Military life involves frequent family separation. You will most likely be separated from your children at some point for a period of time—whether it be a two-week training course, a month-long field exercise, or a nine-month tour of duty overseas. Most parents fear their children will forget them or that they will be no longer needed if they spend time away from them.But this is unreasonable fear: Children desire intimacy with their parents. Therefore, the desire to connect with your child is a reciprocal one.
Having a strong relationship with our children is a divinely inspired, God-given longing of ours. Children are a symbolic reminder of a parent’s strength in the Bible (Psalm 127:4), and it is intended that “parents are the pride of their children” (Proverbs 17:6). A recurring motif in Scripture is that God desires for us to have positive and healthy relationships with our children. Despite the challenges that military absences might sometimes bring to our relationships with our children, there is still hope. The good news is that you, as a parent, may forge deep bonds with your children with a little imagination and forethought.
As a dual military family, my wife and I have both spent time apart from one other and our children. Events such as birthdays, anniversaries, and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have been missed. Certainly, it’s been unpleasant and unfair at times. Nonetheless, my wife and I have tried to make the most of the circumstances that have frequently been beyond our control. Even though some periods have been more difficult than others, I can say that our children have fond recollections of these periods of separation through a few purposed practices instituted by my wife and myself. You, too, can create similar memorable moments with your children.
Below are some ideas my wife and I have implemented—as well as a few that I learned from other military families—while we were away to ensure we kept a close relationship with our children. My goal in sharing these ideas is twofold: First, and foremost, I want you and your children to maintain meaningful relationships while you are away. I don’t want those weeks or months to be wasted on anyone. Second, I don’t want your children to see the military as an “evil monster” that always takes away mommy or daddy. I want your family’s military experience to be as positive as mine has been. Despite your occasional absence, I want your children to be proud of what you do.
When reading through the ideas below, keep in mind that the nature of your military absence is unique and has distinct limits—no two absences are alike. Adjust these ideas as needed to fit your specific situation. The most important aspect is that your collaborative efforts are enjoyable and/or meaningful to your family. Here are a few of our favorite things I do when we’re gone:
- Pre- and Post- Absence Adventures: When my wife or I are going to be absent, we plan family adventures geared toward the kids. This is carried out both before and after the absence. The goal of this technique is to create memories that will sustain us during our absence while also providing us with something to look forward to when we return. While separation is never easy, it is framed by two unforgettable events. We’ve gone to Disneyland, camped in national parks, taken road trips, and visited local attractions like indoor trampoline parks. We frequently involve our children in the adventure’s planning as well. Usually, the adventure is proportional to the length of the absence. For example, prior to a multi-month training, we went to Disneyland, and prior to a month-long field exercise, we went to Chuck E. Cheese, a family-oriented pizza restaurant and arcade.
- Toy Friend Memories: In this practice, both the children and the parent are given a small toy “friend” that represents the other person, which they carry with them throughout their time apart. Both the parent and the children take pictures with their “friends,” which are then shared with each other throughout the absence or at the end. For example, I made a Lego figure of myself, and my children did the same. We then traded figures, and I took my “daughters” to a field exercise with me, taking random photos of the three of us (me and the two Lego mini-figures) to show my kids what I was doing and to show them that they were always with me. My children sent me photos of “me” eating dinner, brushing my teeth, and spending time with them in other ways. This is a fun way for us to show that we are thinking of each other on a regular basis and to stay connected with what is going on in each other’s lives. We have used Lego mini-figures, Pokémon Cards, small stuffed animals, and others small toys.
- Sleeping Aid: For my birthday one year, my daughter bought me a Build-a-Bear stuffed animal with her own recorded voice. Her recording says: “I love you daddy. You’re the best daddy ever.” While her statement is debatable, hearing it still makes my heart melt. When I unwrapped the bear, she told me I had to bring it with me on all military trips (except field exercises) so I wouldn’t forget her and I was supposed to cuddle with it at night so I wouldn’t be alone. Both kids and parents can make stuffed animals like this at the Build-a-Bears stores or online.
- Pre-Recorded Book Reading: Children enjoy it when their parents read to them. My father-in-law introduced me to the benefits of this practice. Due to his living across the country, he only sees our kids occasionally. He made several recordings of himself reading books to our daughters in order to develop a stronger connection with them. This enables our children to follow along while hearing his voice. This can be taken a step further by making a video recording as well. As an added bonus, many posts have USO offices that provide this service.
- Letters And Gifts: Children enjoy getting mail. As a result, this is an excellent way to connect with your children while also creating excitement. If your military absence allows it, I encourage sending postcards and letters on a regular basis. While we were away, my wife and I would occasionally order small gifts for our children from Amazon. Another advantage of utilizing Amazon is that they can wrap a gift for you and you can send a note with it. We typically buy low-cost gifts because it is the act of receiving the gifts that is most important.
- Shared Spiritual Practices: Evening prayers from the Book of Common Prayer have become a part of my family’s routine. While this particular prayer book is uncommon for those in my faith tradition, it provides us with a consistency and direction in the spiritual life of our family. This practice is beneficial to our family when we are separated because it ensures we are all on the same page—literally and figuratively. I know my family is praying the same things I am and reading the same passages of Scripture on a daily basis. Incorporating this spiritual discipline in our family provides us opportunities to bond with my kids on a deep spiritual level when we are able to connect via phone, email, or letter. Examples of questions I ask my children are, “What did you think about today’s scripture reading?” and “What have you been praying to God about lately?” These kinds of questions create avenues to talk about substantial issues, going beyond the surface platitudes to the matters of the heart and faith. If you want to start doing this, there are many different prayer and devotional books to choose from. Find one that works for you and your family, get a copy for both the family and the parent who will be absent, so everyone can be on the same page.
- Planned Scavenger Hunts: Mysteries and treasure hunts have a magical quality to them. Consider organizing a scavenger or treasure hunt around your house with clues for each new location before your military absence. Midway through your absence you can let the kids know where to find the first clue—and then the adventure begins! Words of affirmation for your children can also be included in these hints, letting them know how much you love and miss them. While they’re having fun, you’re also building them up. Small sweets or gifts await them at the conclusion of the hunt.
Start Building a Foundation Now
While all these suggestions are helpful when a parent is away, nothing can compete with strong relationships that are cultivated in person. This is why I suggest you start build strong relationships now. Many of these ideas don’t have to wait until you are absent; they can be included into your family’s everyday routine. When you make them a regular part of your family’s routine, they become much more meaningful when you do the same (or similar) things when during a military absence. The experiences you initiate at a distance are informed by and fed by memories from the in-person events already practiced. Whether you have days, weeks, or months until your next absence from your kids, now is the time to start building a strong family foundation.
Reliance on God
Absences from our children are difficult—both for the parent and the kids. Yet, they do not have to be devastating to your relationships. Above I offered several practices that can be implemented to provide stability and connectedness during military absences. Yet, I would be remiss to not offer this last insight into building and maintaining healthy family relationships.
At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he compares two houses—one house built on a foundation of rock and the other built on sand. Both houses looked good and stable. When the storms and floods came, the house built on the sand was washed away. The house on the foundation of rock was still standing after the storm had passed (Matthew 7:24-27). Jesus explained that the house built on the foundation of rock is the life built upon God and his ways as described in the Bible.
Families built on the foundation of God are more likely to weather the storms of life. Psalm 127:1,2 warns us: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Implementing the above ideas to foster connection during military absences is good. However, let us implement them in a house set on a firm foundation of God and his ways so that our families will not be washed away by the storms this world throws at us.
A Prayer For Absence
Here is a prayer you and your family can pray while you are away: “Oh God, whose fatherly care reaches to the ends of the earth: We ask you graciously to behold and bless those we love who are now absent from us, especially _________. Defend them from all dangers of soul and body, and grant that both they and we, drawing nearer to you, may be bound together by your love, in the communion of your Holy Spirit and in the fellowship of your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”