I'm a Mom and a Former Spy: Here Are the Transferable Skills I Apply to Parenting

My time in the CIA taught me important survival skills that I am passing on to my kids. Here are tips to help other parents prepare their kids for whatever comes their way.

An illustration of a backpack with supplies in it.
Photo: Illustration: Kailey Whitman.

Woven throughout all the training at the CIA is this idea of being prepared. In the event that CIA officers can't get away from danger, they need to be ready to survive just about anything—from terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassy and local uprisings to natural disasters, just to name a few possibilities. And these are real possibilities.

In order to survive scenarios like these, CIA officers need to have the right skills and supplies. Operations officers at the CIA are taught survival skills early in their training, which includes everything from land navigation to first aid. They're put through the toughest and most strenuous training scenarios in hopes that what they encounter in real life will never be as difficult.

While what CIA officers encounter may sound like extreme examples when it comes to what our children might experience, preparing our kids ahead of time gives them the best chance to survive any scenario, even ones that may seem improbable. We do that by giving them the tools and knowledge to endure everything from the mundane act of forgetting their house key and being stuck outside until their parent gets home to natural disasters. Similar to CIA training, the idea here is to prepare your kids for emergencies with the expectation and hope that they'll never need to utilize these skills.

While my husband Ryan and I recommend finding your own area of interest to dive deep on survival training with your kids, here's a quick wrap-up of what we believe are some of the most important techniques and skills to teach your children. We also recommend weaving them into your kids' daily life over time in a more organic way. After all, we want these to be fun concepts that are multipurpose without feeling too intimidating or frightening to our kids.

Make Survival Kits With Your Kids

Whether your kids are young and ready for adventure bags or teenagers preparing to get behind the wheel, sit down together at the kitchen table and make their very own, personalized survival bags. Make sure they have an instrumental role in choosing what goes into the bags and that they understand the use for each item. An emergency bag won't do them any good if they don't know what's in there. Our son Ari's adventure bag has now become a staple for every hike, and as an added bonus, it doubles as a key part of his Indiana Jones costume for the next Halloween.

Teach Them to Improvise

Make sure your kids know how to improvise for when technology fails, and it will fail them at some point or another. In a world of cell phones and Google Maps, kids need to understand the risks of depending on technology to get out of trouble. In an emergency scenario, cell phone networks could be down, and your kids should be prepared. For example, on a night when our daughters realized they were being followed, they ducked into a gas station and asked to use the phone since they had forgotten their cell phones at home. In a perfect world, they wouldn't have forgotten their cell phones that evening, but this isn't a perfect world.

We have to remember that these are kids we're talking about, and they won't remember every piece of advice we've given them at all times. They need to know how to think on their feet. Make it a practice to walk your kids through various scenarios to ensure they have an idea of what they would do if things went wrong—they forgot a cell phone, their car broke down, or the road was blocked due to a landslide, for example. If they have an understanding that sometimes things go differently than expected and that they can't always rely on technology, that will help prepare them to come up with alternate plans themselves.

Get Back to Basics

In the event that things don't go as planned and your kids are forced to improvise, knowing how to use a map and compass and understanding north, south, east, and west can be not only useful skills, but also lifesaving. They should have a basic awareness of primitive navigation skills like where the sun rises and sets and how to use the stars to find their way.

In addition to environmental cues, you can also teach your kids to use landmarks to help orient themselves. For example, once we felt our kids were appropriate ages—for us that was 15, 13, and 11—we began dropping them off in downtown Seattle to spend summer days navigating the city. We gave them a paper map and told them a meeting location and time to return at the end of the day, and off they went. You want your kids to have this same confidence and ability whether it's getting around a major city, finding their way out of the woods, or getting back to dry land.

Designate a Family Meeting Spot

Speaking of meeting locations, we don't only use them for days when we drop our kids off in Seattle. We recommend having a secret family meeting spot so that if you already are or become separated in the event of an emergency like a natural disaster, you can find each other. You should have an option A and an option B. For example, if your preferred meeting location, option A, is your home, what happens if a wildfire is engulfing your home and you can't get there? You need an alternate location, option B, that you will all eventually make it to if and when possible.

Make CPR and First Aid a Must

Just like the CIA trains its officers in first aid and CPR, you should train your kids. Look for opportunities at your local hospitals and fire stations. For example, our kids are all CPR-certified and have taken additional courses on first aid and babysitting certification classes at our local hospital.

The Bottom Line

Incorporating techniques like these can help your kids always be prepared. I also recommend you continue to weave them into everyday life with your kids. I want to take away the fear from your family and instead give you the peace that comes with preparation, and I want you to instill that same peace and mindset in your children. And don't forget to make it fun.

Adapted From LICENSE TO PARENT by Ryan and Christina Hillsberg, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Bear One Holdings, LLC.

Ryan and Christina Hillsberg are the authors of LICENSE TO PARENT: How My Career As a Spy Helped Me Raise Resourceful, Self-Sufficient Kids. Both are former CIA intelligence officers who later transitioned to the private sector. They live near Seattle, Washington, with their five children and two Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

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