Recently, one of my mentors got in a car accident, leaving his wife with very young children and that was when I had my “epiphany”. Did I want my children’s last memory of me to be me exasperatingly saying something like, “WHY DO YOU DO THIS TO ME EVERY MORNING? WHY CAN’T YOU JUST BE READY FOR SCHOOL?!” or did I want it to be something like what I get to do now, “I am so proud of you! Have a great day! I love you!” I decided on the latter. When your children are young adults you have a lifetime to be their friends, but kids need parents to be parents by providing boundaries and consequences for their actions. Below are some strategies I have adopted from my military experience, multiple resources, and other successful parents:
1. Basic Training: Start with the small tasks and then work up to more complex ones. I showed “love” to the first two by doing almost everything for them until they were about 10 or 12. They still struggle with doing dishes, laundry, etc. as young adults on their own. My younger guys now have age appropriate chores with rewards, so they learn time management, responsibilities, and consequences.
2. Training Calendars (what I learned in the S3 shop): I hung a two-month calendar for events in a prominent place in our home. If something is not on the calendar because they did not tell us, then it does not happen. A smaller weekly tracking calendar on the side allows us to have a list of daily requirements that they check off and are rewarded for when they complete all tasks for the week.
3. Property Management and Accountability (what I learned from the motor pool sergeant): I put in a cubby system under the calendar. Each child puts their backpack, an outfit, and shoes for the next day in there. We keep library items there so they aren’t misplaced. In the past, I or my husband would get them up super early and still end up frustrated by the persistent “missing shoe” but now, they know when and where everything is and it is not a struggle. If the shoe is missing now, it is our fault for not supervising properly.
4. Leaders’ Recon (what I learned from my first company commander): They don’t watch shows or movies my husband or I haven’t pre-screened. Watch the shows your kids are watching and look for weak father figures, manipulative mother figures, passive aggressive behavior, kids who can only rely on other kids (not parents or authority), dishonesty, and self-gratification as the goal. When you find these, forbid or block them. I have failed to do this on occasion and have witnessed behavior and attitude changes after my children watched a specific show for a period of time. When I blocked those shows, there was an almost-immediate positive behavior change. As parents, it’s disingenuous for us to complain about these “unsocial” behaviors in the younger generations if we allow the “entertainment” community to “parent” our children.
5. Protocol and Etiquette (what I learned from my USMA cadets): They’re writing thank you notes. Not emails, not phone calls, but the old-fashioned hand-written thank you notes that go in the mail. These mean a lot to people. I did not enforce it with the older ones and have only myself to blame for them seeming to be ungrateful.
6. Toxic Environments (what I learned “not to do” from my first battalion commander): They have a “no yelling” rule. It started off small but quickly escalated in our home until the “yelling for someone to come to dinner” became yelling at each other for everything. With the new rule, if you want someone, you have to go to where they are and not yell for them to get their attention. The yelling in my house stopped and a peace we had not otherwise experienced has taken its place. Disagreements became respectful discourse and negotiations—skills that are invaluable as adults.
7. The value of “respect” (what I learned from my first Command Sergeant Major): They have a forbidden vocabulary list. Before I even had kids, I heard a parent screaming, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!!” at a child; I determined it would be forbidden in my home. No emotional blackmail is allowed, so to my two year old yelling, “I hate you!” I said, “Well, I love you so you can go to timeout for yelling that at me.” If you are having this issue with an older child, there are some good references for stopping emotional abuse in the home. We do our best not to curse in our home so as to not create a toxic environment and maintain respect.
8. Different bosses provide different leadership styles (what I learned from changing jobs): They are involved in more activities where other adults can guide them. My first two used to have trouble with constructive criticism, most likely because we did not have them involved with many outside activities. The others are doing more sports, more social activities, and more interaction with non-parents. But there is a balance to this, as you don’t want to end up just being a “taxi driver” they take for granted. Each can do one activity at a time and once the activity is chosen, they are not allowed to quit and must see it through as a commitment.
9. The Civ-Mil Gap (what I have learned from the last 15 years in DSCA and researching emergency management): They will be armed to encounter values different from our own. I raised my children with the values that are true to Service values. My first one struggled her freshman year in college, as is the second now, when slapped in the face with a culture that values self over others, cheating over integrity, sexual predation, and sexual/gender/racial biases. I’m determined that the next two won’t have as big a challenge when they leave home.
Final note, no one is perfect. If you fail, lose your temper, or do something you wish you hadn’t, don’t quit or avoid your family more by becoming a workaholic. Use it as a teaching moment and explain to your child where you slipped and then get back on track; with older kids you can even work out mitigation and accountability measures together. When returning from a deployment or long absence, sit back and learn how the household has been running before slamming down a hammer with lots of changes.
What strategies have you adopted to improve your relationships with your children and prepare them for adulthood?
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*These opinions belong to the writer and in no way reflect the views of the DoD or other departments of the US government.