Parenting Lessons from Private and Sergeant Jones

As you already know, parenting is a huge issue in psychological research and literature. One could literally fill a large building with original materials. Experts come from many different approaches, all with valuable input. My intent today is to tell one small story that has stuck in my mind for years. My character, a Sergeant First Class (SFC) in the US Army, is fictional but the story is true. The theme is parenting.

I spent several years at Fort Knox Kentucky working on a team of behavioral health providers seeing Soldiers returning from combat. They literally walked into the airport hangar, fresh off the bus and carrying their rifles. Many had experienced trauma, but with their family waiting next door to greet them, they were not about to give us any reason to hold them. So, we learned to recognize that thousand-yard-stare and schedule them for a follow-up visit.

In these follow-up sessions, there were a gazillion issues to address. Use your imagination. One that stuck out was parenting.

A little background: in combat, the senior enlisted Soldiers had phenomenal responsibility for the lives of their people. They were often called upon to make instant decisions that determined success or failure. For this to work, their commands had to be obeyed instantly. There was no time for a Private to decide if they thought the command was a good idea or not. Repeated training drills instilled compliance to commands. The Army is very good at that, for good reasons.

Now, back to Sgt (pronounced S’ardn) Jones. At home, he is a compassionate person active in the community and in his church. For most of the past year, his wife has been the sole parent. His 8-year-old son has adapted, learning what he can and can’t get away with. Mostly, mom is busy. Now, dad is home. Different rules. Sgt Jones orders his son to pick up his toys from the living room floor. As usual, his son is in no hurry. Fifteen minutes later, he hasn’t begun. When the Sgt. reminds him, the son rolls his eyes and keeps playing.

BOOM!  Insubordination! Again, use your imagination. Son is bawling and mom is furious. This isn’t working. That night, he sleeps on the couch.

The next day, the Sgt and I talk. We don’t have a lot of time so I have to make the point quickly. He cannot: allow his son to play in heavy traffic; stick a fork in a wall socket, or choke his little sister. Other than that, his son can make choices. Just for fun, I direct the Sgt to repeat after me: “I can’t MAKE my son do anything.” On the first try, he turns purple and sputters. He can’t do it. I threaten to tell his command that he won’t follow treatment and that he will be written up. Bad conduct charge and weekend duty “(I am lying, but he’s not sure). He tries again. Eventually, he manages to mouth the words, but I am in imminent physical danger. I have to work quickly.

I give him an alternative, a Plan B. “Tell your son that you would like him to clean up his toys. Explain that he doesn’t have to do it – that is his choice.” The Sgt’s fists are clenched, and he is ready to spring. I always seat Soldiers with nothing between them and the door. I bravely continue. “Then explain to him that if he chooses to pick up his toys, that’s a good thing; he will get to eat dessert, watch TV, and go to bed on time. Let him know if he makes a choice not to pick up his toys that are fine (Sgt turns purple again – he isn’t tracking). Dad can pick up the toys himself. However, that also means that he’s making a choice to go without dessert, without TV, and to go to bed early. Whatever.”

I see a glimmer of understanding. “Let me know next week how it goes.” I already know the son is obliged to try him out. Of course. Dad needs to persist.

It’s very important to get across to Sgt Jones that a family can’t operate the same as the Army.

There are so many things that we want to instill in our children. That they are loved comes to mind. Another one is that by the time they walk out the front door at 18 they have an absolute understanding that their choices determine their consequences. That is their responsibility.

Roger that. Sergeant First Class Jones gets it. 

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