You’ve see me around. I’m the dad struggling with the stroller in the parking lot while manhandling three stuffed animals, a snack bag, and a very, very smelly diaper. Or maybe you’ve fled from me in museums as my boys and I arrive at the stegosaurus exhibit. But a few years ago, I was a Special Forces officer, a Green Beret working in combat zones with foreign military forces in Iraq, Bosnia, and elsewhere to secure American interests. Back then, I looked cool: I was loaded with weapons and ammo. I wore body armor and a distinctive camo uniform with no patches (a giveaway that fooled no one). I gave briefings to important people.
Today, I’m a dad on a mission to raise great little people, and I love it.
Contrary to what you may think, the military is great preparation to being a parent. In fact, my most valuable parenting lessons came from my time at the US Army Ranger School in Fort Benning, Ga. It’s a 68-day “painfest” during which you get one meal a day and four hours of sleep (maybe). You walk for miles on end carrying 80-pound rucksacks. You are taught how to patrol and lead small teams, plan ambushes, swim through swamps, live in the desert, parachute, and descend rapidly from helicopters on gym ropes. Ranger School teaches you how to lead and survive in combat. Graduates go on to leadership roles in some of the Army’s most combat-proven units: the Special Forces, the Ranger Regiment, and the 82nd Airborne Division, to name a few. Most important to me today, Ranger School taught me how to be a great dad.
Lesson No. 1: You must learn to be happy anywhere, under any conditions. In Ranger School, you were always wet from the swamps or cold from the mountains, and tired. You had to learn to perform no matter how you felt, put on a smile and laugh. You learn quickly to “embrace the suck” with humor. You can’t control the elements, but you can control how you respond to them. You can teach this to kids in small steps. I remember when we were stuck in security coming home from a family trip. My eldest, sensing my frustration, said, “Don’t worry, Dad. We are almost through, and then I’ll get you a coffee. Everything will be OK.” It’s great when this principle of happiness is taught back to you.
Lesson No. 2: Always pack more than you think you’ll need – whether it’s ammunition or snacks. In Ranger School, there is a realistic simulation for everything: Here is 30 pounds of simulated C4 explosive for you to carry 12 miles through the woods at 2 a.m. to help knock out an enemy radar site. You may jeopardize the entire mission if you do not have it. In the end, you decide to lug 35 pounds, just to be sure. For kids, snacks help immeasurably throughout the day. Snacks are cost-effective, you can pack healthy alternatives to chips and cookies, and if you have them you don’t need to find a store. I always bring a lot; you never know when you will encounter horses that need some carrots.
Lesson No. 3: Keep ’em moving. In Ranger School, the history of the US Army Rangers was an ever-present guide. In World War II, Rangers famously scaled a sheer cliff on D-Day. In the Korean War, they walked up and down Korea’s mountains. In Vietnam, Rangers spent weeks in the field tracking and reporting on enemy units. You have to have the stamina to run, ruck (walk miles with that 80-pound pack and a smile), and climb. Kids are energetic and love being active, too. Playing in parks, climbing hills, swimming, walking in the woods, and practicing sports are great ways for kids to expend energy and learn the importance of fitness.
Lesson No. 4: Planning is everyone’s job. At Ranger School, every mission begins with a detailed plan, an operations order. Everyone learns the entire plan: the timeline, who performs what tasks, and why the mission is vital. Kids love to know the plan for the day. A good plan makes everyone accountable for a successful mission. In Ranger School, we all knew about the commander’s intent, what a successful mission would achieve. Knowing the commander’s intent helps you prepare for the unexpected. For kids, having a plan is great, but knowing when to change the plan for some new exploit makes the day an adventure. All kids love an adventure.
Lesson No. 5: Treat and train everyone as a leader. At Ranger School, everyone was a leader. The classes are a mix of officers, sergeants, and enlisted personnel, but everyone will lead everyone else on a patrol at some point, regardless of their rank. At a moment’s notice, anyone could be placed in a leadership role. Not paying attention or bad-mouthing the other guy? Chances are you’d be put in charge at 3 a.m. during a thunderstorm on a mountainside. It’s best to be a team player. Kids can start developing leadership at a young age: The toddler can fill water bottles and carry them to the car. The eldest can check the diaper bag. The middle child can ask everyone’s snack preference. Kids love tasks, and they love to help. Giving them small and then larger leadership challenges helps them feel engaged and happy, and they’ll want to help more.
Every time I open a plastic bin in the basement while looking for Christmas lights, or whatever, and come across an old uniform with my Ranger tab on it, I smile and remember my days at Fort Benning. And as I try to raise my kids to be great people, I remember and apply all those lessons my Ranger instructors taught me so many years ago.