I still remember the look on her face. Sheer embarrassment emanated from her huge, brown eyes, and she was fighting tears.
My daughter Ella and her school friend Sarah were playing at our house when Ella accidentally marked on Sarah's nose with a permanent black marker. When my kids noticed the mark, they started giggling. Sarah was embarrassed.
I understood Sarah's feelings because I, too, had been a sensitive little girl. Just as Sarah was about to cry, I gasped and said, "Sarah, wait right there!" I ran to get a pen. When I returned, I drew a mark on my nose, and then on my daughters' noses. In seconds, we were all laughing, including Sarah.
Every day I find myself facing moments like Sarah did — moments when I can let an embarrassing incident, disappointment or mistake shift the course of a day and affect my attitude and our home's atmosphere. Or I can choose to lighten up in the midst of the chaos we call life.
Although these scenarios aren't always as simple as laughing off a pen mark on the nose, life gives us numerous opportunities to choose which way to go. As parents, we can intentionally model how to enjoy life, whatever the day brings, or we can model an array of joy-killers.
Parents carry the sobering responsibility of protecting our children from dangers, training them to be good people who love God, and teaching them how to handle disappointments and failures. Those responsibilities can tempt us to keep focused on the serious side of life and forget that God gave us joy to help us thrive in the midst of struggles.
As Pollyannaish as it seems, I believe we can choose to interject joy into otherwise difficult days. Dancing just might mend a wounded spirit. An unexpected pizza night and some one-on-one time just might soothe a crabby teenager. A tickle attack just might cheer up that pouty toddler.
When we intentionally commit to pursuing joy with our family, we lighten the mood in our home for the benefit of everyone. The mess of life is still there, but we find ways to appreciate the life God has given us (1 Thessalonians 5:18). To that end, I've found four ways parents can create a joy-filled atmosphere in day-to-day family life.
Make time to play
Play does not have an age limit. One of the best ways to pursue the virtue of joy is simply to play with our kids.
My friend Ashley does not naturally like to play. However, she realizes how important play is to her son. So she schedules time to bounce on the trampoline with him. By scheduling fun, she is making sure she has focused time to talk with her son and participate in something he loves to do.
I've discovered so many fun ways to schedule joy: weekly game nights, dance parties, movie nights, karaoke sing-offs and picnic dinners. The list is endless!
All of these activities seem simple, but they communicate a clear message to our kids: My parents enjoy me and want to spend time with me.
Kids love knowing we will consistently be there for them. That doesn't just build joy; it builds their confidence and self-esteem.
My girls look forward to our playtimes. We're eyeball-to-eyeball — with no phones and no distractions. They thrive when I engage on their level.
If I'm honest, scheduling playtime isn't always easy. Other commitments, distractions and even weariness can tempt me to forgo it. But when I stick to it and really put myself in the moment, I notice the joy level rises in my kids and in our home.
Change the mood
As parents, we are often the CMO (Chief Mood Officer) of the house. If we are stressed, our kids are stressed. If we are joyful, they are often joyful. If we are intentional, we can often change the mood in the house.
My friend Shay had been planning a "family night" all week. As it started unfolding, everything went wrong, and no one was having fun. Everyone grew cranky, and the night was a big, fat disappointment. She told her family that they had a choice: They could cancel the event altogether or change the mood. They turned on some favorite music and just danced. Instantly, everyone was in a better mood. They started laughing together, and family night was salvaged. It actually turned out better than Shay's original plans.
If you want to change the atmosphere, change the mood. Even simple tweaks can do the trick. Take your kids outside and help them with their homework there. Order takeout or prepare an unusual meal. Go on a walk together and look at the moon. Bust out an old photo album. Ask funny questions at dinner. Host a joke contest. This mood-changing tip is still all about spontaneity. The element of surprise can make all the difference.
If the family is in a foul mood and fighting, literally change environments. I often put my kids in the car and go for a drive. We've been known to go on a milkshake run in our pajamas. A change of venue can interrupt a bad mood and refocus everyone's attention on something more positive.
Joy can often come in unexpected ways. When our kids act discontented and grumpy, we can teach them the delight of serving others. Ideally, their hearts would be willing to do this, but even if our kids aren't initially eager to serve someone else, there's a chance that their hearts will follow their actions.
My friend Leah's daughter, Hope, was having a bad Saturday. She wouldn't stop complaining and whining. Leah happened to notice their elderly neighbor shoveling water from the end of her driveway so it wouldn't freeze when the temperature dropped. Figuring that serving another person would change her daughter's mood, Leah took Hope next door to assist the neighbor. Her daughter loved helping the woman, and when she was done, Hope wanted to help more neighbors. Her complaints were forgotten. In their place was joy.
Service is my No. 1 go-to for my own bad moods. When I become too consumed with my problems, I know it's time to focus on someone else. I often invite my kids to join me, and I ask for their ideas. Once they suggest a person we can help or a way to serve, they are invested. It can be handing a bottle of water to a person working in the heat, taking a meal to a family in need, baby-sitting for a single mom, mowing a neighbor's lawn, paying for a stranger's meal or giving a simple treat to a friend in need. We help someone and our own spirits are lifted.
Give yourself and your kids permission to laugh over the unexpected. Someone spilled the milk? No need to yell or point out the accident. Instead, make it a race to get the paper towels and clean it up.
We often use the phrase "some days it happens!" to help us remember to lighten up over our mistakes. After all, it isn't the end of the world. I remember how it felt when I messed up as a kid. I would be so embarrassed. So when my kids do something careless, we try to laugh it off with "some days it happens!" I know too well how easy it is to react to messes and mistakes. Of course we must correct defiance and disobedience, but a careless mistake provides an opportunity for us to show grace. We need to fight the urge to get mad or shame our children. Mistakes happen.
These four tips might seem simple, but they can be hard to put into action during the stress of actual life. Let's get real. Most of this stress is pretty comical. Today my daughter was having a stage-five fit over socks. Seriously?
We often let the things that matter only in the next 10 minutes crowd out the things that will matter in the next 10 years. So let's be intentional about enjoying the days that God has given us.
Courtney DeFeo is the author of In This House, We Will Giggle.