Can Being in the CIA Make You a Better Parent?

BOOK REVIEW: License to Parent: How My Career as a Spy Helped Me Raise Resourceful, Self-Sufficient Kids

By Christina Hillsberg with Ryan Hillsberg / G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Reviewed by Marc Polymeropoulos, Former Senior CIA Officer

The Reviewer — Marc Polymeropoulos served 26 years in the CIA before retiring from the Senior Intelligence Service in June 2019.  His positions included field and headquarters operational assignments covering the Middle East, Europe, Eurasia and CounterTerrorism.  He is the recipient of the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the Intelligence Commendation Medal, and the Intelligence Medal of Merit. He’s also a parent.

REVIEW — We all had our parenting moments while working overseas for the CIA.  The time my son and daughter after a 20-hour flight were bludgeoning each other on the conveyor belt of a dingy third world airport in the Middle East.  “Don’t’ care” was my response to my equally exhausted spouse, as middle eastern security officials looked on in horror.  When my son threw a rock over a 10-foot wall that smashed the window of an embassy vehicle, and I was called over the embassy intercom to immediately report to Post One, where a chagrined 10-year-old was lined up against the wall with his fellow cohorts in crime.  “Well, he’s gonna be a baseball player” was my wife’s response.  Or on a more serious level, coming home after an attack on an embassy, where both my wife and I survived but our children watched from a distance as gunmen wearing suicide vests fired automatic weapons and tossed grenades on top of the very place where their parents happened to be at the moment. “Let’s order a pizza” was my call as we walked in the door and my children ran and hugged us.  And then, after some tears and a good laugh or two, I left later that night for an operational meeting.  Time to get back to work.  And my kids didn’t blanche.  These stories were normalcy in our household.  CIA kids are tough as nails, and we parented them as best we could, given the unique profession we held.

Christina Hillsberg (with an assist from her spouse Ryan) has written a wonderful, fun and enlightening book, License to Parent, which I read as a guide to raising children based on the skills that both learned while working for the CIA.  I read the book with a tinge of curiosity, because as noted above, being a CIA parent is no walk in the park.  The book really hit the nail on the head, and I enjoyed it immensely. The authors explain that what Christina was taught as an analyst-critical thinker, and Ryan as an operations officer (street smarts and situational awareness) are eminently applicable to child rearing.  And more so, these skills will help your children grow into independent, resilient, and confident young adults.  You know what?  Christina and Ryan are right.  And their lessons are probably what many should consider in the age of helicopter parents who simply don’t let their kids grow and evolve.

The authors also present a slice of what their two professions are like at Langley in a smart, and cogent overview (this must have been Christina’s analytic training kicking in). I appreciated the tutorial, as in my post retirement career, I have spent countless hours trying to explain to the American people exactly what CIA does.  (I believe strongly that it is an indispensable institution that is often portrayed poorly in the movies and the media.)  Thus, Christina’s smart explanations of the various career tracks – tinged with the friendly rivalry between the operations and analytic sides of the agency -will be of great use to readers not familiar with the intelligence community.  Ryan’s operational stories, designed to reinforce the parenting principles, also provide a unique slice of what life was like as an operations officer.

This book certainly was not written for me, a cranky old “former.” But their descriptions of the CIA rang true enough that I found myself nodding when they both described the value-added that an analyst could bring to an operational meeting, for example.

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Christina describes her journey to parenthood, marrying Ryan after meeting him prior to a field assignment.  Ryan already had children, so Christina grew from a stepmom to a mom of her own right when they later had kids together.  Ryan had a unique style of parenting, that Christina says she embraced over time.  I am not an academic expert in parenting, so my comments are based on common sense reaction.  Should we all have “go-bags” ready for our kids?  At first blush, this may seem extreme to some, but in reality, it is just common sense.  Should we teach our kids to “get off the X,” meaning to get out of a dangerous area if the hair stands up on the back of your neck?  Seems like a pretty smart principle to me.  Should your kids learn responsibility by learning how to manage money at an early age?  Absolutely.  Christina makes sure to caveat her principles with the simple concept of “know your child.” Not all principles will be applicable, and Christina makes sure not to preach to her readers.

I too, am a member of a tandem couple, as both my wife and I were operations officers who rose to the Senior Intelligence Service ranks at CIA.  What that really means is that our kids were along for the ride over many operational tours, living on multiple continents. I am truly sorry our paths never crossed with Christina and Ryan’s, as I would have loved to trade parenting stories and obtain some needed advice from them as well.  Perhaps I could have used their assistance as one night I went out to our porch in the Middle East and found my daughter very intently writing down license plate numbers as cars passed by our apartment.  “I am making sure that the same vehicle doesn’t pass by our house, that’s good Dad, right?”  A strong scotch later, my wife and I laughed. Just and Christina and Ryan did with their children, we knew that our daughter was going to be just fine in life.

License to Parent earns a rating of 3.5 trench coats.


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