We posed some questions for Joshua about his new book Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well. Here is what he had to say.
What was your inspiration for writing Safe House?
Inspirationally, it began with my own children. I understood the power of attachment and emotional safety from my doctoral research and counseling juvenile delinquents and troubled families for the past 15 years. Helping other families and knowing the research is one thing; applying it in your own home is quite another. The book came into fruition as a result of trying to figure out how to get our children to sleep at night! I’m not kidding!
Our firstborn was colicky and had acid reflux. Our second born had unknown stomach allergies. Neither amounted in any sleep for a long time. So from day one of bringing our first born home, we were already dealing with a major issue most parents struggle with—sleep. I knew the research on babies and brain development, particularly that babies don’t have the capacity to self-soothe in those first few months of life. I also knew our kids were in pain. Yet, my wife and I were exhausted, and quite honestly, bickering more frequently at each other. The rubber was meeting the road.
I remember during this time trying my best to pull myself out of the moment and keep the end in mind—meaning, at the end of the day, what qualities am I looking for in my son when he leaves our home as an adult?
My first answer was, I want to launch an 18-year-old adult, not an 18-year-old child.
As I looked more into the research, I found that the outcomes our generation (Millennials) reports to want for our children—happiness, good grades, or empathy, for instance—all are a result of the healthy development of the prefrontal cortex—problem solving, emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, self-control, etc. And all of these brain outcomes best grow in an emotionally safe environment.
From that point on then we began to filter every difficult parenting decision through the lens of one filter: “What is my infant/ child / teenager feeling right now? How can I respond in the an emotionally safe way so my child knows she is loved?”
I believe if we can come together as a generation of parents willing to filter our parenting through this lens, we can together raise a generation of kids who come after us who live, love and lead well as adults. That’s a legacy worth leaving as a generation.
How did your own experience as a parent inform your writing?
Ironically, I often found myself writing on topics Christi and I were struggling with in the moment. I’m convinced nothing has the power to simultaneously enliven and exhaust a person more than parenthood. Becoming a dad is the most rewarding task I ever signed up for, but it’s also the most difficult. I was exposed even more to how wretched my own heart really can be.
Because we struggled so much in the first few years with our two very “spirited” children, my heart was drawn to the struggles of being a parent. I think that was reflected in my writing. The book, though informational, became much stronger because it became more inspirational as well.
What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?
That it’s the posture from which we parent, not the techniques that matters most. Think about it, one “technique” today may not work tomorrow. And a “technique” that works on one child may not work on another. So discipline strategies and techniques will always look different, but the posture from which we apply the techniques shouldn’t waver.
Our ability to be emotionally safe with our children, especially in their most stressful and overwhelmed moments, is the foundation necessary for our kids’ brains to grow. Parenting is hard, but getting the outcomes we’re looking for can be simpler than we think. Parenting really isn’t rocket science; it’s just brain surgery.
What was the toughest part of the writing process?
While I was writing the book my dad was in the hospital fighting for his life. He had two heart pumps (LVAD’s) during the time I was writing the book, so a good bit of it was written from Hershey Medical Center in PA. Thankfully, my dad, after three heart pumps, is recovering fairly well.
During this time, our daughter was just a few months old (so nobody was sleeping) and our son happened to hit his “terrible twos,” so we were very stressed. We even lived part of this time with my mom and stepdad so we were closer to my dad. Let me clarify, my wife was living with her mother-in-law with a terrible two and a non-sleeping newborn. Try that for emotional safety J
Once we were home, our two-year-old found my home office, which meant I had to relocate. Most of the book was written in our frigid garage in the middle of winter with a screaming infant and a whiny toddler as background music. I complemented keyboard time with bouncing our newborn in an Ergobaby carrier while speaking into Dragon Dictation, occasionally interrupted midsentence to help Christi wrangle our son into compliance.
And you thought writers frolicked in cozy coffee shops to consoling downtempo? Not this guy. At least not for this book.
What part of your career has had the greatest influence on you?
Helping other families for sure. Seeing the real life day-to-day struggles of others certainly informs my work. It’s one thing to know the research, it’s quite another to help make it relate to the everyday mom or dad who learns to apply it in such a way that it changes how they parent.
I must say though, a very close second are the researchers, professors, and counseling leaders who have not only taught and trained me, but who graciously allowed me into their lives enough to see them live what they teach and do. That integrity matters and it’s something I strive for each day.
As a trauma counselor, you must’ve heard about some awful incidences. Is that how you came to become passionate about the concept of emotional safety as a primary need?
It definitely informed it, for sure. I remember meeting with a group of people from a village in Rwanda. One of the ladies in the group watched her husband and children murdered before her eyes in the 1994 genocide. The man who killed them was no longer jailed. He was sitting next to me in that group. Today, those two live in the same village. They told us how he often helps her with tasks, including carrying water to her home. Their story of forgiveness and reconciliation didn’t develop overnight, but trust continues to be restored.
Our brains become wired, or not, for relational safety. When we’re traumatized, especially in a relational nature (sexual abuse, interpartner violence, etc) not only will it impact what we believe and how we behave in relationships, but it can take a long time to rewire the brain. However, our brains can be rewired for safety, and that woman is a real life example. We’re broken in relationships, but we’re also healed in relationships.
How do you balance fatherhood and your career? Does one negatively impact the other or have they been mostly symbiotic?
We try to live in such a way that we would wish our lives on our children. I’m privileged to work from home most of the time. The challenge is that kids don’t fully understand work time from playtime. In saying that, neither do adults very well either.
I certainly don’t do it perfectly but I try each day to make sure that 1. Our kids learn the value of hard work and 2. They learn the value of playing without distractions. Work hard; play hard. This means putting the phone away during mealtimes. That’s a hard and fast rule in the Straub home. It also means once I’m with the kids, I’m with the kids. Emails, text messages, and push notifications don’t care about our moments, relationships, or your kids. They only care that we prioritize them right away. I want my kids to learn the value of hard work, but I want them to know they were always my priority.