The article, “What Military Children Won’t Tell You About Being Asked, ‘Where Are You From?’” quotes military children who responded to the question, “How do you feel about being asked, ‘Where are you from?’” The overwhelming majority don’t like the question. Their responses created concern for some parents who are not themselves military children. The most concise example of this concern was written by Army wife “KMC.” On her blog, Today I Wanted, she writes, “I wasn’t expecting this article to […] make me feel sad for our children. […] I am saddened, because our children won’t be able to experience the life that we did.”
The intention of the “Where Are You From?” article was to give military kids a voice for one aspect of their lives. It was not to cause concern. As its author and mother of three grown Marine Corps kids, I’d like to put some parental minds at ease by addressing the “from” question, the impact of military life on childhood, how much power you really do have as a parent, and just how much knowledge is at your fingertips. i hope this will set some parental minds at ease. To this end, one of the military kids who contributed to the article, Shawn, an Army brat, also lends a voice here.
The kids who contributed to the “from” article are 16 and older. I didn’t ask younger kids because they’re rarely asked the question and generally don’t understand it. If a younger child is asked this question, the parent should answer for them because that guides the child and helps them mold an answer of their own.
Shawn: “As a kid I often said, ‘My family is from Kansas.’ Or some variant. This probably was based off of Dad’s claim to being a Kansas farm boy. In some ways the answer was a cop out, but it was an anchor of sorts, too.”
Comedienne Paula Poundstone once said adults ask kids what they want to be when they grow up – because they’re looking for ideas! Many military parents don’t answer for their youngster when someone asks the child, “Where are you from?” and instead wait to hear what their child will say – because they’re looking for ideas!
Shawn: “The question rarely comes up among children in a military community. We might ask, ‘Where did you move from?’ as a way of learning about the new kids, and then springboard to all the different places all of us had ever lived. I don’t recall being bothered by it until we first lived in a civilian setting and even then it was part and parcel of a bigger culture shock.”
In light of the concerns younger military parents have expressed, there are three important distinctions to be made between what the kids in the article said and what a lot of parents seem to have heard.
1) Any distaste the military child feels about the question of “from” isn’t because of the question itself. It’s because of the number of times they’ve come across a questioner who wouldn’t accept their answer.
Several commenters on the article (here and on other sites where it was reposted) have said, “What’s the big deal? Just say ‘X’ and be done with it.” This sounds good in theory and in fact sometimes it does work, but as the kids quoted in the article pointed out, their answer is rarely accepted at face value. This is why they don’t like the question: A lot of people won’t take “X” for an answer, especially if “X”=”everywhere.” As the parent of a younger child, you are in the perfect position to teach others that “X,” no matter what it equals, is a valid answer.
2) You’re right: Your childhood isn’t your child’s. And vice versa. I was raised in one town with one family. My children were raised in many towns with one family – ours. This made it all the more important to value our family unit with support, strength, and encouragement. I had a few friends growing up and I still keep in touch with only one of them. It’s not uncommon for kids who made friends at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to see each other again in Okinawa, Japan. Thanks to Facebook, a lot of children have reconnected virtually. “It’s a small world” has a special meaning in the military community, but don’t let this force you into a claustrophobic approach to raising your children.
The myth that military children lose out on real childhoods is just that: a myth. It assumes an incredibly strict definition of childhood. The military lifestyle does not itself detract from the quality of childhood. That idea is adult-centric and should not be conveyed to the child – not by the parent or anyone in the parent’s family or circle of civilian friends. Parents set the stage for how their child will feel about being a military kid. Being a military child does have its disadvantages, but having a parent who feels bad for them shouldn’t be one of them.
Shawn: “I actually felt bad for my kids knowing they were going to pretty much grow up in one town their whole lives. Of course, I envied them at the same time. I found myself searching out opportunities to expose to them to what I experienced: vacations, friends from other cultures, even food and entertainment. Military parents need to do this, too. Carry along those mementos from their ‘home’. Learn how to make Grandpa’s jambalaya or Aunt Margie’s scones and do it faithfully. Keep telling the darn stories even after your kids realize you have a dubious relationship with the truth when telling them.”
The best advice I ever received came after I said I wasn’t the kind of person to ask for help. I was rightly told I was already the kind of person to be a parent of military children so it was up to me to decide whether I was the kind of person to get with the program or leave my family hanging. That advice got us through every separation to include numerous deployments and moves. When you’re first starting out as a military parent it can be humbling and irritating to ask strangers for anything. Be confused, aggravated or embarrassed – and do it anyway.
Find the family service/community center where you’re currently stationed. Get the information and assistance you need to help teach your kids how to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. These centers are located throughout the world in the Marine Corps (USMC: Europe), Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard Units.
Research the next duty station. Share what you find with your kids, focusing on positive images and information. Show them how to keep in touch with their friends no matter who moves first. Make yourself aware of the signs of child/teen anxiety and depression and research peer resources and mental health options on and off base/post before it’s an issue. Waiting until you need assistance to start looking for options can be frustrating, sometimes heartbreaking, and a waste of precious time.
The possibility of mental health issues and/or raising a special needs child within a military framework might be what concerns many a young parent. The lack of awareness and resources that used to be the norm is often the reason some military kids don’t have as many fond memories as their peers. Again, it is the parent’s job to be involved, aware, educated, and informed about key aspects of military life and how their child is doing within it. Hiding out in housing won’t work and no one has to go it alone.
3) The question of “from” is a hot-button issue for military kids and one they wanted to talk about, but it’s not what ultimately defines them. When a child says, “I’m not from ‘anywhere’,” or “I’m from everywhere,” this doesn’t automatically mean, “I wish I’d grown up in one place.” It means only what s/he said. Projecting your own meaning onto the child’s statement distances you from understanding anything else about the child because you’re seeing everything through your filters instead of theirs.
Shawn: “This is critical because so few military parents understand this (or at least not until their kids are grown and they have the benefit of hindsight). Actually, saying, ‘I’m from everywhere’ or ‘I’m from America’ or even my own knack of saying I’m from different places different days of the week is a point of pride amongst brats. It makes us different and in the teen years it is a part of defining ourselves. When people don’t understand or belittle the answer it can feel like an attack on our identity.”
The majority of the military child’s experience revolves around the things that change (friends, schools, housing) and more importantly the things that don’t change: Parental support, education, love, and family traditions the parents create and carry from one duty station to the next. As parents we take what we do for granted, but our children start looking for these signs as soon as the first box is unpacked.
They are glad to see holiday bins even as they complain about carrying them to storage. First-graders assume the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus know their new addresses, but third graders breathe a sigh of relief when they see evidence. For our kids, it’s more than “where you hang your hat.” It’s movie night and going to the park after school every Wednesday. It’s the fragrance of your laundry detergent and when dinner is served. Kids count on seeing the same lamp on the same end table near the same knick knacks by the same couch against a wall covered in the same pictures – even as the house around it all is different. This is what tells military children they’re home. (This is also why, military or civilian, it’s not “just stuff.”)
Shawn: “It always mattered most to me to see the front rooms put together before the bedrooms. At least by the time I was old enough to think about it. The couch, the tables, the clock, the candles and the wooden cats that went on one end table had to be in place and then it was home. My own room was really secondary. I rearranged my own room all the time but the front rooms rarely changed and I did not want them to. And unpacking was always a party! It was fun being the one to ‘find’ the piggy banks [Grandpa] had bought us or the afghans Grandma had made, even the hand-crank egg-beater that we used when we made eggnog.”
Military kids have different (sometimes more) stressors than civilian kids. They also develop different (sometimes more) social skills. Don’t treat your children as if they’re deprived and don’t dismiss or ignore their concerns. Give them credit where credit is due and give them support when they need it. If you’re sad about the way they’re going to grow up, you’re talking about many years of “woe is me.” Is that really the legacy you want to instill? I’ll bet it’s not.
Shawn: “There seems to be less and less notion of continuing and even establishing traditions. Traditions and routines are vital for military kids. If a young military couple doesn’t have this legacy from their parents, they need to start a series of family traditions. It matters less what the traditions are, but more that they exist and are honored within the family. Those things that continue from one duty station to the next really define ‘where’ we are from.”
It’s true that my kids didn’t have a childhood like mine. And I didn’t have a childhood like theirs. Guess which one of us would consider trading places.
Shawn: “When I was 11, I would have traded in a heart beat. Now? Not on your life!”