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How to Talk to Your Oldest Child About Military Deployment

How to Talk to Your Oldest Child About Military Deployment

For several years, my best friend lived in Snead’s Ferry, NC. This happens to be really close to Camp LeJeune, and is predominantly a military town. When I visited, I realized how different military life, culture, and practice really is from civilian family life. I was struck by how brave, strong, and resourceful both the active duty member was, and the spouse who stayed behind with their children. It reminded me that the sacrifices made by those in the military are many and great.

This post was sparked by a question I received from an active duty Naval Second Class Petty Officer. My husband and I have a passion for helping military families, and I am honored to offer my thoughts, advice, and parent training to ease the difficulties of deployment. So, it is my hope that the conversations leading up to deployment may be a little easier for parents and children with the information offered in this article.

Question from Navy Dad:

“I wanted to seek your thoughts on calling a 6 or older son “the man of the house”.  I am in the Navy and while I am gone I tell my son that he is the man of the house.  I tell him that it is his duty to be a good listener, big brother, a helper when mom needs it, etc.  It was not until today that someone told me that I should not tell my son that he is the man of the house because I am putting added stress on him.  Do you feel that this is true?  Any thoughts would be welcomed.”

My response:

“I think this is a question that many parents in the military face. How much responsibility should the oldest child have in the absence of a parent? Here are my thoughts, though not comprehensive!

Expectations

Kids need expectations. They like having a set of guidelines from which to organize their lives. If you set neutral and calm rules (help mom, listen, be kind to younger siblings, etc.), these are helpful for him. Then, when he chooses not to do those things, it is not surprising or unfair when there are consequences because he knew what was expected of him. I do not see any concern in making sure he is aware of what you are asking of him when you are away.

Responsibility

On the flip side, oldest children bear greater responsibility and expectations than any other birth order role in the family. They not only put pressure on themselves, parents do, too. They are expected to be “perfect” because they are older, smarter, and more capable than their siblings. Parents expect them to help take care of things more, because the younger kids need more attention and time. All of this puts a greater burden on kids, and they often become too mature and less childlike through the process. Further, they learn that they get positive attention by meeting expectations of adults, so they become people pleasers.

Personality

All of that to say, there are other factors involved as well. Personality also plays a big role in this situation. Some kids thrive with having jobs to do and they love to help. They feel fulfilled when they get to have responsibility and they appreciate being given autonomy. Other kids feel crushed by the pressure and weight of expectations and the desire to make everyone happy. They lose sight of just having fun and being carefree in their attempt to “be good.”

Military Culture

Growing up in a military family also creates a different culture than other children experience, possibly changing the perception of what is “normal.” (Not ever having been a part of one, I only speak from the periphery and my experience in the field…) Seeing the discipline and lifestyle that a parent in the military leads, children grow up more regimented and with a lot of transition. They are forced to adapt to changes. This can create very laid back children who go with the flow easily, or it can be a source of stress for kids who like stability and consistency. This can also have an impact on the expectation to “be the man of the house” if they wish they didn’t have to be.

Balance

I realize that I am not really giving you a specific answer, but rather trying to provide my expertise and objectivity so that you can make your own decision. I think that a healthy balance of being mature and responsible as the oldest son, and being given the freedom to play and be carefree and silly with peers, is the most helpful approach.

Conversation

I would also advise that when you have the chance, and it is a neutral time (he is not tired, hungry, or emotional), start playing something with him. It can be any activity as long as his hands are busy doing something (Legos, army men, basketball, board game, etc.) Once you are playing, ask him this: “I wonder if you like it that you get to be the man of the house when I am gone.” or “I wonder if you wish that you didn’t have to be in charge when I leave.” Kids are great about telling you what they think, especially if they don’t fear the reaction and they are doing something with you. Let his opinions guide the way that you word things in the future. The intent might stay the same (he takes on more responsibility in your absence), but it is framed or presented differently so that it doesn’t add more stress and pressure to a little boy who just wants to have fun.

For all of you who are currently serving in our nation’s armed forces, thank you. Not only for your service, but for the sacrifices that you and your family make every day. I hope that you are able to feel confident in your conversations and preparation to leave with your children.

If you are active, a veteran, or a spouse of one in the military, please don’t hesitate to send me an email with your questions. brenna@thekidcounselor.com.

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