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Take it from this spy mom: Our kids are capable of more


I never thought my 2-year-old would be riding a bike without training wheels, that my 4-year-old would be shooting a bow and arrow, or that my 16- year-old would get her motorcycle license. But today, I believe that giving my kids more independence at earlier ages is not optional — it’s essential.

And I suspect that your kids, just like mine, are capable of doing so much more — so much earlier — than we give them credit for.

I wasn’t always so sure that I would give my kids this much freedom. My husband, Ryan, and I spent years working at the CIA, and it wasn’t until after I married him that I realized the very skills that made us good spies could also be applied to raising great kids who were resourceful, self-sufficient and able to take on whatever the world throws at them.

Ryan had been implementing some of these techniques with his three kids long before he and I met, and I later embraced them as we went on to have two children together.

I wasn’t on board with his approach from the get-go. I was consumed with anxiety in the early days after our son was born, to the point where I checked his breathing throughout the night. It was my husband who first showed me the value of preparing our kids for the world by actually allowing them to experience it.

When I first met Ryan’s kids, it seemed odd to me that their favorite conversation topics revolved around end-of-the-world scenarios and compiling lists of the necessary survival tools. Even more odd to me was that all three kids knew how to do things like use pocketknives and shop alone in stores. They were 6, 8 and 9 years old at the time.

Ryan believed that when you talk openly about danger and teach kids these skills, it can empower them.

As someone who also worked at the CIA, I was familiar with Ryan’s operational training and, although I was a political analyst, I had gone through some of it. The idea of applying these espionage techniques to parenting, however, hadn’t occurred to me until I saw how they were already proving successful for Ryan’s kids.

Remember when you rode your bike around your neighborhood with friends and didn’t check in with your parents until dusk? Parents seem much less likely to give their kids a long leash like that these days — perhaps because the world has changed and it’s deemed too dangerous for the things we used to do.

While that may be true in some cases, what has changed is the way in which we parent. This generation of parents is much more engaged in their children’s lives — fathers in particular have reported spending nearly triple the amount of time with their kids than previous generations and mothers have also increased their already high levels of engagement. While getting more involved in our kids’ lives is a positive change in many ways, it can also have other unintended consequences. Anxiety and depression in children and young adults, for example, has increased nearly threefold in the past two decades.

So how do you prepare your children for self-reliance when we live in a world where helicopter parenting is rampant from the moment the child is born? Just like the CIA prepares its officers for the real world of espionage by training them for the extremely large amount of responsibility they’ll have, we want to prepare our kids to make smart, responsible decisions throughout their lives. It’s a process, and each skill builds upon the next.

Here’s a quick guide of some of the skills you can begin to teach your child to set them up for more independence:

1. Get back to basics. From an early age, focus on the basic skill of navigation and situational awareness with your children. In the event that things don’t go as planned, knowing how to use a map and compass and understanding north, south, east and west can be useful, even lifesaving, skills. Children 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 teach your kids to use landmarks to help orient themselves.

Once we felt our older three children 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, a meeting location and time to return at the end of the day. Kids should have the confidence and ability to get around a major city, find their way out of the woods or get back to dry land.

2. Familiarize your kids with tools. You may have trouble picturing your child even peeling a carrot, but they are capable of so much more. We believe kids should, beginning at a young age, have a basic familiarity with some tools that may help with survival or even self-defense some day. Our young children are introduced to a bow and arrow at 2 years old (with heavy supervision) and 4 years old (with more independence) — not because the CIA uses archery in clandestine operations, but rather in an effort to make our kids well rounded and prepared. At these ages, we introduced the bow and arrow as a tool that can be used for survival, i.e. to hunt for food if necessary, and also for sport. We teach our kids about pocketknife safety and introduce them to rounded tip pocketknives. When they each turn 5, my husband teaches them how to whittle wood with these knives. He started with sticks so they could roast marshmallows and hot dogs over a campfire. These skills are good for kitchen utensils and cooking, as well. Get them started young on knife safety, peeling carrots, using a stovetop. They can do it.

3. Teach them about online safety and make it an ongoing dialogue. It is so important to teach your kids how to stay safe on the Internet, especially as children have found themselves spending more time on screens than usual because of the pandemic. Our oldest children had cellphones at fairly young ages — 8, 10, and 12 — due in large part to the fact that we were a two-home family at the time and needed to be able to reach them. Those ages worked well for us, as long as we set boundaries and guidelines. It’s important to emphasize to your kids that they shouldn’t overshare personal information online, especially with people they don’t know. They should be mindful of photos and content they share, understanding that anything they’ve posted can impact their future. Research from CareerBuilder indicates that 70 percent of employers review a candidate’s social media activity, and more than half of those employers have chosen not to hire a candidate based on what they’ve found online. Parents must stay apprised of all of the latest apps their teens are using, if not exercising some level of control over their access. At the same time, it’s important to balance these boundaries with independence. We want our kids to have some freedom with their phones so that they can strengthen social skills and stay connected to their friends. We also want to build trust with them through giving them more and more responsibility.

4. Get off the X. One of the tenets of CIA training for the field is the concept of “getting off the X.” What is the X? The X equals danger, and it can be anything: a person, a car, a building, an environment — literally any situation in which your gut tells you to run. The longer you stay on the X, the more likely it is that you’ll be harmed. One fall evening a few years ago, we received a call from an unknown number. Our oldest had forgotten her cellphone and was calling from a gas station in town. She and her sister had been walking the half-mile home and noticed two men on foot following them for several blocks and turns. Rather than continuing to walk in the same direction toward the house, the girls chose a better-lit route to ensure the men didn’t know where they lived. They entered a well-populated gas station, where they asked to borrow the attendant’s phone to call us for a ride. My husband and I were pleased that our kids had made some smart, strategic decisions in that situation — and we knew it was largely due to the opportunities we gave them to exercise their independence from young ages.

The result: Kids who can take care of themselves when you’re not around

When you start to incorporate similar principles into your parenting, you’ll find that it becomes easier to give your children more independence as they grow older. You can’t keep your kids safe forever. All you can do is equip them with the knowledge, skills and know-how to navigate their way through the world with confidence and care. As you give your children space to operate, you’ll likely find that they’re capable of more than you thought, and you may even be surprised by how comfortable more independence starts to feel for your family.

Who knows? You may even start dropping them off in a major city for a day all by themselves.

Christina Hillsberg is the author of “License to Parent: How My Career as a Spy Helped Me Raise Resourceful, Self-Sufficient Kids.” She is a former CIA intelligence analyst. Christina lives near Seattle with her husband, Ryan, their five children, and two Rhodesian Ridgebacks. She tweets @Christinahillsb and Instagram @christinahillsberg.

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