So first of all, let’s say welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Chris: Thank you; it’s good to be back.
Marcus: Yes; we appreciate it, Dave.
Dave: So let me ask you this—I’m going to just start right here, because you’ve written on this—we call you our brain guys, because you’ve studied the brain and how that affects this whole thing. We did write a parenting book, and we never thought of joy being in the title. Even as I look at yours, I would think parents would be: “Oh, I want to raise mature kids,” or “…well-rounded kids,”—
Ann: —or “…responsible.”
Dave: —and you say joy-filled.
I know why; but I want you to tell our listeners: “Why do you start there?”
Marcus: Well, we start with joy because that’s the fuel in which you’re either going to live your life on—fear or joy—and we want our kids to run on the fuel of joy; because if I have a joy-filled kid, that kid’s going to treat life as an adventure; right? They’re not going to be afraid of things that might cause them shame, because they can recover from shame. They’re not going to be afraid of things that are going to cause them anger or upset; because they know, “You know what? I’m going to be okay if I feel that emotion.”
So it is maturity; but instead of saying, “We want to raise mature kids,”—which can sound like: “Oh, that’s labor intensive,”—[Laughter]—it’s like, “We want to raise joy-filled kids.” It’s really the same thing; it’s like: “How do you handle the big emotions and still be okay?”
Chris: And it’s in that garden where all that other stuff can grow. So in a sense, joy is the soil/the nutrient rich soil, where a lot of good things are going to grow. Joy provides the strength, the capacity, and the context for all these other qualities that we want to see in our children. It is in that garden of glad-to-be-together joy where we can really help our children learn all these character qualities that we want them to have.
Ann: Some of our listeners might be thinking, “I don’t even have that in my own life; how can I give that to my own kids?” or “My spouse is really struggling,” or “They’re depressed, and our home has none of that.”
Chris: Yes; we actually start out our book talking about my wife Jen. She just came from a very low-joy family and community. When I met her, it was a good day for her if she could get out of bed. She struggled with depression, and anxiety, and so forth. Basically, it was joy—kind of what Marcus and I talk about in our book—that really changed Jen’s life. Now, I’m watching this wonderful mother download and build joy with our sons. I just think, “Wow, God, You’ve like breathed life into this woman that I am watching here; and she’s now building joy.”
Dave: How? How did she change?
Chris: Well, the first thing was she worked with Jim Wilder, who’s a friend of Marcus and I, and kind of a mentor. She learned about joy—she learned the language and she learned that joy is relational—she learned that joy is when people are glad to be together; that neuroscientists say, “You’re the sparkle in someone else’s eyes.” She started to very proactively connect with other people, who could be glad to be with her.
Joy grows as well as I can quiet myself; so in other words, if I’m exhausted, I’m not going to build joy. She started to learn to rest, which is like the other side of the coin of joy. Because let’s face it: when we’re tired, we just can’t build joy; it’s too much work; it’s too much of a climb. So basically, building joy with her friends and her community, as well as learning to quiet/learning to rest, just profoundly changed her life to the point where she’s now passing on joy to our two sons. It’s amazing to watch.
Dave: Well, I do remember, and correct me if I’m wrong; because you guys wrote the book—but The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages based on the acrostic PLAN—right?—the “P” and the “N” both sort of dealt with what you’re talking about, Chris. The Play and the Nurture rhythms—or rest in your life—are critical.
Chris: Yes; you know, let’s face it—we’ve all interacted with people—maybe it was tickling or chasing with a bug—people who didn’t know when to stop; right? So part of building joy is we know when it’s time to stop, so people can rest. People who don’t know when to stop, they just keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing.
Play is one of the best ways to build joy. Our brain is wired for that, and so play is a great way. I love to play with my sons, because you will hear laughter; you will see smiles on the faces that we’re all just having a good time. But we also know when it’s time to stop—because energy levels are getting too high, or someone’s looking too tired, or it’s just not fun anymore—so we’re going to pause. Part of joy is just knowing, “Hey, it looks like you need a breather. I’m going to stop; I’m going to let you rest.”
Marcus: That’s part of the “Attuning.” So when we talk about the infant stage of it, we’re saying you start by attuning. Part of the attuning is recognizing when they’ve had enough. So we talk about doing joy workouts with your kids. Joy workouts is when you’re playing with them, and getting the joy energies high, and then noticing when they’ve had enough; and you stop and you rest together, but you’re still together. You’re still happy to be together, but we’re resting together now; right? Then they let you know—so you do this on their schedule—when they’re ready for more joy; you go back.
Dave: We talked a little bit last time about the four habits. Let’s review because we spent a little bit on the “A”; but it’s “A,” “B,” “C,” “D.” Tell us what they are, and we’ve got to investigate a little bit more of this attuning thing.
- So “Attuning” is “A.”
- “B” is “Build bounce,” which is the idea of help them get back from upsetting emotions.
- “C” is “Correct with care.” We do have to correct our kids—there are paths they get on we don’t want them to be on—so we do have to correct. But “Correct with care” means do the “Attuning” and the “Build and bounce” first; and then the “Correct.”
- Then the last one is “Develop skills relationally.” We want our kids to be highly-skilled; we want them to have really good disciplines. We want them to be not afraid of new challenges; so the best way to do that is by being relationally engaged with them in this skill-building process.
That’s the “A,” “B,” “C,” “D.”
Chris: It’s been a blessing for Jen and I, my wife; we have two sons who are nine and eleven. We were training a lot of these relational skills before we had children, so it’s been fun—you can know the theory/I knew all the theory—but until I had children, I had no experience. It’s been fun to learn.
One of the great things about all this material is—look, we tell people in the book: “Good parents aren’t the parents that do everything perfectly. Good parents are the people who get really good at repairing when they mess up,”—so even though I train these skills, I still mess up all the time; and I’ve gotten really good at repairing when I do mess up, so we’re returning to joy.
Ann: So as you’re talking about “Attuning,” you even talk about it with infants—like if your infant is crying—you have a sad face, so that you’re attuning to them.
Marcus: I have a very vivid picture of my father with my daughter. She’s an infant, and she’s crying; and he’s got the magic touch. We’re like, “Grandpa could get her quiet.” He picks her up; and the first thing he does is he just sticks out his bottom lip and he goes, “Oh, you’re so boohoo; such a sad story”; you know? He’s just attuning with her with his voice and with his face, and she doesn’t know what he’s saying. Then he starts, after the attuning—he starts, literally, bouncing her; right?—and then tickling her and gets her back to joy. Within 90 seconds, she’s okay again.
Dave: So how does that work with a three-year-old or a two-year-old that’s screaming? How do you attune?
Ann: And they say, like, “I hate you! Get out of here!”
Chris: Yes; I can remember vividly with my son during the twos. Marcus and I say in the book that, during that window of time, the brain’s amplifier is turned on; so anger becomes rage. I can remember trying to help my son when he was in a glorious meltdown. Part of it, I tell parents, is we have to remember who we are: “I’m the father here. [Laughter] So my job is to stay relationally anchored while he’s losing it.” I’m using my face; I’m using my voice; I’m comforting him. I might rub his back—if he lets me—I might rub his back and go, “You’re really mad.” Every now and then, he would come over to look at my face.
Chris: Yes; he wanted to see my face, and then he would listen to my voice. Your relational brain is actually primarily nonverbal, so it’s not the words; but it’s the voice tone that helps.
In that process, he’s basically very angry; and I’m just trying to stay present and validate: “You are really mad. Wow! I can see it on your face.”
Dave: So there’s no judgment.
Chris: No judgment.
Dave: It’s just attune.
Ann: Okay; wait, wait, wait. So we’re walking through the mall—they don’t get the candy—and all of a sudden, they’re on the floor, screaming their head off.
Dave: Never our kids but somebody else’s. [Laughter]
Marcus: Oh, yes; yes.
Ann: But you’re attuning even right there, like, “You are mad!”
Dave: Do you get on the floor too?
Chris: I would get down to their level and go, “You are really mad here, and you know what? There’s more I want to tell you here, but I can’t talk to you when you’re like this. We’re going to have to take a deep breath, and we’re going to have to calm down.”
I would take a deep breath [deep breath]—there’s a saying called “mirror neurons” in the brain—so when you see somebody do something, your brain responds accordingly. So I will do what I want my child to do: so if I say, “Take a deep breath,” I’m going to take a deep breath [deep breath]; and I’m going to use my body language—I’m going to calm down—“I got a story to tell you, but I can’t tell you that until we’re done.”
Most young children/they want to know what that story is, but we’re going to calm down before we even do that. Because I won’t engage—I won’t try to converse or have a conversation about whatever it is the meltdown is about—the first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to get calm; we’re going to get relational. When we’re calm and relational, then we’ll talk about what’s going on. That’s where it’s a little different than what a lot of parents, intuitively, do/is they want to use words.
Ann: Yes! [Laughter]
Chris: “We’re going to fix it,” “You better stop it,” “We’re going to…”; you know?
Ann: “Wait ‘til you get in the car!”
Chris: Oh, yes; oh, yes. Just keep in mind: “Words don’t help.” It is: their brain wants to see it in you: “You show me what I should do right now.”
Marcus: Directly related to that is—before about age four or five—the brain cannot understand a negative command.
Ann: Okay; this part I was like, “What?!”
Dave: Oh, you should have heard her read your book out loud.
Dave: “Wait, wait, wait, wait; we’re not supposed to give a negative command”; so explain that.
Marcus: Right; so let’s say your kid’s having a meltdown in the mall. You say, “Stop it! Do not—do not—you know, do not do that,”—what they hear is: “Blah, blah, blah; do that.” Their brain doesn’t know how to decipher the negative. So if you say, “Don’t hit your sister,” they’re going to hear: “Blah, blah, blah; hit your sister.”
So what they’re actually relying on is: they are reading your body language. They’re trying to figure out: “Do they really want me to hit my sister? No, it looks like they don’t. It looks like they don’t want me to hit my sister.” But they’re interpreting your body language, not your words. We rely way too often on our words, especially with really young kids, to get them to change things.
But if you stop to think about how hard it is for you to come up with a positive command—[Laughter]
Ann: That’s okay—they’re biting—instead of saying, “Don’t bite”; you’re, “Bite the shoe”? [Laughter]
Marcus: No; you’re like: “Let’s be gentle with your sister,” “Let’s be kind to your sister,” “Let’s do this…” Or if they’re reaching out for the stove, you’re like, “Put your hands down by your side.” But stop and think about it: it’s really hard for us to think about: “What would the positive command be?” Think about how hard it is for their undeveloped brains to take your negative command and flip it around to a positive thing they’re supposed to do.
Ann: But why can they/their first response is “No!” Do they—
Marcus: Well, we taught them that; right?
Chris: Children internalize what they see and what they hear. A lot of the children will say and do things that they’ve seen in their environment. So keep that in mind; children, literally, are sponges—they will absorb whatever is in the environment—good, bad, or ugly. You will see that they will be responding like a parent, or like somebody else in the family, doing something. You might think to yourself, “Where in the world did they learn that?” [Laughter] It’s like, “Oh, wait a minute.”
Marcus: You don’t have to have done it to your kid; they just have to have seen you do it to someone. Their brain will go, “Oh, that’s how I’m supposed to act if that ever happens to me.”
Ann: This is fascinating.
Marcus: It is.
Ann: And it makes us, as parents, become the parents and not respond in a childish manner, which is pretty much what I used to do a lot. [Laughter]
Marcus: We all do it.
Ann: Especially, when you have three kids, five and under; you’re tired/you’re worn out. So to have the maturity—and maybe, not the sleep deprivation—that allows you to respond in a way that is conducive to joy.
Marcus: Yes; it takes a village to raise children because, as parents, we’re running on “E” for empty, in many cases; and the results aren’t good. So having the support of family, friends, community that can walk with us, and hold up our arms, really goes a long way. And for parents to give themselves a little bit of grace/that: “Look, you’re not going to do it perfectly. Let’s just get good at repairing and returning to joy whenever we lose it.”
If your children are already adults, even just sharing what you’re learning and taking responsibility for where you messed up. How redemptive that is for children to hear, even if it was a long time ago—20 years or whatever—“Hey, I’ve learned this; and I realized I didn’t do this very well. If I could do it all over again, I would have wanted to be able to do this.” That’s a good message for our children to hear that says, “We are the type of people that, even when we mess up, we take responsibility for it. And you know what? We’re going to learn from it. We’re going to learn how to parent better and how to pass on the good stuff,” even if it’s grandchildren instead of children in that case.
Ann: We’ve talked about “Attuning.” The second one is “Building bounce”; what’s that?
Marcus: So “Building bounce” is the idea that we are staying relationally engaged with our kids through their upsetting emotions until they recover. I read something in—it was Kay and Milan Yerkovich’s book, How We Love—and they said something about married couples coming in; and they would ask them the question: “Do you have any memories of someone staying relationally engaged and comforting you from an upsetting emotion?” Couple after couple would come in, and they could not/not a single memory of anybody staying relationally engaged with them until they were comforted from an emotion.
So we’re talking about, with “Building bounce,” is when my kid is emotionally distressed—as a parent, remaining relationally attuned to them and engaged with them, and then walking them through the process of recovery—that looks different in infants, and children, and adults.
- So in infants, I have to do all of it for them; they have no capacity to recover.
Dave: Infants up to what age?
Marcus: Three or four.
Marcus: Okay, so we’re talking about terrible twos too—like, in the terrible twos, they have no capacity to comfort themselves—so I have to do all of the work of walking them through how to comfort themselves. I need to stay relationally engaged with them until they bounce back. They bounce back when they feel like [breath sound] their breathing gets more regulated again, and they feel like they can go on with life, and act like themselves.
Ann: And to stay with them during that looks like?
Marcus: To stay with them, literally, could mean sitting there until they get through this or, at least, being with them until you can sense that they have recovered enough to move forward to the next thing.
Dave: Okay; so right away, I think this—because this would be one of the ways we parent our kids and, now, we’re watching our kids parent; and they’re doing it a little different—we’re thinking, “Hey, you should do it the way we did.” We pick up your book—thank you for your book—because we realized our kids are doing it much better than we did it. [Laughter]
One of them is this/one of them is: “Hey, put them in the room and let them cry it out,”—not stay “attuned.” They need to get to sleep or whatever: “This is the only way to do it: you put them in the room; you shut the door. They may cry for an hour, half hour, whatever. They’ll figure it out. Leave; do not go in there.” We read your book; and it’s like, “Nope; that’s a really bad idea.” Tell us why.
Chris: One of the things Marcus and I talk about in the book is, when we put our children in the room all by themselves, and just let them cry, their brain is learning something very unhelpful, which is: “I’m alone in my feelings.” Your survival circuit does not like being alone in your big feelings.
Keep in mind the relational brain learns by example; so when we sit with them, and we help them quiet. So with that example, we had a chair in our house. Whenever our sons are losing it, we would go sit with them and just quiet. We just quiet—so we practiced it—to teach them and show them this is what we do.
Ann: So you would pick them up, take them to the chair—
Chris: Pick them up, go sit down; and we’re going to quiet.
Ann: Oh, you held them?
Chris: Yes; if they’re small, we would hold them; maybe rub their back until they got a little older. Then they could go, like, “Hey buddy, you’re losing your joy here; why don’t you go catch your breath and come back to the table when you’re relational again?” We just had the language for the stuff in our home: “This is just what we do.”
Dave: Would they go to that chair?
Chris: Oh, yes.
Ann: So you’re not saying, “You’re being an idiot. Go to the chair by yourself.” We didn’t say that.
Chris: No; we just—these were new habits—because I didn’t learn this; my family didn’t do this stuff. So for me, we had to be very purposeful about it; but we showed them what we wanted them to do. We did it with them, and they could quiet.
As they got older, they knew, “Hey, go get relational and then come back when you’re ready.” Usually, it’s just taking some deep breaths; or maybe, it’s remembering some of the joyful moments from—
Dave: I mean, it sounds beautiful to think that there’s dad or mom with son or daughter. It’s a great picture of the heavenly Father. But let me ask you this, because you guys know the brain science so much better than almost all of us—
Ann: —all of us.
Dave: —“Is it also true that, when you say, ‘Hey, go to your room; cry it out,’—whatever—and nobody shows up, does your brain start to say, ‘Oh, nobody’s coming. I’m alone; nobody’s ever going to show up’; is that true?”
Marcus: It can be. I mean, that was probably my parents’ favorite punishment for me was: “Go to your room.” It depends on if you’re four years old/three years old—four years old or if you’re ten years old—right? So there’s a difference in sending your ten-year-old to their room and sending a three-year-old to their room. What we’re talking about here really is—especially, in those formative years—they have to have a rock-solid foundation of knowing: “I don’t get abandoned in my emotions.”
Then you get into—we do what’s called co-regulating in the child years, between like five and thirteen—and that is, “I am helping them learn the steps and the processes so that they can begin comforting themselves, and they can begin quieting themselves.” Then the goal is, by the time you are an adult, you’re coaching them through it and you’re just kind of reminding them of the things that they already know.
Where we run into problems/where most of us run into problems is that we become adults, and we haven’t learned these skills ourselves. We’re in the adult age of life, but we still need somebody else to comfort us when we get sad; because we never learned how to do it. So that’s what we’re talking about is—a lot of us, the repairs that we need in our own lives is learning how to bounce back from certain emotions—like we’re good with some, but we’re not good with others.
Ann: Every listener just said, “Amen to that.” I think we develop coping mechanisms: it could be alcohol; it could be any sort of something to help us to cope.
Dave: I mean, you said earlier, when we’re talking about fear-based parenting in your book, you say one of the reasons we do that is unresolved pain in our own life. I’m like, “Oh, boy”; because that has to be dealt with or you’re never going to be the parent you want to be, because you’re just unable to get over your own brokenness.
Ann: We are just scratching the surface; aren’t we? [Laughter]
Marcus: The good news is you don’t have to be completely recovered to be a good parent; right?
Ann: That’s good news.
Marcus: The other good news, I think, is that sometimes people, who come up from broken families, end up being better parents than people who grow up in sort of mediocre families. Some of those people actually become very good parents.
I think there’s some hope there, too; you don’t have to be fully recovered from all of your stuff to do this; right? You just need to develop these habits and these skills. But on the way, when you find there’s some things you just keep banging your head against, it’s usually because there’s an emotion you have not yet learned how to return to joy from.
Bob: We’ve all heard the announcement on airplanes, where they say, “In case of a loss of pressure, put your mask on first and then put the mask on your child.” I think what we’ve been hearing today from Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey is that for us to have joy-filled kids, we have to be working on the pursuit of joy in our own lives. As we’ve heard, joy is a fruit of the Spirit. When we draw closer to Jesus—when we stop and meditate on all that He’s done for us—one of the things the Holy Spirit will bring to us in that moment is joy. As we find ourselves growing in joy, then we can begin the process of helping our kids become joy-filled kids.
Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey have written a book called The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids. It’s a book that we’ve got available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center; and in fact, we’d love to send a copy of this book to you. We’re asking listeners this week, if you can help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today, either as a one-time donor or as one of our monthly contributors to this ministry, we’d love to send you a copy of The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids as a way of saying, “Thank you for your financial support.”
Let me just say a word about where your money is actually going. You’re going to help equip, and train, and encourage and disciple moms and dads/husbands and wives, all across the country and around the world. There are hundreds of thousands of people, every day, who are connecting with us, here, at FamilyLife, looking for practical biblical help and hope for their marriage and their family. You’re making that possible for them when you donate to this ministry.
So can we encourage you to make a donation today to support the ongoing work of FamilyLife Today? And when you do, request your copy of the book, The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids, by Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey. We’d love to send it to you. You can go donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329; 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” to make your donation by phone.
Now, it’s one thing for your elementary-aged kids, even for your toddlers to be pointed in the direction of joy. It’s something else when you get to teenagers; right? Tomorrow, Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey will be here again to talk about how we can help our teens become more joy-filled. I hope you can tune in for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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