A Former CIA Officer’s Guide To Teaching Your Kid Situational Awareness

Like any dad, I love sharing my experiences and passions with my boys. One skill is situational awareness. While I can’t share with my boys the specifics of my work at the CIA, I can share with them some of the skills I learned. We can bond over these skills like a father teaching his son woodworking or baseball. These skills also serve an important purpose that I think is critical for my kids’ success.

I do find myself discussing my CIA background a bit on this site. It was a tremendous honor to serve my country in the capacity in which I served. The experiences I had made me a better person, a better man, a better husband, and a better father. And now I am proud to be able to pass on some of these skills and experiences to my children.

What is Situational Awareness?

Situational awareness is simply being aware of your surrounds, understanding what is normal, identifying what an anomaly is, and being able to respond accordingly. We have seen countless movies where some highly trained spy has a heightened threat meter and always seems to be a step ahead of an adversary. It is like a mom with eyes in the back of her head! Minus some Hollywood exaggerations, situational awareness isn’t too different and is a skill learned by practice. The hardest part is not walking around looking at your phone!

Why Should a Kid Develop Situational Awareness?

First of all, everyone should develop their situational awareness. Most, rather, many people practice situational awareness while driving on the road. They are usually aware of other cars, sometimes aware of traffic signs indicating speed limits, and once in a while the occasional pedestrian.

Children should develop their situational awareness skills to prepare them for a world that isn’t always safe. Developing situational awareness teaches a kid our societal norms in behaviors in specific environments (e.g. shopping, camping, etc). Situation awareness also teaches kids to be assertive in their environments which allows them to be aware of the norms and know how to navigate an environment in a normal way. And situational awareness teaches kids how to become confident in public and in uncomfortable situations. But again, these skills take a lot of practice to develop.

How Can I Teach My Child Situational Awareness?

I play a game with my son whenever we are out. We simply call it ‘the game”, but the idea is to develop my son’s situational awareness, his assertiveness, and his confidence in public or uncomfortable situations. The game is simple: we go through a store looking for people and things that stand out. I help him understand the baseline of the store, or what is considered a normal behavior one would expect to encounter in a given environment. We identify potential anomalies of normal behavior. And we prepare a variety of action plans in response to certain anomalies.

Step 1: Identify the Baseline

Identifying the baseline is the key factor in situational awareness. The baseline is the behaviors and objects that are “normal” to an environment. Each environment has its own baseline, from the local Target to hiking in the woods. Establishing a baseline is critical to being able to identify anomalies, or those behaviors that are not normal. Anomalies aren’t always a threat, however, they are worthy of our attention and focus.

Using a shopping trip to Target as an example, my son and I talk through normal behaviors in the store. My son and I identify the difference between employees and shoppers. We discuss what normal behaviors we should expect to see in this environment. We also identify the condition of the products on the aisles and shelves. Typically, products should be in good order and not all over the floor. Additionally, we keep a broad eye out for customers going about their business shopping. We are constantly assessing the baseline, discussing the baseline, and updating our understanding of the environment. Different times of day or year create major changes to the baseline that are not necessarily threats. An example is larger crowds being more prevalent on evenings, weekends, and holidays.

Essentially, this allows my son to identify normal behaviors for different environments and act properly.

Step 2: Be Aware of YOUR Own Bias

It is easy to become complacent in your security, especially in safer environments. This is a form of “bias” that overrides your situational awareness. Overcoming this complacency takes practice to constantly observe your environment and keep your guard up. I am not talking about a paranoia level awareness, but a middle of the road type awareness.

Check out this PoliceOne.com article on the levels of situational awareness. On one end of the color-coded spectrum, “White”, you are totally relaxed and unaware of your environment. On the other end, “Red”, you are alert and have identified an anomaly. You are taking steps to address and respond to the anomaly. The ideal level of awareness is going to depend on your environment. Generally speaking, you want to straddle the line of “Yellow” and “Orange”. “Yellow” is relaxed but alert and “Orange” is activated upon the identification of an anomaly. You are then taking steps to further assess the situation.

At Target, we are at “Yellow” prepared to enter “Orange”. We are working on staying alert when I task my son with the procurement of essential supplies, well, ice cream, on the other side of the store. Naturally, his tunnel vision kicks in as he makes his way to the ice cream aisle, so we have to fight that bias and tunnel vision.

At the park the bias for my son to go to “White” is stronger. It is a safe environment. Dad is nearby paying attention and the dog is always on “Orange” teetering on “Red”. Again, with practice, my son will work on staying in that “Yellow” as anything can happen in any environment and not all situations worthy of attention are “dangerous”. It could be as simple as paying attention to oncoming storm clouds.

Step 3: Be On The Lookout For Anomaly In The Baseline

A major point of situational awareness is identifying anomalies in the baseline. We have already assessed what the baseline should be in a given environment and are now onto identifying those anomalies. This could be an odd individual or group behavior. It can also be a sign that some event is taking place or about to take place. Not all anomalies are threats, but all threats are anomalies. Once you have identified an anomaly, you need to begin assessing the anomaly for more information.  You also need to begin thinking about potential responses to the anomaly without raising suspicion or put yourself at further danger.

At Target, we determine the baseline and discuss possible anomalies and potential threats. This could be groups of teenagers to lack of employees. We are using all of our senses to assess the environment. We are alert for loud noises, strange odors, and whatever else is off. But not just threats, we are looking for anomalies worthy of our attention. For my son, that means helping someone who dropped something or holding the door for the people entering after him.

Step 4: Don’t Be An Anomaly

You affect the baseline of every environment in some way to include being the anomaly. Typically, being an anomaly to the situational baseline is not advised but it is often out of your control. I can’t even count how many times I have been in situations in strange countries, at strange times, and doing strange things. To anyone paying attention, I am the anomaly worthy of attention. But being aware of that fact allows me to adjust, to blend in, ensure I do not stand out, and make other plans accordingly.

I also teach my son to  be aware of the changing baseline. If my son is off on an important ice cream procurement operation he might draw attention to himself. It is not common, after all, to see eight year-old kids strolling aisles alone these days. He knows some people will be more alert to his presence, typically mothers and employees, and they might engage him in a conversation about his behavior. If challenged, he would return to the baseline by simply explaining himself to the adult.

Step 5: Respond to the Anomaly or Threat

Situational awareness comes down to how you respond to a given situation. You know the normal behaviors in an environment and are able to identify anomalies. Being able to respond properly is critical otherwise you might as well reside peacefully in “White”, blissfully unaware of the world around you. Once a situation develops, having a plan is the difference between mission success or mission failure. Not all threats are dangerous. You might be out doing Christmas shopping for your family and need to know how to react if you identify a family member walking in the store. Some times the response is to engage the anomaly. If it appears someone is having a heart attack, running for the doors isn’t appropriate, however, rendering aid immediately is.

When shopping, we identify locations of employees and exits in case of emergencies so we can respond properly. We have a communication strategy in case of separation and guidelines on how to behave. The best example is my son knowing I will never leave the store without him under any circumstance. If we are merely separated he can continue to search for me calmly or engage an employee for assistance.

Teaching Your Children Skills for Life

I love sharing my experiences and life with my boys. I want to provide my kids with the skills that will give them the best shot at a successful life. Teaching my children situational awareness will prepare them for a world that is not always inviting and safe. It will teach them how to respond to a variety of situations that could prevent humiliation or save lives. It will teach them to be on the lookout for opportunities to help people and even help themselves. They will learn to be assertive in a variety of environments and not have anxiety in public or uncomfortable situations. Sharing parts of my life with my kids is also emotionally rewarding. It allows us to bond and continue to develop a relationship I cherish more than anything.


Reno Dads is all about exploring fatherhood is all its glory. If you enjoyed this article on skills we teach our children, check out 15 Travel Tips From Former Undercover CIA Officers and Teaching Your Kids Emotional Resilience for more perspectives on fatherhood.  As always, thanks for your support. Find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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