4 Military-Inspired Tactics For Teaching Your Kids A Little Discipline

Family & Relationships
A child goes through an obstacle course during a Marine Aircraft Group 16 Junior Jarhead Day aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Melissa Lee

I arrive to swim week — a week of progressively difficult swim tests during Marine Corps boot camp — a mediocre swimmer. On day three, my platoon of about 50 women file into the swim facility. Hard-nosed swim instructors in tiny shorts line the pool deck and behold our startled expression as we march in.

The requirement is to swim the perimeter of the pool wearing full utilities, boots, a kevlar helmet, and bulletproof vest. When it’s my turn to get in, I start making my way around the pool.

I don’t get far before I begin to sink.

My first instinct is to make sure someone sees me, which of course someone does. I start flailing my arms like an inflatable tube man in front of a used car dealership so I can promptly be rescued. The swim instructor just stares.

Anxiety welled inside my chest. Even though I know I’m not in danger — swim qualification is very routine and well supervised — I think, perhaps this is how someone who is about to drown might feel.

It’s at this moment when I remember something from my first weeks of boot camp: grimacing, whining, complaining, or panting does not yield sympathy in the Marine Corps. I go with my next instinct: I conjure my inner stoic, also known as military bearing. I stop flailing my arms and instead focus what little energy I had left on treading water. It would seem that this is what the swim instructor wanted because within moments, a rescue buoy appears. I climb out of the pool and into the gaggle of recruits assembled for remediation on the pool deck.

What the Marine Corps taught me about parenting »

Marines know that frustrating recruits is the way to teach discipline. Unless there is an emergency, drill instructors force recruits to be uncomfortable in the swimming pool, on the quarterdeck, snapping in at the rifle range, or any place else they can think of. In many ways, military discipline is all about character building and self-control in the face of a challenging or frustrating situation.

So what can we learn from the military to teach our children discipline and self-control?

Pamela Druckerman’s book “Bringing Up Bébé” connects this idea of teaching kids self-control and discipline by compelling kids to learn patience. Her book examines French parenting philosophy, which is rooted in deliberately teaching kids to wait. One example from French parenting is a practice Druckerman dubs “The Pause” — when French parents wait a few moments before consoling a crying infant in order to give the baby a chance to self-soothe.

In summing up French parents’ bias for making their kids wait, Druckerman writes, “Making kids face up to limitations and deal with frustration turns them into happier, more resilient people. And one of the main ways to gently induce frustration, on a daily basis, is to make children wait a bit.”

Not surprisingly, there are many opportunities to teach kids to wait without torturing yourself or your kids. By offering micro lessons in waiting, kids are compelled to manage their emotions when their wants can’t, or won’t, be indulged right away. Self-control is a key ingredient to teaching children, and Marines, how to be disciplined.

Here are some ways Marines teach discipline that can help teach kids too.

Gunny timing. Being gunny-timed is when a Marine is told to be somewhere at least 15 minutes before the actual time required. If getting your kids out the door is like herding cats, have them ready and waiting by the door five to ten minutes before you leave. The kids will benefit by actually being on time, and it will also afford them a chance to practice waiting.

Observing rituals. If a Marine is outdoors during military colors ceremony, she must stop what she is doing, face the direction of the music, and salute. Even if we don’t live on a military installation, we can incorporate small ceremonies for our families around mealtime, for example, to teach kids discipline. Instead of letting your kid dig into his meal, start a ritual — it can be spiritual or secular — prior to eating. This not only makes for good manners, but also teaches him to delay indulging his appetite.

Permission to speak freely. A junior Marine might request this in a formal environment when he has something controversial to say to a senior Marine. While we want our children to feel comfortable telling us how they feel, no parents appreciates a back talk. Teaching our kids to request permission to speak freely when they disagree with our decree is a good way to keep communication open, while maintaining boundaries and forcing kids to wait for a response, rather than blurting out that something “isn’t fair.”  

Lights out. Lights out is exactly what it sounds like: Marine recruits in racks when a drill instructor turns out the lights to go to sleep. Some training and combat environments might also have a lights out time. With our kids, I think it’s a good idea to go a step beyond a lights out bedtime, by also instituting a “quiet time,” free from television and screens. By mandating the family observe a “quiet time” even for just 30 minutes, kids are forced to be creative and find some other means of entertainment that’s not as instantly gratifying as the tablet.

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