SparkNotes Blog

Real Talk: Growing Up an Army Brat Is Not a Healthy Childhood

The first time we moved, I was six. I had just started first grade at a new school that fall and was finally adjusting to being surrounded by kids who weren’t my siblings. Over the winter break, we packed up our house and headed over a few states. By the time school began again in January, I had a new teacher, new classmates, and a new home—and before I started second grade, we’d do it all over again.

Growing up an Army brat gave me a pretty odd view of the world, and I don’t think I realized the full extent of its impact on me until I left home for college and found myself surrounded by non-military people for the first time. It turns out that kids who don’t move every couple of years turn out way differently than kids who do. And while I don’t think I’d change my childhood if I had the chance, because I’m pretty fond of myself the way I am now, I also don’t think it was a very healthy way to grow up, and here’s why:


1. I had no idea how to make friends.

When you move from place to place with the frequency my family did when I was young (five states in as many years, all before fifth grade), you miss out on some of the key social lessons all your peers are learning, like how to be friends with someone based on common interests, not just proximity. And while military kids are, in my experience, pretty good at making friends with each other, making friends with anyone permanently is a little different—and harder. Throw in the added social handicap of constantly being the new kid and a healthy sprinkling of introversion, and you’re pretty much the class loner forever.

As an adult, I’ve gotten much better at finding my place in social circles. But as a kid, I spent many an afternoon crying to my mother about my lack of friends. Most kids go through that at some point or another, but going through it every year was enough to make me think I was an alien. In fact, there was even an entire year where my classmates told me I was.

2. Too much adaptability is a bad thing.

 The good thing about going through so many life upheavals before I even turned ten was that it taught me how to adjust to basically any situation. I’ve lived out of suitcases, shared rooms with all three of my brothers (at the same time, once), picked up new hobbies and speech patterns for each new location, and left behind friends all over the country.

But the bad thing about being so adaptable is that it makes you somewhat cold, a little emotionally absent. Not only does it train you not to get attached to things (because everything changes in a year or two, anyway), but it makes you question if you even can get attached to things. And when you change your personality each time you move, you start to wonder if you even had one to begin with.

3. Education is not universal.

 As a kid who was far too interested in the scholastic side of life, one of my constant frustrations was the inconsistency between school systems. I learned how to type “for the first time” in at least three different schools. In North Carolina, I sat through math lessons that I’d had two schools earlier, only to discover that my grammar was grades behind. My education felt weirdly piecemeal, with new standards in every state and random gaps I didn’t always fill in until I started researching things for myself.

 4. So much weird aggression.

 Since I have no experience with kids outside the military system, I can’t tell you if this is normal or not, but looking back, it seems like my brothers and I, and the kids in our housing area, were a bit… violent. We didn’t hurt each other (much) but the games we played were mostly war-related. We had at least a dozen parade rifles, our own camouflage outfits, and lots of freedom to make “bases” all over the neighborhood. We set up booby traps on the roads, threw mad-packed pinecones at each other, and played street hockey with baseball bats—and when someone got hurt, we just quoted the signs we saw everywhere: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” (Potentially the dumbest and least accurate slogan ever.)

 5. Single parent syndrome.

One of the more obvious pitfalls of being a military kid is that one of your parents is gone a lot. My father was away on submarines for months at a time, and then later deployed, and sometimes living in entirely different states for months at a time. The result was a lot like having a single parent, if the second parent occasionally reappeared and jumped right back into the family like he never left. Even though my mother did her best to keep our lifestyles the same whether or not my father was there, it could never be really the same.  Even though my brothers and I were used to it, it wasn’t exactly a life that encouraged closeness and affection.

All in all, I know that everybody’s childhood has different struggles, whether they’re in the military or not. And although I didn’t particularly mind all the moving at the time (sometimes it’s nice to be able to reinvent your entire life), I think the end result has a lot of potential to create damaged kids—or at least ones that don’t know how to live a life outside of the military.