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What The Marine Corps Taught Me About Parenting
My bespectacled battalion commander made this comment about leadership as we broke from a staff meeting one afternoon: “It works with your dog. It works with your kids. It works with Marines.”
If you don’t like kids you might take offense, but as the mother of a difficult toddler, I had no choice but to take note. Now that my toddler has grown into a smart-aleck 6-year-old, I see my commanding officer’s succinct wisdom: Good leadership works whether you’re leading Marines, your kids, or (apparently) your dog.
We don’t normally think of parenting as leadership. But the military taught me a lot about leadership and, as a consequence, I learned about parenting too. Here are 10 things Marines do that have helped me along in my parenting journey.
Perform tasks by the numbers.
With the speed and razor-sharp focus of recruits making their racks, so too can your children learn to clean up toys, make their beds, or get ready for school. Kids moving too slow? Calmly start counting down from five or ten. Parents of younger kids can find that counting kids down can help them focus and move purposefully. After all, there’s no reason that picking up legos or scrubbing the squad bay should take all day, right?
Practice confidence-building exercises.
Have a child who is afraid of the water? Take a lesson from the Marines, who have conceived exercises, like the Confidence Course, for the sole purpose of teaching recruits to overcome fears. Next time you’re at the swimming pool, gently encourage your kid to jump into your arms. With enough practice and help from you, she will overcome her fear of water, just like that acrophobic recruit who wouldn’t scale the A frame.
Like a husband tasked with buying shampoo for his wife, offer your kid too many breakfast options and he might just stand there. A few choices are good, but more than two or three can be overwhelming. Marines know this too, and while some Marines begrudge the dearth of options (East Coast, West Coast, overseas?) some decide to look on the bright side: At least fewer choices can make life a little simpler.
Have a curated reading list.
In curating a list, the Marine Corps offers a mini-education in command leadership that is accessible and applicable to all Marines. Don’t have time to curate books for your kids? I don’t either. But curating a list and making books easily accessible in our homes is something we can aspire to do. It’s a lesson we can take straight from the commandant.
Have a battle rhythm.
Have you ever missed a birthday party or school event? Is your family calendar a mess? How about establishing a battle rhythm for your family. Marines establish battle rhythms by building habits around important operational events. Using this same idea with our families, we can better organize our calendars around major movements like birthdays, academics, holidays, or vacations. It’s a great way to make life predictable and orderly for your family.
Children are cute, battery-charged bunnies from the moment they wake up. Why not make use of all that energy for something productive, like an age-appropriate job. Put your 7-year-old in charge of toasting waffles (but don’t forget quick instruction on knives and toasters). Put your 8-year-old in charge of helping little sister get dressed. Kids, like junior Marines, want to feel useful and valued. Take a lesson from Marines and give your kid a job she can handle and let her do it.
A trip to the grocery store with my kids might start with me saying the following:
- You will stay in the cart at all times.
- We will not buy a toy.
Marines set expectations too, normally through a formal process known as an initial counseling, where the Marine in charge enumerates to a junior Marine what is expected. No need to be formal or elaborate with the kids, just explain, clear as sugar candy, what you expect from his or her behavior.
Avoid comfort-based decisions.
As a kid, being impervious to peer pressure is a good thing. As a rule, Marines avoid taking the easy way by avoiding comfort-based decisions. Rain outside must mean it’s a good time for squad PT and the only reasonable time for a uniform inspection, is 0600. Kids can learn lot from doing activities just because they’re hard. Demanding interests can help build kids’ confidence, especially when making tough personal choices.
Use the OODA Loop method.
What once worked to convince a scatterbrained 6-year old to practice piano might be a miserable flop a year or two later. The OODA Loop method — observe, orient, decide, and act — can help keep you on your toes and adapting to the developmental needs of your kids. It’s a philosophy that compels Marines leaders to have a bias for action, and can be helpful in handling a situation at home with a fresh perspective.
Give the proper greeting of the day.
Have you ever introduced your children to another adult, only to have him suddenly fascinated by his shoelaces? Marines don’t have this problem. In the Marine Corps, the proper greeting of the day is the prescribed “way” to say hello when someone of authority crosses your path. Why not teach your kids their own greeting of the day? It will not only build their confidence, but also make you look good.
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