As a military mom of four officers (one in each branch), I have hugged my children goodbye and sent them into the line of duty more times than I can count. The dangers my children face every day are real and almost too much to bear: If I think too much about these dangers, fear takes a vice grip on my sanity.
Instead, I focus on each of my child’s ability to—as they say in the military—“embrace the suck.” To embrace the suck means to move forward, to fight on when the going gets tough. When I find myself alone with my spiraling and overwhelming fears, I remind myself that my children are experts in embracing the suck—my husband and I started our kids’ education in it when they were very young—and the lessons they learned serve them well to this day.
Over the years, many other parents who are want to prepare their kids for the world have asked us for the secret. Here are several of our time- tested strategies in the art of “sucking it up.”
Make your kids uncomfortable. Teaching our children to develop a callous against discomfort is one of the most valuable things my husband and I did to prepare them for military life—and any parent can do to prepare their children for the real world.
When our children were little, we camped the old-fashioned way: we pitched tents, hiked in the rain, slept on the ground, and ate charred food from the fire. No “glamping” allowed! One especially vivid memory was a family camping trip in Punderson State Park, Ohio. One day into the trip, a storm of biblical proportions unleashed six inches of rain within a two hour period. The accompanying lightning made it too dangerous to try to hike back to the car, so we hunkered down together in the tent.
Soon, the tent flooded and lifted our air mattresses off the ground; all of our children were afloat! I won’t be so cavalier as to say that we weren’t scared (not to mentioned incredibly uncomfortable) at the time. But the storm passed, as they do in life, and the night became a touchstone for our family when we needed the reminder that no matter the degree of your discomfort—whether you’re standing watch on the high seas or in 80 lbs. of gear in the deserts of Afghanistan—it will pass. “Remember Punderson!” we say. Every family should have their own “Punderson.”
No quitters allowed. A cardinal rule in the Brye family was that if you committed to something—a sport, class, or sleepover—you saw your commitment through, like it or not.
My daughter Katrina was 9 when she signed up to play softball. However, her enthusiasm waned when an eye muscle surgery distorted her depth perception and handicapped her ability to gauge where the ball was at all times. A season of humiliation she suffered that year: Every tip-off of the glove, every whiff at the plate, every misjudged pop fly, she wanted to quit, quit, quit.
From my perch in the stands, I was right there with her! It was almost unbearable to watch her suffer through the season, the frustrations mounting game after game. Yet, she and I both knew the Brye ethos meant she would stick it out until the season was over.
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Commitment is not always fun and rewarding; it is often gritty and challenging. But teaching our children the value of honoring one’s commitment no matter what was a critical lesson that has served them in the military. Plebe summer at the Naval Academy, mortar attacks in Afghanistan, five deployments in six years—the temptations and reasons to quit have been plenty. But I have no doubts that when the going gets tough, my children know how to see their commitments through to the end.
Assume life isn’t fair. This is one of life’s hardest and most stubborn realities—and even as an adult, I find myself wanting to press my clenched fists into my hips, stomp my foot, and whine, “but that’s not fair!” Any parent who has watched their child sit on the bench during the big game or declined from their first-choice college knows the feeling.
But resisting the reality that life is not fair will only amount to frustration and suffering. So my husband and I knew we must teach our children this fact early in childhood. The playing field will not always be even in life, so we must control what we can control and instead of whining about setbacks, use them to motivate you to work harder, practice more, excel as best you can.
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I knew this lesson was sticking once during a Cross Country match when Eric—my Marine—was in 8th grade. He was leading the race, until he reached an important turn, and because no guide was at the post to direct the runners, he ran 200 yards in the wrong direction. He dropped from first to last place in a heartbeat. “That’s not fair!” I wanted to shout. Meanwhile, Eric realized the mishap, turned, sprinted, and disappeared into the wood line with the rest of the runners. A few minutes later, the pack emerged from the trees—with Eric in the lead! His drive and determination—rather than a pity party—led him to win that race and many more in the years to come.
Face your own fear. Fears take all sorts of shapes in life. What about the more insidious ones, like the fear of failure, or of change? Those can be paralyzing.
My son Jordan, who is now a lieutenant in the Navy, was 5 years old when he decided to sing in the school talent show. I was terrified. What if the bigger kids made fun of him? As a preschooler he had been painfully shy. What would happen if he froze on stage in front of hundreds of students? He was insistent, so instead of letting my fears stop him, I helped him practice over and over.
As he marched out on stage I could barely breathe. And then there it was –a strong pure voice singing, “I’m proud to be an American.” As the students joined in on the chorus I knew it was O.K. I learned a valuable lesson: Never let your fears as a parent interfere with your children’s dreams.
Embrace the suck. Those three little words carry a meaning much greater in my family. Folded into that mantra are so many others that the Brye family has accumulated over the years. What will they be for your family?