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On the Fourth of July three years ago, Petty Officer 2nd Class Ted Freese celebrated two big events: the birth of his country and the birth of his son, Carson.
But unlike most dads, Freese wasn’t cheering from the delivery room. Deployed overseas in Bahrain, he watched the birth over Skype.
“It was pretty different experience from what most fathers have, but I don’t think I lost any of the joy or the excitement that a father feels,” said Freese. “I think that Skype is a great tool.”
For military parents, Skype and other video chatting services have become an essential technology, helping them maintain a presence in their children’s lives during deployment.
Now that most deployment locations have Wi-Fi, Skype is “crucial,” said Michelle Sherman, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Science Advisory Board to the Military Child Education Coalition.
Unlike email and phones, Skype allows military moms and dads to interact with their kids face-to-face.
“Skype is the best thing, because you get to see [your kids],” said Machinist Mate 1st Class Kenneth Gottshall, a father to three who has been deployed twice for a total of 16 months.
Still, Skype isn’t a perfect substitute for parenting in person.
“Although Skype is great, you can miss a lot of non-verbal [cues],” said Sherman. “Tone of voice, body language… can be difficult to ascertain.”
Moreover, video chat is limited to two senses: sight and sound.
The hardest part is “the absence of touch,” said Jaine Darwin, a psychologist and faculty member at the Harvard Medical School. “You can’t give a kid a hug by Skype.”
Nonetheless, Skype can still contribute to the parent-child bond in a big way.
“Good parenting is your child having a sense that they are always in your thoughts,” said Darwin, and that’s something regular Skyping sessions can reinforce.
So how can parents overcome the awkwardness of building a relationship with their kids through video chats? We’ve put together some tips for military parents (and any parents working far from home) to make Skyping with kids a little easier.
1. Have reasonable expectations
Remember that your child may not always want to talk, Darwin said. Plus, “if you don’t have a warm relationship when you and your child are in the same room,” you might face the same issues over Skype.
2. Don’t push it
Forcing a child to Skype “can backfire… [and] create more resentment,” said Sherman. It’s better not to push it, even though it “can be painful for the deployed parent and frustrating for the at-home parent or caregiver” to watch the child turn away from the screen.
3. Find ways to be part of your child’s routine
Set up a consistent time to Skype, said Darwin, because a “lack of predictability” can be hard for kids. “Any way you can maintain some sense of normalcy or connection” helps, added Sherman.
4. Develop rituals together
Machinist Mate Gottshall built LEGO creations with his son when they Skyped together and used United Through Reading to record bedtime stories to send home. You can also color or do arts and crafts together, or leave lunchbox notes or little gifts around the house for your child to find, suggested Sherman.
5. Ask specific questions
If you’re talking about your child’s day, don’t just ask, ‘How was school?’ Darwin said. Instead, ask detailed questions and “make it a real conversation.” For example, “‘I hear you were painting today… Tell me about what you were painting.’”
6. Keep your interactions positive
Avoid harshly criticizing or disciplining your child over Skype, said Sherman, or making the interaction too “emotionally charged.” Keep the conversation upbeat, and if you’re deployed, try not to scare your child with bad news or violent stories from your mission.
7. Show appreciation
Whether you’re away from home for work or military service, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone in the family, “children [included], is making sacrifices,” said Sherman. “You’re missing out [on their childhood], and they’re missing you.”
This year, Freese is home for the Fourth of July. He'll be spending the day with his wife and two sons, the second of whom was born in March.
“We’re going to play with the dog in the backyard and just be a family, and enjoy the time we have together before my next deployment,” Freese said.