Care and Feeding

My Son Wants to Join the Army

I’ve seen war and know how ugly it is. How do I convince him to change course?

Care and Feeding background with combat boots and camo pants.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a 55-year-old father of three, and my eldest son just turned 18. He has a 3.9 GPA, is well-rounded, and has been accepted to numerous universities both here and internationally. The only problem is: He wants to disregard all of that and join the Army.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of respect for our soldiers and our veterans, and I have absolutely no problem with the general concept of the armed forces. But I grew up under the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the moment I turned 18 in 1981 I was shipped off to Angola to fight against “communist revolutionaries.” I have seen war, and it’s not pretty. My son doesn’t know about the dirty side of war, only the more glamorous “defending the valor of the country” aspect. And whenever I try to talk to him about it, he brushes it off by telling me it’s a different era now.

He’s been military-besotted since he was a little boy, but I never realized his childhood interest would develop into this. Am I doing damage by trying to discourage my son from his dream, or am I doing my duty as a protective father?

—To Fight or Not to Fight

Dear TFoNtF,

What you’re facing is, in a way, the ultimate parenting dilemma. You know something your child doesn’t know about the decisions your child is making, and if only they could listen and do everything they way you hoped, they’d avoid the pain and heartache and horror you experienced, and everything would be fine.

I wish so deeply that this is how it worked. It bothers me, as a dad, that it’s not how it works. I mean obviously we know something that they don’t. And it’s not because we’re smarter or somehow better—it’s just because we’re older. We just got old. These wrinkles, these aching joints, creaking back, and unshakeable pot belly—there has to be something useful about them. This stuff we know, this experience we have, is pretty much the only thing we get in return. So it’s hard, very hard, I find, when we try to share what we know with the people we love the most and they just want nothing to do with it.

But there are two people in this relationship. And from his point of view, he has thought so incredibly deeply about who he is and what he wants to do. This was a huge, tremendous decision for him! It may seem to you that he’s only 18, but for him, he’s EIGHTEEN! That means 18 years of trying and struggling and figuring things out and getting them wrong and getting them right again. Many, many days and nights during which he had to face things on his own that you still don’t know about, may never know about. He’s not a kid, dad. To you, the conversation is about the military. To him, the conversation is about how much you trust his capacity to lead his own life. That’s what’s most important: He wants to know you trust him. So trust him.

Of course, you can tell him what you know. That is not crushing his dreams. It would be crushing his dreams to tell him he is wrong if he doesn’t follow your advice. It would be crushing his dreams to forget that he can do things you don’t prefer and still be OK; to forget that he’s capable of learning and responding and growing and changing direction. His dream is to make his own decisions, to be his own man. That’s the dream you don’t want to crush.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a divorced father with a daughter and two boys. I share custody with my ex-wife and the kids generally switch houses every other week, although they are all free to change that arrangement as needed. They each have their own rooms at their mother’s house, but my sons, who are 16 and 12, share a room at my place.

My daughter is leaving in August to go to college about a 20-hour drive away. Her brothers would like to no longer share a room, and I would like for the boys to each have their own space, but she does not want to give up her decorated area. Though my daughter will only use that room several weeks a year from now on, I do not want to send the wrong message to my daughter (or end up with her never staying at my place when she is in town).

I’m stuck and I’m not sure what to do. No one has been able to come up with a solution to this conundrum. Any ideas?

—Sophie’s Choice, but for Bedrooms

Dear SCbfB,

I agree that this is feels like a tremendous conundrum. You’re in the unenviable position of having to choose between your kids, and no one likes that. However, even though it’s emotionally complicated, it’s really logistically quite simple. If a person lives 20 hours away, is only home for a few weeks a year, and is still very much alive, then they do not get to have an entire room enshrined to their memory. That’s a harsh reality of going away to college, but it’s a clear one. Your boys are home on a daily basis, contributing (more or less, I assume) to the running of the household, and as such they should get first call on what happens to the soon-to-be-spare room. You can of course talk to them about the idea of keeping that space open for dear old sis, but, um … I can’t imagine any teenager volunteering to accept this. They want their own rooms, there is an opportunity to have their own rooms, so I think they should have their own rooms.

One compromise could be that when sister comes home, you can make the boys re-consolidate for the few weeks or so, giving her some comfort and privacy. This means cleaning up the spare room, providing her with new sheets, and supplying a few comfort items so she doesn’t have to stay in the bedroom of a teenage boy which, quite frankly, is a fate to which no one should be subjected. (Open the windows, burn some sage.) But I think this is all she gets.

I get that this may feel unfair to you if her mother is able to keep an entire room under museum tape for her. But if that’s the case, then maybe you can talk to your ex about turning your daughter’s bedroom at her house into a Pilates gym or welding studio or whatever, so that you don’t have to be the only bad guy here. Either way, you cannot buy one kid’s affection at the expense of your other kids’ comfort. She must face the reality we all face when we leave home: You are loved and welcome always, but the reality is you no longer live there.

More Care and Feeding:

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My 8-Year-Old Loved Gymnastics—Until it Became Hard Work

My Kid Is Too Smart for His Homework, and He’s Driving Me Nuts

Dear Care and Feeding,

Is it OK that my grown daughters (33 and 30) still call me “Daddy”? I didn’t think anything about it until one of their friends was aghast when she heard it. Over the years it’s been Dad, Father, Pop, Pops, Papa, but the girls always seem to drift back to Daddy. I still call my parents Mum and Pop when addressing them. I have never insisted on Daddy or forbidden them from addressing me by my first name – they just never have.

—Too Old to be Daddy?

Dear TOtbD,

What in the hell is this? I know that some adults like to call their parents by their first names, and OK, fine, but to be aghast at not doing so? I truly don’t get it. Your kids get to call you whatever they want to call you, so if “Daddy” is what they like then you’re “Daddy.” You didn’t insist on it, you aren’t forcing it, it’s naturally occurring.

And yes, to state the uncomfortably obvious, it’s possible your daughter’s friend thought it was weird because of the current internet culture connotations of the word “Daddy.” It’s often a punchline when a person expresses comedically inappropriate interest in an older man (or male-type figure). Maybe you know this, maybe you don’t. I mean I get it, it’s hilarious, ha ha. But this shouldn’t matter to you or your kid’s actual real life. You’re fine, your daughters are fine, your daughter’s friend needs to grow up, get over it, and worry about her own Daddy.