3 Keys To A Happier Family: Love, Limits And Laughter

Connecting with your children and creating a loving home are easily achievable. Dr Justin Coulson, a well-known parenting expert from Australia, reveals to us the simple secrets of a joyful family.

By Dr Meghna Singhal  • 13 min read

3 Keys To A Happier Family: Love, Limits And Laughter

As parents, we want to provide our children with a happy and secure family environment. Although we know what we want for our families, most of us are clueless how to make it happen. Result? We end up feeling miserable and inadequate. Dr Justin Coulson, a three-time bestselling author and a parent of six daughters, reveals how to connect with children and empower them to create a happier family. 

You’ve authored the best-seller ‘21 Days to a Happier Family’. Why do families need to be taught how to be happy?
I don’t know whether they need to be taught to be happy so much as they need to be reminded to slow down and let children be children. As humans, we seem to have forgotten the art of being present. Also, we seem to have forgotten connecting with our children and having a relationship with them. Many parents now think their job is to raise their children in their own image, or in the image of the god of academic success or the god of financial achievement. So, we’re putting pressure on our children. We’re not trying to hurt them or make them suffer. We want them to do well. But ... we’re going faster and faster or expecting more and more out of our children at younger and younger ages.

I wanted to help parents to tap into how to live a less pressured existence as a family, and experience more joy together. That’s why I wrote a book and called it ‘21 Days to a Happier Family’ because it’s not that families aren’t happy, but rather we want to be happier.

So, what are the key steps to a happier family?
Well, we need to remember the three L’s — Love, Limits and Laughter. To a child, LOVE is spelt TIME. Love is the centre of what makes families work. When we say things like “You should have done this” or “How many times do I have to tell you?” I don’t think they’re feeling a lot of love.

I get people to imagine that their relationship with their child is like a bucket. In the bucket, we’re supposed to put water. Ideally, that bucket would be full of water, with water representing the love and the connection we have. And then there’s air, which represents all the correction and direction that we dish out—“Why didn’t you do this?” or “You should do it like that.” Then I say to parents, “Just think about this morning with your children. What proportion of the time was spent connecting, and what proportion of the time was spent correcting and directing?”

Most parents would say, “Often, I tell my child what to do. I’m giving them correction and direction. I’m not spending a lot of time connecting with them.” But if you want to help your child do well, you need to help them feel well. So as a parent if you’re constantly saying things like “You’re not doing this right” or “I expect more of you”, you’re making them feel unworthy and that they’re not good enough.

Somehow, we get this idea that we could make our child do better by making them feel worse about themselves. That’s not how it works. If your boss constantly says you’re not doing a good enough job and you need to pick up your game, pretty soon you’re going to get tired of working for that boss. And you’re going to look for another job because all that correction damages the connection.

But children can’t pack up and find new parents — they’re stuck with us. But wouldn’t it be great if they felt such a deep connection to us because they feel loved?

The first L is all about Love. What is the second L?
After Love, the second L is Limits. We can’t raise good children without boundaries. They need to know what is right and what is wrong. Our job is to set good limits. Once again, we seem to misunderstand what it means to teach and discipline our children. A lot of parents think that discipline means cracking the whip. If you look up “punishment” in the dictionary, it means to hurt someone, to demand retribution, to make them pay a price because you don’t like what they’ve done. But, if you look up the history of the word “discipline”, it means that we teach, we guide, we instruct.

I feel our children need discipline, not punishment. And, when we look at the children who seem to do best, they have parents who spend a lot of time teaching them. When they’re having a fight with their little brother or sister, their parents don’t say “You cut that out or I’ll smack you.” They have parents who say, “You two seem to be having a hard time. Let’s sit down and work together so we can learn the values of kindness. Let’s learn about how we can help each other and how we can communicate.”

There’s a wonderful saying: “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.” So, we have to have wonderful love so that we can set limits that work. And the best way to set those limits is to create them together. So, when you’re upset with your child for stealing money, what can you do? Instead of being angry at her and hurting her, wouldn’t it be great to sit down and say, “Can you help me to understand why you keep on stealing money from me? What’s so important to you that you feel like you need to steal the money?” And when you notice your child being unkind to his sibling, say, “Could you help me understand why you’re having such a struggle with your little sister lately? You just seem to be fighting all the time. What’s going wrong?”

So we spend some time exploring what’s happening inside their heart. Once they have told us and we really understand, we empathise: “Well, that’s tough.” Then add something like “May I explain to you why we have rules about not stealing?” and offer any of these explanations:

  • “If you steal, it means I can’t trust you.”
  • “If you steal, I have to hide things.”
  • “If you steal, it makes me feel like my things aren’t safe around you.”

So we’ve explored and we’ve explained, and then we empower our child. We say to our child, “What do you think we should do about this?” In fact, the best question is, “How can I help, because you seem to be struggling with this. You understand what I expect and I know what’s going on for you. So how can I help you to work this out?”

Discipline is about helping, whereas punishment is about hurting. Our children need discipline, not punishment.

You told us about Love and Limits. How do we add more Laughter to our lives?
I don’t see many parents laughing with their children. We’re always so serious! Wouldn’t it be great if we could just laugh more with our children, if we could help them to see that we are human and that we want to have fun with them? There are so many ways to laugh with them — lie on the floor and wrestle with them and tickle them, tell jokes or turn some music on and dance in the kitchen!

Many parents feel that if they don’t punish their child, they’re encouraging and rewarding the behaviour. Let’s say you have a 3-year-old who’s having a big tantrum. Some parents will ask you to ignore him or lock him in his room. But I say, “No, you need to go over to him and help him.” Those parents will say, “But you’re rewarding the bad behaviour.” My response is, “No, you’re responding to their big emotion.”

As an adult, if you’re having a hard time and saying, “I am angry at the world”, you don’t want somebody to say, “You need to go to your room.” You need your husband or your wife — the person you trust the most — to come to you and say, “What can I do to help you? You’re having such a hard time. Do you need a hug? Can I just spend some time with you to help you know that you’re not alone in this?”

As adults, we want that connection, and our children need it too. They need to be brought into our arms so we can help them learn how to regulate those big emotions and to control those unwanted behaviours. They do that best when we help them feel loved, not when we make them feel unworthy and cast them away. 

Earlier, you said LOVE is spelled TIME. But how can working parents navigate the “stop, look and listen” routine when there’s no time?
People say that. But I wrote an article in the ‘New York Times’ about making your mornings magical. We practice it in our home, and it’s beautiful. People say there’s no time, but when we look at the way we spend that time, we’ve actually got more time than we think. So, this is what I recommend to parents for magic mornings full of connection:

Work out what time your child needs to wake up, and then go into their bedroom about 10 minutes early. Sit on the edge of their bed, give them a big squeezy hug and say, “Good morning. I just wanted to come in and connect with you before our day starts.” Spend a few minutes with them, just sitting on the edge of the bed, letting them wake up and feel your love. You might even say, “I just love watching you wake up. You’re so full of goodness in the morning. When I spend time with you, I feel so good in my heart. Being around you makes me feel good.”

That’s a powerful way to connect with your child the second they open their eyes. It’s a beautiful way to help them feel they are important to us before the day has even begun.

So, when people say they lack time to connect, it’s not actually about the time. A part of it is, but the other part is about the way we’re engaging with each other. Are we doing it gently, kindly and compassionately or are we doing it with frustration, anger and annoyance? One is obviously much better than the other for building beautiful relationships together. 

In a nutshell

  • Punishment and discipline are not the same. While punishment is about hurting, discipline is about teaching and guiding.
  • If we analyse our daily schedule, saying we don’t have enough time is a myth.

What you can do right away

  • Laugh with your child — tell funny jokes and wrestle with them. 
  • Children who do well are usually those whose parents spend a lot of time with them. So, spend time with your child and teach them principles, values and good behaviour.
  • Spending as little as 10 minutes with your child the first thing in the morning can work wonders and make your mornings magic.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

About the expert:
Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia’s most respected and popular parenting authors and speakers. He is sought after for his expertise in family life, relationships, and wellbeing and resilience; and he is the founder of ‘Happy Families’.

About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 22 July 2020.
Dr Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

Worried about your preschooler missing school this year? We got just the right solution for you. 

Looking for expert tips and interesting articles on parenting? Subscribe now to our magazine. Connect with us on Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube

Join our Circles to share, discuss and learn from fellow parents and experts!