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Our Dad, The Spy: Lessons in Self-Defense from a Spy Family

Photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash

Incoming RANT!

Okay, okay, I realize I'm nearly 15 years behind...

I only recently watched the 2008 film, Taken. You know the Liam Neeson movie where he plays a retired CIA officer who promises to hunt down his daughter's kidnappers with his "special set of skills".

Yeah, that movie.

It drove me friggin' nuts.

The entire plot of the movie was set up by Neeson's character, Bryan Mills arguing with his ex-wife and their teenage daughter, Kim about Kim's wish to travel to Paris. Mills is the stereotypical world-weary, relationship-challenged tough guy whose experience in the CIA taught him the world is dangerous and so therefore his teen daughter is better off staying home.

Sigh.... I mean really... the most memorable scene in the whole movie is him bragging about his "special skills"....

Skills that he never bothered to teach his daughter!

I don't mean super-mysterious, high-level spy craft like how to kill someone with a toothpick (is that I thing? I don't know, I'm not a spy, but it seems like something they would know how to do 🤷🏻‍♀️).

Instead, Mills, who would have presumably received the best training on the planet on how to navigate the world, didn't teach his daughter anything. Like, seriously.... nothing.

Instead he kept her sheltered.

When Mills finally relented to letting her go to Paris, his only idea for her safety was for her to call him everyday at the same time so he would know she was safe. Then it all went sideways when she was kidnapped in within hours of landing in Paris.

Ugh. Just ugh at everything about this.

Look I get it, we need some set-up for an action hero to swoop in and save the day. But this movie only highlights how popular culture grooms women and girls to stay helpless and perpetuates the stereotypes of their need to be rescued.

At least we now have Emily in Paris to look to if we want see a woman take on the world (I'm just getting started on that series so hopefully there is no over the top kidnapping in the works!).


To get the bad taste of Taken out of my mouth, I reached out to Doug Patteson a real-life retired CIA officer who, along with his wife (also former CIA!), raised two daughters.

Doug spent the better part of a decade as a real-life CIA operations officer and Deputy Chief of Station in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA. He served in Europe, Asia and Washington, DC in issues related to counter terrorism and counter narcotics. Retired and now known on social media by the endearing handle @texasspydad, I wanted to see what he taught his own kids about navigating the world. His oldest daughter Callie is a journalist living in New York City and Mary Katherine is in college in Virginia. To my delight, not only did Doug agree to sit down with me but so did his daughters!

I loved the rich layers of this conversation. It wasn't just an expert in his field sharing his perspective, but his 20-something daughters sharing how having a spy for a Dad has impacted their ability to navigate with the world with skill. Better yet, what they share can be practiced by any family - you don't need to have a Spy Dad!

It turns out what we learn from Doug's real-life approach to parenting was the absolute opposite of Mills in Taken!


The Big Take Aways

I encourage you to watch the full conversation below but to give you sneak peak, here are the big take aways from our conversation.

  1. Personal safety starts with learning how to be comfortable with risk

  2. Essential mnemonics that are easy for kids to remember

  3. Tech as a tool: 20-somethings Callie and Mary Katherine share some great tech tips

  4. Beyond situational awareness: Critical thinking

Personal safety starts with being comfortable with risk

"The foundational premise of us parenting our kids was that we needed to prepare the kids by teaching them how to take risk, teaching them how to assess, and take risk throughout their childhood so that when they faced risks, when they got out of the house they had the skills and tools available to them." - Doug Patteson, former CIA officer.

The Pattesons trained their kids from the start with age-appropriate risks. It was never about shunning risks, in fact quite the opposite by also looking for opportunity! Did you know that the amygdala, our brain's threat detection center, is also in charge of finding pleasure and opportunity? Far too often we focus on building our situational awareness to "spot the bad guy", but looking for opportunities is as equally important in living a rich, full life.

With risk comes the potential for failure and that is part of the learning:

One of the things we talk about a lot is failures, because we are so much better at learning through failure than in success. So we would talk about our failures and figure out what how it can be done better - let's figure out how we fail fast and early. So that we don't fail when it when it really matters later on. - Callie Patteson, college student

Essential mnemonics that are easy for kids to remember

A mnemonics is a device such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that assists us in remembering something. The use of a mnemonic in learning helps ideas to more easily stick. The mnemonics Callie and Mary Kathrine learned when they were very young became embodied habits that they now apply instinctively as they venture out into the world as adults.

  • #1 The Rule of Stupids:

👉 Don't do stupid things

👉 With stupid people

👉 In stupid places

👉 At stupid times of the day or night

What I love about the rule of stupids is that it gives you some flexibility to take risks and opportunities. So if you break one of the Rules of Stupid (say, hanging out in a stupid place) make sure the other three (stupid things, stupid people, stupid times) do not compound the risk.

  • #2 Plan your dive, dive your plan. Borrowed from the world of scuba diving, Callie and Mary Katherine grew up with this mnemonic and give rich examples of how they apply this rule as young women getting started in the world. Most importantly, they stress, having a plan in the first place gives you flexibility to adapt when the circumstances change.

Tech as a Tool

I write and speak frequently about the self-defense half-truth cliche, "Don't look at your phone!" It really is impractical, half-baked advice that shames people, but doesn't offer any valuable skill building opportunity. Doug reminds us that phones, when used at the right time and place, are a tool and asset to our personal safety. But it is Gen Z'ers, Callie and Mary Katherine, that schooled us Gen X'ers on extra layers of how to use technology including:

👉 Turn off the Airdrop feature on your Apple devices. It only takes one unsolicited dick-pic popping up on your phone on the subway to understand why.

👉 Use ear buds to send the signal, "don't talk to me", BUT as Callie reminds us, "When you're on the street, either don't listen to music and just have your AirPods in, or I have the AirPods where it has transparency."

👉 What's Callie talking about with AirPod transparency? This is a feature that keeps the

music in your ear at the same level as the world around you, rather than drowning out external noise. Click here to learn how to enable that feature.

👉 Share your location with your friends and family. Give them a heads up if you are

doing something a bit more risky and stay in communication.

👉 Online stalking, its not just for creepers! Meeting someone new? Check them out online. A simple Google Search once saved a friend of mine from a violent stalker. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok are some of the obvious places to look but Callie and Mary Katherine particularly recommend LinkedIn to round out your research. In addition to online searches, Mary Katherine reminds us that good old fashioned conversations with trusted friends helps you know what creepy guys to avoid and what aggressive frat parties to skip.

Beyond situational awareness: Critical thinking

Photo by John Arano on Unsplash

"As we were teaching our children, one of our approaches was to try and figure out how do you share the truth about this world that's out there without teaching them to be afraid of it." - Doug Patteson, former CIA officer.

Doug emphasized that when their kids were young they didn't talk explicitly about situational awareness, but they did encourage them to people watch. It became a fun family activity when out to dinner or at the airport. This approach fostered curiosity, rather than paranoia. Mary Katherine leans on these early lessons as she navigates life as a new college student:

Critical thinking is essential when it comes to situational awareness. If I'm at a party with my friends, the first thing I try to do when I walk in is figure out where all the exits are. But I'm also looking at the different people around, figure out what's going on, figure out what sort of vibe it is. I think growing up with my parents, they sort of taught us to notice everything, you know, because most oftentimes if it's a dangerous situation, it's not going to be something that's like a giant red flag in your face. It's going to be something small and that most people wouldn't notice. - Mary Katherine Patteson, college student


We saw friends whose kids were sheltered so this is one of my problems with the movie too. It felt like Liam Neeson's daughter in the movie was very sheltered and unprepared for the world beyond. We didn't want to shelter our kids because we knew they were going to leave the nest and they needed to be able to function out of the gate. We had seen kids who stepped out into the world unprepared for how to assess and take risk, and literally go off the rails when they got there. - Doug Patteson, former CIA officer on raising daughters

Unlike Bryan Mills in Taken, real life retired spy, Doug and his wife proactively taught their kids personal safety skills starting at an early age. There was no last minute cramming before a big trip. Instead the Pattesons cultivated comfort with risk, opportunity and failure, taught their little ones to remember mnemonics and cultivated curiosity through people watching as a form of situational awareness.

If you are looking to learn self-defense and situational awareness - especially if you are raising kids - do not miss the full interview!


For more about Doug visit:

For more about Callie visit her website.

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