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Kids Serve Too: Watch out for the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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We depend upon the resilience of our children to deal with the adult choices we make and the things we do not choose at all. When resilience begins to wane, the child, family, and nation are all in trouble. Our nation's military children are showing signs of that loss of resilience, and it is time for the 98 percent of us not impacted by our wars to show more concern for the 2 percent of the population that shoulders our military burden.

In the Army alone, more than 524,000 soldiers with children have deployed in support of the war effort. As of June 30, 2010, 142,000 Army children were dealing with the absence of a deployed parent. The Rand Corporation recently previewed a major study, sampling military children attending public schools in North Carolina and Washington State between 2002 and 2008. They discovered that children whose parents have been deployed for 19 months or more cumulatively had lower school achievement test scores than children whose parents had been deployed for less time or not at all.

The cumulative amount of time was more significant than the number of deployments. No significant variation was found depending on location of the deployment, or the age, gender and rank or status of the parent. The study also confirms what might be expected, that the more a parent struggles with deployment of the spouse, the more likely the children are to struggle also. It's obvious that the sooner struggling military family members can be reached -- perhaps even before they have identifiable problems -- the more effective services are likely to be

The Rand Corporation study includes many suggestions for what can be done. Most have been part of the discussion for a long time, and it is hard to remain upbeat about recommendations that don't go beyond vague exhortations to improve things. Doing more of an effective activity and improving inadequate services are both good ideas, although a bit of a no-brainer. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to focus on the three key areas where an impact could be felt, and start there to see what can be done.

Improve school services. School counselors need better access to information on services that can help military families. The activities of school liaison officers could be improved, and they should be encouraged to work more collaboratively with school administrators.

Improve mental health services. The military's behavioral and mental health care would be improved by better pay and benefits to attract more specialists. Free, community-based mental health care support should be developed through grant funding or other cooperative efforts. Telepsychiatry would offer a valuable resource to Guard and Reserve families in remote areas of the country. The Army already has a pilot program at Fort Bragg, NC, and Fort Drum, NY to develop this service. 

Improve community services. There should be more regional or statewide social events to minimize social isolation for Guard and Reserve servicemembers and their families. Also, a social networking site especially for military youth, with instant messaging and chat rooms, would be helpful.

The most obvious and critical need of all, however, is to know who and where military children are. Military leaders should create a method to give schools information about which children are from military families and the status of parental deployment. Ideally, this information would be fed directly from the Army to the schools. In the alternative, the Rand Corporation suggested a voluntary form be handed out at the start of the year to all school families.

This last gave me pause. Having such information is critical, but this way of obtaining it could have a deleterious effect on the children. Though we pay a great deal of attention to the stresses and difficulties of today's military life, most children cope admirably well. Adding military status to all the worrisome requests for information families are deluged with at the start of a school year may send the message that military children are potentially defective or ill in some way other children are not.

Overt methods, such as the voluntary form, might thus unleash a self-fulfilling prophesy. It's important to be worried about military children's ability to thrive, but could it be counterproductive to convey the message to the child that we think there's a reason they might not? For every child who appreciates knowing the extra attention will be there, perhaps there is another who decides there's little point in trying to thrive. We have to be careful that in our good intentions we don't plant a seed of self doubt or lowered expectations.

Military children don't want our pity, and they aren't an alien species. They're just children with some added stress in their lives. We should care equally about all children, but we owe something special to these. We need to find a way to make services for them feel casual, normal, easily accessible, and, where possible, fun. Grave faces and worried looks are not good for any child trying to make his or her way in difficult times.