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How a Veteran Can Answer a Grandkid’s Toughest Questions

Kids say the darndest things. Here’s how you can be prepared to share your military experiences

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When you pull out an old photo album or dust off your uniform, questions about your time in the service can start flying.

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Many of the inquiries might be welcome: They may be part of your moment to share some of your proudest accomplishments, as well as to extol the virtues of defending your country and the American way of life. Other questions might be more challenging or complicated.

In most instances, kids just want to connect with you. Perhaps they are thinking about joining the military themselves. Dr. Keith Myers, an Atlanta-based therapist and author who works with veterans, is from a Navy and Air Force family. His tips can help veterans share about their time in the service, without feeling pressure to talk more than they want to.

Start the conversation yourself, when you are ready

Initiating the conversation on your own terms helps. Instead of waiting for a grandchild to throw an off-the-wall “Did you kill anyone in the war?” or something like that, take the lead.

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Myers recommends inviting dialogue and open communication on your own, especially at a time when you are ready to field questions and deal with the potentially “big feelings” children might have about what you say. “Kids say the darndest things, right? They’re always honest, they’re always open, so they can get you off guard.”

Age-appropriate honesty

A conversation with a 17-year-old grandchild might be much different than with a toddler, but all kids can handle some level of honesty, Myers says. “Don’t keep a secret per se, but say something like, ‘A part of my job, I had to do hard things. Sometimes those hard things I was more comfortable with, and some of the things I was less comfortable with,’ without getting into the nitty-gritty details.”

Older children who watch the news and draw connections to modern-day politics might be able to handle more nuanced conversation.

Try a “high-low” conversation

If kids ask something difficult, you can share briefly and honestly, up to the limit of your comfort level. But let them know first that you are going to share a low and a high, or a high then a low. This strategy Myers recommends gives you room to pivot into a more positive story when needed, and also helps your family to see that it wasn’t all terrible or all great, as is often true for both military service and life.

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Validate the desire to know

Instead of completely skipping a difficult question, give some space to the child’s curiosity, even if you don’t plan on answering. Myers says, “Lead with empathy — like ‘Man, I can really understand how you want to know that, and you know I think someday I’ll tell you.’” This helps the child understand you aren’t skipping over a question they care about, but that you aren’t ready yet. 

Consider an “object of transition”

Objects like a photo album, dog tags, medals or keepsakes from your time in the service can be invaluable for starting a conversation. Another idea is to take a child to visit a museum that highlights the contribution of the military and perhaps even a part of history in which you played a role.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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