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    Are your children learning to live in fear or joy right now?

    Are your children learning to live in fear or joy right now?

    When I was considering marrying my wife—the same lady that last week rushed a wedding with me the day before shelter-in-place kicked in—my friend Alex gave me this advice: you don’t know what someone is like until you face a crisis with them. 

    While he was talking about a road trip disaster that turned into 29 hours of all-night driving over snowy mountain passes of Colorado at -2 degrees Farenheit, I see the same qualities in her these past few weeks as I saw then and many times before: resilience, positivity, adaptability. 

    That’s because in a crisis, with the fluff of life boiled away, is when we most act like ourselves; our core beings. 

    This is probably your children’s first major crisis to live through, as 9/11 and the wars after it were almost two decades ago. It’s a great time for them to build who they are really like. 

    And they’ll do that by watching you. 

    I hope this post encourages you to cultivate and model a family culture of connection, resilience, and compassion when times are tough. In short, choose joy over fear. 

    How this Occurred to Me: My Daughter’s Fear

    When I have my girls, at night we usually do a gratitude and prayer routine before bed. I recently decided to shake it up with a “what are you most afraid of?” prompt for us to take into our time of gratitude and prayer. I was shocked to see tears come to the eyes of my six year old, and her to say “cowohnaviwus” and nothing else. 

    She doesn’t really know what it is. Or what it does. She just knows everyone else is scared of it, and she is really, really scared of it too. (You can see her normal, goofier self in the photo.) The same thing was on my other daughter’s mind as well. 

    I was floored. I’m not even sure how to describe this, so I’m going to ask you to imagine being there and all the thoughts that would race through your mind that a six year old is living in fear of something she can’t do anything about. Helplessness is the worst, and a parent is there to help with that exact feeling. 

    We ended up doing a mini-meditation on fear, and learning how we can let go and accept, as my first feeble attempt to deal with this issue. I’ve been putting quite a bit of thought into this since then. 

    It’s about Joy vs. Fear

    Joy is a choice. Well not a choice, but a practice… the result of the same choice many times over, in many contexts. And joy is free. You can have it when you’re poor, rich, hurting, triumphing, sick, healthy, in a hut, in a mansion. 

    Joy is internal, not a response to momentary pleasures and external influences. When joy neurons are firing, we see ourselves as persons among people, and even part of the grand story of history, and are able to look around with compassion.

    Fear is about self-preservation, our lower-level instincts of freeze/fight/flight, and choosing to see other people as objects when we look out for ourselves. Compassion is unavailable. 

    The joy/fear paradigm here is most informed by my reading in neuroscience and counseling the past three years, especially these three:

    What I’ve gathered is that there are two primary brain states: one with relational circuits on, where we see others as people, are able to look at the world from outside ourselves; the other with relational circuits off, where others are objects, and we are victims of the world around us. And you can basically live your whole life in one of these states, though most of us switch between them (hopefully less so the more we intentionally train and practice). 

    When mindmapping this article, I wrote down some of the ways you and your children willexperience their experiences in these two main states. 

    For what it’s worth, all three of these models have similar approaches for returning to joy from fear. Stosny’s is simplest: improve, appreciate, connect, protect. Take tangible actions in those four areas and you’ll be moving your brain state towards joy. 

    We Are Our Defaults

    Back to the idea of who we are in a crisis. 

    For some people it’s survival mode, for others selfishness, for still others run towards the fire not away. Think of Chernobyl and those brave souls who went in to mitigate nuclear disaster, putting their own lives on the line. Think of every soldier who volunteers. 

    What do you want your kids to be made of? Who are they? Are they like you? 

    Everyone gets afraid and scared, but what do you want to choose immediately after the shock wears off? A victim state, or a compassionate, kind, joyful, ready-for-anything, “run towards the fire” kind of state? Which one does your home feel like right now? 

    Rabbi Sha’ul wrote “We know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” In other words, knowing and showing that there’s life after. Today’s circumstances don’t make up our life totality; we can see beyond and keep going, whether to bounce back or accept a new reality. That’s endurance.

    Calvin’s dad says it all a little more bluntly, as I’m sure you recall. 


    Some Tangible Actions to Take Right Now

    Alright, so we know joy brings fulfillment and a culture of fear doesn’t build character that well. What can we do? Here are a few inspirations. 

    1. Practice Gratitude – Practice is the key point. There’s compelling research that in order for gratitude to do its work and shift your emotional state, you need to re-live (taste, feel, hear) a moment of gratitude for around 5-8 minutes. So take some breaths and do it together, then tell each other about your experience. This really works. I use it often. 
    1. Grounding – Do a sensory exploration. One that I learned is to tell each other 5 things we see, then feel, then hear, and then 4, and then 3, and 2, then 1. By the end, you’ll be noticing the world around you and restoring yourself as a person amidst it, rather than a victim of it. 
    1. Turn Off the Crisis Drama – Is it really helping you? After a few days of 24/7 scary, loud reporters in the background as the central presence in the home, plus constant fretting about disaster, what will be better? Worrying can’t add a day to your life (said a really wise man long ago).
    1. Volunteer – This weekend my daughters are going to be sewing medical masks (great idea from my wife). We’re also going to deliver food from local restaurants to medical workers. Teach your children to be part of the solution if they care about something. 
    1. Connect – Make a Zoom with all the cousins or interview grandma and grandpa about historical crises and rough times they’ve been through.
    1. Experience Adversity Stories – History has had far greater crises than this, and children and adults have somehow come through. In fact, the best stories all involve how humans respond to low points. It’s not just the crisis, but the recovery. Hard times make us better. Let’s bond our children with those in history who were normal people, just like us. People who found out who they really are deep down only by walking through the fire.

    So here’s a list of top 10 historical books, movies, and even fiction to help experience and inspire resilience and joy. 

    List of Top Books and Movies to Inspire Kids in the Current Crisis

    Coming from the homeschool speech and debate world, it was easy to find tons of parents and former students to weigh in and help me build a solid list. 

    Historical Books

    1. Stout-Hearted Seven: Orphaned on the Oregon Trail
    2. The Angry Sailor
    3. Snow Treasure
    4. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
    5. Number the Stars
    6. Behind the Bedroom Wall
    7. The Witch of Blackbird Pond
    8. Johnny Tremain
    9. Diary of Anne Frank
    10. Number the Stars
    11. Jacob Have I Loved
    12. Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry
    13. Little House on the Prairie
    14. Parallel Journeys
    15. Peace Child

    Grit-Inspiring Movies

    1. The Sound of Music
    2. Forrest Gump
    3. Remember the Titans
    4. We Are Marshall
    5. It’s a Wonderful Life
    6. Love Comes Softly
    7. Amazing Grace
    8. Secretariat
    9. The Pursuit of Happyness
    10. The Kite Runner
    11. Patch Adams
    12. Pay it Forward
    13. I Am David

    Inspiring Fiction (because a lit major couldn’t let me not…)

    1. Ender’s Game
    2. Wrinkle in Time
    3. The Hobbit and LOTR
    4. Swiss Family Robinson
    5. Harry Potter
    6. Prince and the Pauper
    7. Captains Courageous
    8. Little Women
    9. Up
    10. Wonder Woman
    11. American Girl books
    12. It’s a Jungle Out There!

    Post in the comments to add other stories that you think help kids experience grit, adaptability, resilience, and joy.


    Let’s all build our children’s identities as people who are joyful in adversity, know they can rise to challenges, and would run towards the fire in a crisis. In fact, we all depend on it. 

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    Isaiah McPeak is a serial entrepreneur, consultant, educator, and current Product Lead at Pinwheel, designing a mobile OS for kids. His research includes pursuit of practical skills that implement neuroscience and wellbeing in high stakes communication and leadership. He lives in Austin, TX with his wife, two daughters, two bands, three trumpets, two pianos, so many family-made paintings on the wall, a Star Wars timeline, and a craft room.