He was 11 when he decided. He saw the place once and said, "Mom, this is where I want to go to college."
I smiled. This was my firstborn, and I was sure that 11-year-old boys had no idea where they wanted to go to college. I was used to his intentions to be a superhero, or, more reasonably, a professional baseball player and NASCAR driver.
Sure, he wanted to be in the Army, but West Point? I made no comment about the fact that he didn't like school or this was one of the hardest schools in the country. I was pretty sure he'd have to impress a congressman and a whole panel of generals to get in.
So I said, "All right." That was enough for an 11-year-old boy's dreams to grow on.
Have you heard similar comments from out of the blue? With no prior experience, has your child assigned you the role of Parent of a Military Academy Candidate? As the co-author of The Mom's Guide to Surviving West Point. I'm here to tell you it's possible to complete that mission. It is possible for your child to attend West Point, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, the Coast Guard Academy or the Merchant Marine Academy. Here are some tips for getting started.
First of all, never tell a child he can't aim for a dream. Yes, the service academies have high standards for academics, athletics and leadership. Students who get turned down for a service academy get scooped up gleefully by other schools that are thrilled to have such overqualified applicants.
So even if your candidate doesn't get in at one of the federally sponsored academies, his preparation to get there will put him in good stead for pursuing the next dream at a senior military college, ROTC, military enlistment or even (gasp!) in a civilian career.
Second, remember that this is not your dream; it's your child’s dream. You won’t be the one who gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror, then puts on your shoes (or boots) and marches through the day.
I know your heart follows all those things, but it is not your face in the mirror. You aren't the one lying awake at night planning, resolving and assessing. You aren't the one running the miles (and miles), doing the pushups, leading the teams, passing the tests.
There's a lot to do as a candidate for a military academy and you don't do any of it. You may support, encourage and advise, but you are not the one being trained to lead troops into war or to negotiate peace. You cannot do this for your child. Breathe, pray, wait and watch your son or daughter grow.
Third, let's talk about those high standards -- and not worry about them. Every service academy hopeful is evaluated on the basis of academic performance (grades and test scores), physical fitness (sports, medical checkups and a fitness test), and leadership.
Leadership is a broad category. Scouts, church, volunteering, employment, sports -- all of these provide opportunities to develop leadership skills and all of these can be brought to the attention of the admission board to fill out a candidate's resume.
The point is that academies are looking for well-rounded individuals. There's no need to stress about performance in one specific area. If your child doesn't have a 4.0 and didn't take Honors Everything and didn't ace the SAT, that does not destroy his chances of getting into an academy.
So do NOT pressure your child with, "If you want to get into the academy, you'd better. ... " Instead, encourage her with positive affirmation when she's working hard. Celebrate with him when he achieves his intermediate goals. Remind her that you're proud of her and her hard work all along the way.
That really is worth saying again: Tell that kid you are proud of him. Some parents have trouble with this. When the big goal is a service academy appointment, it is tempting to think we need to coach, remind, prod, push and nag him to keep him on track.
Stop it. You are not going to be in the barracks to coach, remind or prod so you may as well not form that habit now. Let yourself off the hook on that one; it's a nasty hook anyway.
Instead, be sure you tell that young person who's doing everything in his power 24/7/365 to reach for the stars that even if he pulls down a fist full of stardust and has to start over from scratch that you are and will be proud of him. Always.
-- Debbie Roszel is the co-author with Lisa Joiner of The Mom's Guide to Surviving West Point. She's the mother of a soon-to-be second lieutenant, as well as four other amazing children. She blogs about the joys of life in and out of the military at her blog.