Memorial Day Special: Essential Parenting Tips From a U.S. Colonel and Spartan Dad
If I were a military leader, we'd be facing a possible coup. My family, now 86 days into quarantine, is a bunker full of people going AWOL, with moments of Mensa-worthy lucidity and ride-or-die love interspersed with deep internal strife. On this unique Memorial Day, as we honor all fallen servicepeople, Spartan Vice President of Operational Excellence Rob Neitzel has invaluable advice for bringing harmony to the house. He offered his well-lived advice, not only as a father, but also as a decorated officer. He also remembered those he served with, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kristen Dollard, Spartan VP of Content: Why is parenting so hard right now?
Rob Neitzel, Spartan VP of Operational Excellence and a Former U.S. Colonel: Being a leader is often visualized as being in a moment of imminent crisis, and all eyes are on you to say the right thing that inspires the team to achieve an insurmountable task. The reality is that leadership is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The hardest part of leadership is leading a team to do what they naturally do not want to do.
In our times of leading, we will be faced with aspects of insubordination, loyalty, and overall participation in getting to the final objective: living in our current times and functioning as a team.
KD: My youngest — an 8-year-old boy — wants nothing to do with the work, the team, or the to-dos. How do we get him to be a functioning part? My husband started explaining what military school was. We even watched the first half of Dead Poets Society.
RN: Standards are standards. Every time we adjust them to a tantrum, lack of time, or just not wanting to have the daily confrontation, we just adjusted the standard. When dealing with insubordination we are being tested, pushed, and prodded by our little ones. If we really want something to be a standard, we have to establish it as such. Make the bed, clean up your room, put away your dishes, etc.
In sum, hold true to the standards.
KD: How can I get him to care? He seems to operate outside the fray...
RN: When my daughter, Ellie, was between the ages of 4 and 6, being a "good kid" meant a lot to her. Back in my former life, as a military officer at Fort Bragg, each and every thing we did was measured in terms of below average, average, and above average. Perform below average too often and you were no longer going to be part of the special team. That factor drove individual performance at the highest level.
How do you translate that to your kids? I made a simple chore chart that consisted of the standards applicable to my daughter’s age. I used a simple frowny face (below average), a neutral face (average), and a smiley face (above average). Ellie’s chore tracker enabled her to have access to things she valued: books, toys, playtime, etc. If she did not meet the standard at a given point in time, she had the opportunity to correct it.
One cautionary tale. Ellie hated getting a frowny face. So much so, in fact, that she tried to hide the frowny face magnets on multiple occasions.
Related: Parenting Through a Pandemic: 7 Tips to Keep You (and Your Kids) Firing on All Cylinders
KD: They're everywhere and nowhere. What do we need to do and how can I get more loyalty?
RN: Our tribe, family, and our core organization is all our kids know. Loyalty is a two-way street. It is important to be consistent in what our kids need and tie that to opportunities to earn them. As parents, we are all things — chef, concierge, laundromat, etc. Jokingly, it is what we as parents do. It is important that our kids understand that you are loyal to them. In turn, their loyalty to being part of the team is supported by providing the things they value outside of the basics, like games, trips to the park, or even ... yes ... screen time.
When communicating with our team (now "the kids"), it is important to be consistent in expressing that the loyalty is unbreakable. Despite any variance from supporting the overall team, their acts of defiance and tantrums are always met with, "I love you, but this is the reason why we are not going to do x."
KD: The abilities and interests are so wide-ranging. How do we make this fun and easy for everyone?
RN: Ellie cracked me up in terms of exercise. If we were on a walk or hike, it was hilarious how, within a quarter mile, her legs would ache. She was thirsty, exhausted, and ready to stop. It is essential that you are proactive in your packing to cover these predictable protests. I learned to bring a small water bottle or CamelBak, and small bags of snacks like raspberries or strawberries. Having those supplies generally means at least 10 more minutes of hiking.
We would take a planned route, which included fun areas for her. There were playgrounds and rocks to scramble on. It was amazing how her tone would change the second we were in an area she could play.
Lead by example. After my back surgery, I did a lot of yoga. She would mimic, join in, and make fun of me, but she saw this as a daily routine and joined in. Also, understand your kid’s limitations. A three-wheel scooter was a game-changer for me. It enabled Ellie to keep pace with me and have fun on our walks at the same time.
KD: From rogue troops coming in to shake up the peace to new captains trying to take over, how do we deal with this disruption?
RN: As a parent, we encourage our kids to be leaders, ask questions, be assertive. When they actually do it to you, it makes you wonder what you created. Part of our culture in my former life was to conduct after-action reviews in all things we did. I would sit with Ellie and outline the things that went well, those that did not go well, and what she or we could do better. I was continuously amazed at how much of this she retained. Lastly, I go back to a standard is a standard. Regardless of who was the leader of our efforts — the nanny or school or another parent — I was sure to enforce that our standards were exactly the same.
More: Dear Dr. L: How Do I Keep My Kids’ Anxiety Down and Get Them Off Their Devices?
On Being Too Busy
KD: The commander in chief (aka mom) and the second in command are really busy, as per usual. What's the best way to handle this situation?
RN: Either parent is going to need some space at times to focus on other things outside of our little DNA clones. For some reason, our little ones find that to be the exact time they need the full attention of that parent.
When a babysitter, another parent, or a family member is supporting, I found it important to let Ellie know what her role at this time was. Simply, be a good girl, inform her what to expect, and at the end of that time, I would be back — and here is the fun thing we are going to do. Communicate on those terms.
On the Long-Lost Family Meeting
KD: The family meeting. It seems so long ago. How do we whip this team into shape?
RN: There are a few things I like to do for this. It is centered around meals, activities, and kids' choices for movies. I use sticky notes — for meals, activities, etc. — and put all of them on my wall. Next to this, I have every day of the week lined up. As a little team, we get to pick the three daily meals, daily activities, and movie night. I find this helpful because the family plays an active part in choosing, they have a visual reminder of what we are doing, and ultimately I get a means to organize myself. I have also used this for family gatherings and vacations with other families. It works really well.
On Making It FUN
KD: Medals of honor? Tours of Duty? What can we do to make this fun? What will REALLY work for a rebellious 8-year-old boy?
RN: “A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of ribbon,” said Napoleon Bonaparte. For my daughter, that ribbon was a mylar balloon. She loved them. So weekly, we tied fun activities and that balloon to her overall performance based on the previously mentioned chore chart.
Celebrate the good news stories, the things they do well. Simple little things like saying, "You were great this week, so this cupcake (with a candle) is in recognition of you being a good girl." Another fun and silly thing is to make a Wall of Honor. Create a Kid of the Week award, with a photo and a simple note about why they were awesome. Find an old trophy and repurpose it as Outstanding Kid of the Day/Week. Pick a day of the week, like a Friday evening, and celebrate their performance review of the chore tracker.
KD: Any advice for a family that's 80,000 miles away from making beds and chewing 32 times before swallowing?
RN: Just start. Set a standard together, communicate to them why this is important, and let them be part of it. Here are the big things, you tell them: "Make your bed, clean your room, do this or that..."
Let them decide what they get in return. Make the goals visible. We used a daily visible chart for our teams in the military, and that drives behavior at any age. Define the non-negotiables. If they do not comply, then this is the consequence. Let them be part of the overall process, to a point. The more included they are, the more likely they will follow the plan.