This article originally appeared in the May issue of HomeLife.
When Christi and I first became parents, we were blindsided. Some may say that easy babies exist, but we need firsthand evidence to believe it.
If difficult babies weren’t enough, Christi felt like she had the flu—all day, every day—for five months during both pregnancies. That also left us to wonder if the “pregnant glow” actually exists. For the sake of others, we hope so.
In addition to the ear-piercing screams of colic and lack of sleep, six weeks after our daughter was born, Josh’s dad went into the hospital to receive a heart pump. To be with him, we drove 21 hours—one way—with our 6-week-old daughter and 2-year-old son. Because Josh’s dad had post-surgery complications, we camped under the same roof as Josh’s mom and stepdad for three weeks.
To add insult to injury, a few months after we finally arrived back home, Christi was bedridden for three weeks with back issues, which required a portable potty sitting right next to our bed. The portable potty remains a fitting image to describe that season of our lives.
The irony isn’t lost on us that Josh received a contract to write a book on the importance of emotional safety for kids a few months later. We were in the middle of the biggest trial of our lives and now we would supposedly become “experts” on the topic of parenting.
Our story isn’t unlike yours. Though your beginning may not have been as difficult and though our circumstances may not align (maybe your trials had to do with your marriage or rebellious teen), our traumas, stressors, and trials tax us all the same.
Long before the research was in, Jesus told us, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).
The peace of God in the face of no sleep, a rebellious teenager, or maybe an unbelieving spouse is one thing intellectually, but something entirely different experientially.
We weren’t the most graceful individuals getting through those early years, especially with one another. I mean, who knew that keeping score of who was pulling their weight around the house wasn’t a good idea? Those first few years as young parents were a true test of our character.
As a trained counselor, and now marriage and leadership coach, I (Josh) knew the research on relationships. Everybody looks normal until they hit stress or duress. That’s when you see a person’s true relationship style come out.
Ask yourself, Who am I under stress? Are you kind to yourself? Or do you have a tendency to fall into a shame cycle, beating yourself up for how things are going?
In addition, think about how you react to those around you when you’re under stress? Are you passive-aggressive? Short in tone of voice? Do you withdraw?
These questions matter for the sake of your family more than you might think. One research study, “What Makes a Good Parent?” found that a parent’s ability to manage his or her own stress was the second most effective parenting technique behind only love and affection. Perhaps you’re beginning to see why our parenting really is all about us.
Outcomes linked to being raised in an emotionally safe home—like kids who have higher levels of self-esteem, higher academic skills, and who are more efficient problem solvers during preschool—are based on our children’s belief that, when they feel scared, anxious, or stressed, we will be available to receive them in a loving and capable manner, kind of like the heavenly Father’s way of receiving us.
Consider how your heavenly Father loves you: “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love. He will not always accuse us or be angry forever. He has not dealt with us as our sins deserve or repaid us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:8-10).
Is your relationship with God defined by this type of grace? This type of love? Or have you learned to react to stress in fear: Fear of your kids not turning out a certain way; Fear of your spouse not pulling his or her own weight around the house or loving you for who you are?
Neuroscientist Daniel Siegel summarized the research in his book, The Mindful Brain, this way: “In attachment, we need to be open to our child, feeling that safety in ourselves and creating the sense of ‘love without fear’ in our child.”
We find it quite fascinating that scientific research reveals that the condition necessary for the brain to grow is defined by “no fear in love.” Sound familiar?
“There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears is not complete in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19). In other words, an emotionally safe home is one where love drives out fear. Put practically, it’s the posture from which we relate to our spouse and kids, not the techniques that matter most.
What we’ve learned is that trials shape who we are as adults. I (Christi) never liked the word parenting, and perhaps this is part of the reason why. Pretty much all of the research on the outcome of a child points to the conclusion that our kids become who we are.
As Brene Brown writes in her book, Daring Greatly, “Who we are, and who we are becoming, is a much stronger predictor of how our kids turn out than what we know about parenting.”
We believe a better word to describe what it means to lead our family is becoming, because that’s more predictable of who our kids will grow up to be.
Here are six techniques that can help us “become” the adults our kids need us to be:
1. Take care of yourself. We tend to unconsciously parent either out of the way our parents treated us or, to the opposite extreme, because we hate the way our parents treated us. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself. In fact, a prerequisite of Jesus’ second greatest commandment (to love our neighbor) is that we love ourselves well. Josh and I started taking care of ourselves and becoming better adults for our kids by going through counseling. Truly, it’s the best thing we could have ever done for our kids.
2. Label emotions. We believe you can only be as spiritually mature as you are emotionally mature. Consider the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These don’t come by way of emotional immaturity. I (Josh) gave every juvenile delinquent I counseled a feelings chart in my first session with him. If you can’t label your own emotions, how can you understand your feelings and have remorse for those you have hurt? The same can be said for how well we understand those we love under our own roof. Becoming students of our spouse or our kids begins by being able to label what we’re feeling and talking about it together.
3. Practice the Sabbath. We recently surveyed over 700 parents, asking them about their biggest parenting struggle. The phrases “too busy,” “lack of time,” and “not enough time to be intentional” were the most used phrases in the survey. Repeatedly throughout Scripture, we’re reminded that we can’t give to others what we don’t have ourselves (1 John 4:19; Gal. 5:22-24). That’s why we’re told, in our weakness, to seek the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16), not the comforts of the world (2 Cor. 4:16-18). But doing so requires that we slow down long enough, especially as parents, to get to know God intimately. To set this rhythm in our own lives as a family, I constantly remember Jesus’ words—that the Sabbath was created for us, not us for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). We live in arguably the most individualistic and busy culture in the history of the world. If we allow culture to dictate who we are as a family, we’ll all be running frantic and all in separate directions. An anti-Sabbath culture is an anti-family culture. For the sake of modeling a healthy lifestyle for our kids, we must learn to slow down and implement a regular day of rest into our family.
4. Celebrate. How often do you sit down as a family and celebrate the work you did that week? How often do you celebrate that the mortgage was paid? Or that you had family friends over for dinner and had a really good time? Or that your kids cleaned the playroom? Or that your house feels homey, comfortable, and safe? When God created the earth, He celebrated. Read Genesis 1:1–2:3. Notice what God says about what He created each day. He declares everything “good.” Then He creates humans and declares them “very good indeed” (1:31). On the seventh day, He rested. Was He tired? Of course not. We believe God rested to celebrate all of the “good” that He created. In a culture running frantic, don’t lose the art of celebration. We built a karaoke stage in our dining room just for this purpose.
5. Date your spouse. From the aforementioned study, “What Makes a Good Parent?” by Robert Epstein, the next most effective parenting technique for getting the outcomes we desire in our kids is how you treat your spouse or how you treat a co-parent in a divorce situation. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to show them what it means to prioritize our spouse’s heart. Schedule date night at least two times a month.
6. Establish family values. The Instagram effect is real. If we don’t establish the values we want to live by, the lure of what other families are doing, or the culture around us, will dictate who we are and the decisions we make. Instead, we want to make family decisions based on our values—so we can influence the people and culture around us. In an interview about parenting, work, and life balance on our “In This Together” podcast, Matt Chandler said balance isn’t something the Chandler’s try to achieve. That’s because, “Balance,” he said, “requires everyone else to stay still.” And Lord knows that will never happen. Instead, find your family rhythm. One of the best ways of doing this is to create three to five family values that will help you know what to say yes to and what to say no to. You’re the only person looking out for your family. Don’t blindly do what everyone else is doing. Find what makes your family unique and then lead well. Your kids don’t need every activity to have an advantage in life. You’re their advantage.
Looking to continue to grow as a parent? Check out the Straubs’ new six-session Bible study, Homegrown.
Josh and Christi Straub are speakers, authors, and marriage and family coaches. Co-hosts of the “In This Together” podcast, co-authors of their new Bible study Homegrown, and they also lead an online community of parents called 22:6 Parenting. Josh (PhD) is a professor of child psychology and the author of Safe House: How Emotional Safety Is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well. Josh and Christi have two fun-loving kids, Landon and Kennedy, and a feisty puppy named Copper.