Love is everything. The only thing kids really need is to feel loved and supported. That comes through spending time with people who love them. A teacher or other family members or a nanny is great, but there’s nothing better than the love and attention of parents.
As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Serenity & Joe Carr of Serenity Kids.
Serenity Carr, co-founder and CEO of Serenity Kids Baby Food, is on a mission to promote wellness starting with the first bite. Formerly employed in tech and logistics, Serenity left her job to pursue her passion of health coaching where she helped clients achieve their personal health goals. Having healed her digestive issues through a lifestyle diet change, Serenity is transforming the baby food industry by developing innovative nutrient dense products because every bite counts.
Joe Carr, co-founder and President of Serenity Kids Baby Food, is a certified life coach and educator devoted to social justice activism. An autism activist and proponent of the Paleo diet, Joe serves on the Advisory Board for Autism Hope Alliance and works with other autistic adults and youth to help them harness their gifts and genuinely believes that food is medicine. He is also active with the ManKind Project helping men develop power with compassion. As President of Serenity Kids, Joe oversees day-to-day operations and leads sales that will transform the baby food industry. Joe Carr, co-founder and President of Serenity Kids Baby Food, is a certified life coach and educator devoted to social justice activism. Joe serves on the Advisory Board for Autism Hope Alliance and also works with other autistic adults to help them harness the gifts of their autism. As President of Serenity Kids, Joe oversees day-to-day operations and leads sales that will transform the baby food industry.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
Serenity: I grew up as an Army brat. We moved all over the world and did lots of traveling, and I think it made me resilient. I was also a sick little kid, and that gave me the inspiration to get focused on nutrition later in life.
Joe: I’m autistic. I wasn’t diagnosed as a child, so I had a really rough time both socially and physically. I had food sensitivities, and I was bullied a lot. My dad frequently traveled for work, so I definitely had that experience of not feeling enough attention from my dad while he was working. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, so I had too much attention from her. Unconditional attention all of the time.
Then, in middle school, I realized that I could change myself, become better. Some popular girls took me under their wing and taught me how to be cool. I learned that I could improve myself and then started this journey of self-improvement, including my diet, which led to the company we started. I also always wanted to have children. Changing the world for kids and having my own children have been a really important part of my mission, which was inspired by my difficult childhood.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
Serenity: After undergraduate, I went into corporate America. I spent nine years there before going to graduate school and then spending more time in corporate America. Really, I learned a lot. I learned a lot about business, I learned a lot of skill sets, but it didn’t make my soul happy. I dreaded going to work, and I knew I was just a tiny cog in a huge wheel. I knew I was working for the company’s stockholders, which didn’t satisfy me. I wanted to start a company that I could put my whole heart into, and this one really does that.
Joe: I’ve always wanted to change the world for kids, so I began my career in youth services and nonprofits in Austin. I then started my own youth nonprofit after school and summer program, which was everything I ever wanted in a kids’ program. The program itself was great, but I didn’t have any business experience, so the program failed due to issues with funding and finances and leadership and all those kinds of things. I started working with a personal growth startup to learn how to be better with money, how to do sales, and how to be a better leader.
After I was burned out on the 90-hour weeks of that startup culture, I read The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, and he outlined how I could create a product to be both financially independent and also make a bigger impact on the world. It never occurred to me to start a product. I had always been in services, which are hour for hour, whereas you can scale a product a lot faster. So I started looking for the kind of product opportunities he outlines, and that’s when we discovered (as we were planning to get pregnant at the time) the lack of baby food that met our dietary standards, which were important to us. We were big followers of the paleo diet, and there was no baby food that really matched that. It was all super sugary. There was no good meat, no good fat, not really any good-tasting vegetables. That’s why we started to create the company.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
Serenity: Joe and I alternate nights with the baby, so we each have the monitor every other night. Every morning one of us gets up with the baby and the other can sleep a little longer, which is nice. And then we hit the ground running. Feeding the baby, getting everyone ready to go to work. I try to get either a workout or a walk in several mornings a week. I start work a little later so Joe usually takes the baby to the office. He gets all her food ready, her clothes ready, and takes her in.
Then, we work 9-to-5 job in the office. We’ve got a team of 15 people. They’re working mostly remotely now, but a small number still work in the office with us and maintain social distance. At 5:00, I pick the baby up and take her to the pool or most often take her home, do dinner, play with her as much as I can, do bedtime, try to get some chores done around the house, try to spend some time with Joe, maybe read a little, and go to bed.
Joe: We have on-site childcare at our office. A full time nanny comes and watches our baby and another staff member’s baby. We spend about two hours every morning together with the baby, and throughout the day we can go and play with her anytime we want. But day to day, it’s a lot of meetings. We spend a lot of time managing other people, checking in on projects. Sometimes, we have an interview or two. I talk to a lot of investors. We do retailer pitches, high-level strategy meetings, that kind of thing. On weekends, we try to do nothing but hang out with each other. I try to get extreme sports in at least once or twice a week: waterskiing, mountain biking, etc. I need that. I bike to work a lot. We’re really close to the office, so I can bring Della in on the bike trailer. Two or three days a week, at least, I ride her to and from work.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?
Joe: Love is everything. The only thing kids really need is to feel loved and supported. That comes through spending time with people who love them. A teacher or other family members or a nanny is great, but there’s nothing better than the love and attention of parents.
It’s also modeling! I’ve learned that I’m raising my daughter a lot of the way my parents raised me, whether that’s good or bad. I’ve had to actively challenge some of the behaviors I didn’t like. If I don’t spend time with my kid, they may not spend time with their kid. Generation upon generation. It can be detrimental to their development or do damage to the relationship between me and my child, which really makes my life harder because the relationship is really where cooperative behavior comes from. A lot of acting out or behavior challenges are a child trying to get attention. It can be really stressful for the parent to deal with that, so it’s in our best interest to give them plenty of attention and build that relationship.
Serenity: After Della weaned, when she was about one year old, I started traveling for work again, which I hadn’t done for a year and a half. The stress that I felt from not being with her was bad for the whole family. When I got back home, she wouldn’t run to me with open arms. She just sort of looked at me and looked back down at whatever she was playing with. I think her feelings were hurt that I had abandoned her for three days. Part of the way I stay grounded is to be present with myself, my kid and my husband. That is really important for the whole family.
On the flip side, can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?
Joe: First of all, what’s all this for? What’s the point of working, making money, building a legacy if it’s not for being happy with our family? That’s the whole point. If we sacrifice time with each other and our kids for that, it’s all for nothing. She’d rather have me than have money. She doesn’t care about money. Plus it’s a lot more fun. I enjoy playing with Della a lot more than working. Just from a sheer happiness or pleasure standpoint, what’s the point of life if I’m not going to have fun?
I’ve never believed in the “build stuff now for payoff later” philosophy. That later payoff keeps getting delayed. The 4-Hour Workweek talks about this a lot, how we work thirty years so that we can retire and then be happy. People retire and then it’s like, “What do we do now?” They’ve lost their whole lives. Let’s just be happy now, and our children are the happiest thing. These moments of development that she’s having are never repeatable. These are some of the most magical times. Our first child, the first time we get to see our child developing like this. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
Serenity: I think Joe hit the nail on the head when he said that it’s more fun. I have so much more fun in my life now that I have a baby, a kid. (She’s two, so she’s kind of a baby, kind of a kid.) They’re just so much fun. Anything can be fun. Today we were walking down stairs, and she was walking in this goofy way, and then I started walking a goofy way, and it became a fun thing. Something boring like walking down stairs or eating or just hanging out with her can be a lot of fun. She’s exploring and learning new things. I get to look at the world through a child’s innocent eyes, or look at things how she’s seeing things for the first time. It harkens me back to my own childhood when I was exploring and learning these things. It brings back warm, fuzzy feelings.
According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?
Serenity: I like cooking with her. We both cook a lot. We eat really healthy, and we value that. We let her stir the eggs, let her cut the butter, have her hold onto the spatula. She just thinks it’s great, and all I’m doing is my normal stuff but a little slower. To have a two-year-old help with the cooking isn’t exactly lots of help, but it sure is a lot more fun.
Joe: Every Sunday, there’s this thing called ecstatic dance, where there’s two hours of free-form dancing, which used to be in person. I used to take Della to that, and now it’s all virtual. We dance together for two hours. She dances, she plays, she runs around. Serenity goes away and it’s me-and-Della time to hang out and dance.
She likes physical play a lot, so almost every day I engage in some kind of physical play with her: tossing her or flipping her or doing things that make her squeal. She loves the swing, so we take her out back and push her in the swing. We also have a hammock in the back, and she likes to sit in there with me. We read books or just play or whatever. We like to go on walks in the woods, and she really likes to go to the pool.
Serenity: I like to take her to the pool.
Her first word was “book.” She’s a book fanatic, so I love sitting down and reading her books. I love looking at Joe, watching him read her books. She just thinks it’s the best.
Joe: We eat dinner together almost every night. Then, we read books and sing songs for bedtime every night. So whoever’s bed time it is (we alternate), we spend a lot of time reading stories, singing songs, and rocking her.
We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.
Serenity: For me, a big one is that I hired a housekeeper. I decided it was worth it to spend money on something that I didn’t enjoy anyway and took time away from my family.
Joe: We use our calendars really thoroughly. We schedule time on and off with Della. If one of us needs the evening or the morning, we schedule the other person with her, which really allows us the freedom to make sure that A) Della has cover, so we don’t both book something, and B) when we are on Della duty, we can be fully present with her. I know there will be a time coming where I can work, so I can really put my full attention on her.
Serenity: Another big one is my phone. Conveniently, she begs for the phone whenever I get it out, so I try not to use it, and it really helps me not get distracted by working or looking at my phone and just lets me spend more quality time with her. When I’m with her, I’m present with her.
Joe: Serenity taught me how not to work on weekends. That was a big one. There are two whole days a week when we can do nothing but hang out as a family if we want to. There’s no obligation, nobody else is requiring anything. It’s not like anybody is asking me for things. Or at least we’ve trained our staff not to. Maybe that’s really the thing: we’ve created a company culture where weekends and vacations are sacred, and you don’t work during them. Everything kind of shuts down, and we’ve really had a lot of time on those weekends to hang out and drink coffee on the porch in the morning or take a walk around the neighborhood, or go work in the community garden. We savor that weekend time.
Also, for vacations, we found the secret is to take a family member, a mother-in-law or a sister or somebody, who can help with the baby because otherwise it’s just not a vacation. You spend the whole time chasing the baby and dealing with all the hassle. Before, we would leave the baby with someone else to go on vacation, and we missed her so much, so that was not a good vacation either!
Joe: We had a great Mexico trip with my mom and my sister and her family. We were able to have some time by ourselves while they watched the kids, and that was a really great way to do a vacation.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
Joe: Marshall Rosenberg said, “If you want to suffer, have kids, and then believe there’s such a thing as a ‘good parent’.” There’s no such thing as a good or bad parent. I think that’s a misnomer. We’re going to make mistakes, so the best we can do is be really present with Della, with our own mistakes, and with our own unconscious behaviors. We own up to them, apologize to her (or to each other) when necessary, and really learn how to break some of those patterns that probably came from our parents and childhoods.
We’ve read some really great books, listened to some podcasts. If there is such thing as a “good parent” it is a humble parent. One who says, “Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m going to figure this out moment to moment. I’m going to figure out my unique child.” Our marriage has changed a lot also, so it’s figuring out how we navigate our new relationship. We ask that question all the time and strive to do the best we can.
Serenity: What I’m really going for is to show her as much love as possible. In the times when I’m not showing her a ton of love, like if I get mad that she peed on the stairs while potting training, then it’s my job to own my own anger and not project it onto her. She didn’t do anything wrong. She’s just learning how to potty train.
It takes calming down, getting some space when I need to take my own space, and talking to her like she’s a person. She is a little person! We treat her very respectfully, like her own autonomous person. We go back to her and say, “Hey, I’m sorry that I yelled at you for peeing on the stairs. I’m really going to try hard not to do that again because that probably didn’t feel very good.” I’m owning my own stuff.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
Joe: She’s two, but I don’t think it’s ever too early to start. I think modeling is huge here, our modeling that we’ve dreamed big, that we’re taking on big stuff, and that we’ll continue to do that throughout her life. I think that will really inspire her.
We read her lots of exciting books that have different big characters, astronauts, doctors, pilots, to show her different options for what’s possible. This is an attitude that we have about our own lives, and aim to pass on that we believe she can do anything. I’m really big on letting her try things, letting her do it on her own. I help her if she asks, but I encourage her to try as hard as she can before I help, whether she’s climbing up onto the high chair or opening a lid. If I think the lid is actually easy enough that she can get it, I’ll ask her to try harder before I help her and she often will get it and feel excited.
Serenity: For me, it’s a little more abstract. When she was around 18 months old, or maybe a year old, she fell in love with the moon. She’d talk about the moon. We would be outside in the middle of the day, and she would say, “Moon.” I’d look, and it’s right there! She just loved the moon, and she tried to reach the moon so many times.
She used to get really upset that she couldn’t reach it. I thought about saying, “No, you can’t touch the moon.” Then. I just decided to let her try. I’m like, “Let’s get closer. Let’s see how high you can reach.” And she’d reach and go, “Ooh, ooh!” Now it’s a game. I think she knows now that she may not ever actually reach the moon, but when she’s trying to reach something else, like the top of a roof or whatever, she’ll still reach for it and try.
Joe: She might reach the moon, too!
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?
Serenity: It’s all about my own happiness and my level of stress. I do a lot to stay low-stress. My best friend is a pilot, and he said that when you learn how to pilot a plane, they help you with your priorities so that you don’t crash and die. The first priority is always to aviate. How do you keep the plane in the air? For me, how do I keep my plane, (my body) in the air? I sleep really well, I eat really well, I work out, I have balanced time in nature. How do I make sure that I’m taking good care of myself? Otherwise I default to working too much, so that’s how I define success.
Joe: I would equate success with fulfillment. For me, fulfillment is that combination of doing work that is good for the world, that I also enjoy. Whether that’s work around the house or stuff I do with our kid or work I do in the company, that feeling of fulfillment is what I’m going for.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
Joe: I’m a big fan of The Unruffled Podcast. Janet Lansbury. She wrote a book called No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. Also, Authentic Parenting Power. I’ve been inspired by the works of Paulo Freire, like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and the general approach to education from a place of empowerment. And the free school movement, where we ask how we can create an inclusive world for kids so they’re not segregated off all the time. How do we value their input? I’m planning to continue to raise my kid that way.
Serenity: Brené Brown’s new podcast, Unlocking Us, has a ton of parenting gems in it. She talks about many resources. In fact, Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed is one that I just read, and I have already started becoming a much better parent from reading it. It really taught me how to honor my kid, how to honor her own instinct and her own intuition.
We had a situation the other day right after I read the book. I’d just finished it. We were in the front yard, and there was a lady walking by our house. Della came up to me and she said, “Hold you. Nervous.” I picked her up and held her because she was nervous about the lady who we didn’t know walking in front of our house. Normally, I would have said something like, “Oh, she doesn’t look dangerous to me, honey. It’s okay.” Instead, I was surprised to hear myself say, “Trust that instinct inside of you.” The Untamed book has been really powerful for me to help her learn how to trust herself.
Joe: I also really like How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk [by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish]. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication has also been really powerful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Joe: Mine is Vanessa Stone: “Things don’t happen to you; they happen for you.” That’s been really important for me because I’ve overcome a lot of adversity, and I have pain from childhood traumas. I recognize that all of that led me to be the person I am today and start this company. I am this person because of those struggles. None of that happened to me — I’m not a victim — it happened for me. Every time there’s a setback or challenge in the company, which happens every day, I try to remember that this is a new opportunity for me. It’s not a barrier, something to be mad about. It’s something to learn from and become stronger.
Serenity: For me, it’s “Fear is frozen fun.” The first time I ever read that was in Gay and Kitty Hendricks’ book, Conscious Loving. I don’t know if it’s their quote or not, but for me the scariest thing is often the funnest if I can make my way there. If I can find the courage to take the step towards the scary thing — like starting this business with Joe when we weren’t even married yet, or to talk about starting a family when we didn’t know if that was possible — I think that’s really cool.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Joe: I want to change the world for children. We are raising children who become the next generation of leaders and either perpetuate more injustice or create more justice and equality. Starting that journey of empowerment really young is the most important thing.
Right now, in my opinion, children are the most oppressed group on the planet because all of their factors of oppression compound. To me, the movement I want is to create a more empowering, equal, just world for children where they have their own voice, where they’re entitled to be told the truth, and where they are allowed to make choices as much as they can in their lives. We must get past this shaming, controlling way of raising children that I think is really destructive and perpetuates injustice.
Also, a huge part of a better world for kids is what they eat because our diet deeply affects how we feel and how we behave in the world. We want to continue to make nutrient-dense foods that taste great to kids and are convenient for parents so that we can make feeding kids healthy the norm and easy for parents. That way, children have the physical building blocks they need to develop the emotional and social maturity and expression that our society needs of them to transform the world.
Serenity: Right now, if you’re wealthy enough, you can hire a private chef to feed your kid super healthy food all the time, every meal if you want, but access to that really healthy food isn’t available in that way for everyone. What we’re trying to do here is to provide education and to provide access to those super healthy ingredients so that parents can afford them.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Joe & Serenity: Thank you!!