After five-plus years as a military academy parent, I realize I have learned a number of important lessons. A few came easily, some can painfully, many came from the wisdom of those who had come before me, most all of them would have been more valuable if I had known learned them earlier.
At the highest level, the biggest, I think, is that they will Figure It Out. Your kid is in a tough spot? They’ll FIO. Most of my son’s Plebe Year at the Naval Academy was spent wringing my hands from what I perceived as one crisis going to another crisis. In the end, he always did FIO.
And it’s not like I consider myself a helicopter parent. I just became accustomed to my kids asking for advice or guidance or assistance, whether it was something big or small. I should have known they’d FIO.
Since we’re in the final sprint toward Recognition, I’m leaning on a less macro lesson, specifically around phone calls.
I don’t know a lot about Recognition but the parallel I’m drawing from my USNA experience is a combination of Sea Trials (essentially 18 straight hours of physically demanding tasks) and my beloved Herndon Climb. I know the Doolies will be pushed hard and right to the breaking point, but the overwhelming majority will complete the Run to the Rock and earn their prop and wings.
That being said, my confidence doesn’t necessarily translate to the Doolies or the other Doolie parents. From what I can tell, some of the Doolies are hell-fired up about Recognition. Others are just rolling along. Still others are stressed.
To be honest, it’s likely that many Doolies are feeling a combination of all three. And this is where the lesson comes in.
Parents have (and will) receive somber notes or phone calls, sometimes sad and sullen. They can be filled with doubt and worries and questioning out loud not only whether they’ll make it, but if they’ve made a huge mistake. Here’s the lesson – that call or letter is simple just a moment in time. It does not necessarily define your cadet.
The pace at our military academies is frenetic and I don’t think parents of kids at civilian colleges really grasp that. That pace means that not only do things happen fast but that often emotions cycle fast. In a nutshell, the cadets don’t have the luxury of sulking for hours on end if they just failed a room inspection because there’s a knowledge test coming up not to mention that big chemistry project, oh, and Coach said she wants us to stay a little longer to work on a skill.
That means that if a phone call happens right after something negative, it may seem that the world is coming to an end. Conversely, if the call comes on the heels of something awesome, you may be convinced that magical winged unicorns are spitting rainbows and pooping glitter all over the terrazzo. It can be hard not to overreact to these calls. Most of us spend a lot of time anticipating those calls and hang on our cadet’s every word, hoping to glean as much as we can from each interaction.
But there once was a Midshipman who had a blog called Academy Insider (it has since been shuttered) and he shared a letter he sent home to his mom. Scrawled in huge letters, it read “I Hate This Place. I Just Want To Be Happy. Save Me Mom.” When he shared that story, my first thought was, “his mom must have had a panic attack.”
When I was on his podcast, I had a chance to talk about that moment briefly and he kind of laughed it off. It was simply a moment in time and it happened to be a moment he shared – for good or ill – with his mom. He went on to become a successful Mid, ascending to Brigade Commander, and his blog and podcast were great promos for USNA.
I see the roller coaster with my daughter. We don’t do phone calls (she’s never been one to like talking on the phone), instead using Instagram video chat. In our last call before Recognition, she ran the gamut. When the call started, she was clearly exhausted, griping about just about everything. Then she started to get upset about something a squadmate did and wiped a few tears from her eyes. Then he said everything was OK, it was just a lot of stress and she was tired, then she proceeded to tell me something funny that happened and she laughed out loud. She brightened up further when we talked about Spring Break. As the call ended, I could see her setting her jaw, knowing the finish line of Recognition lie ahead.
When my son was a Plebe, that sort of call would have crippled me for a day. This time, I smiled, clicked out of Instagram, and went back to binge-watching something on Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, I value the calls for the time we have together and what she shares, but I know not to go too far with the emotions. They are a single moment in time and there are a million more moments to experience before she finishes her time at USAFA.