This article is about how to TRY and have a warm relationship with your children when there is a Court order limiting your time, not about how to raise a polite child, a disciplined child, an independent child, or a Rhodes Scholar. Personally, I feel if you TRY to achieve the warm relationship, everything else will follow. I hope it does not have a lot of "psycho babble" and I certainly have no degree in Child Psychology (not that I think one is necessary for this). It is just some candid observations and personal experience I would like to share with you. Please don't take it as gospel and use a little common sense. Like a lot of things in life, it depends on the "big three." Love, Faith, and Personal Sacrifice.
I'm also humbled as I write this, I am NOT God's gift to parenting! Many of you are great parents, have close relationships with your kids, and don't do ANY of what I might propose here -- that is great. But I have some personal pride in the close relationship Domenic and I have been able to maintain through a divorce which started when he was 3. That saw me put in the role of minority (every other weekend) parent, and with a former spouse and "system" that wanted to keep us apart. He is now 9 ("relocated" to the other side of the country at age 6) and the bond has grown stronger. I'd like to share that experience.
HOW TO TRY - Let's make one thing really clear, all you can do is "TRY." There is no guarantee of success and please don't feel worse about yourself if things don't work. Many, many of us are simply in no-win situations now and you just can't press a rewind button and try over. For me, I just happened to be in a good personal situation with my child when the divorce disaster happened. I didn't think so at the time, but I was fortunate to have been "fired" from a high-paying job about a year prior. It gave me the impetus to pursue more family friendly work and be home a lot with our new child (which I loved). Many, many of you didn't have that kind of option. Compared to what many of you have been through, I have been very, very lucky. I have also been blessed to have been able to keep myself in a work situation which gives me the flexibility to be with my son during "our time." My career decisions cost me 6 months in jail a while back (and maybe more in the future), but I have no regrets. Many of you don't have that flexibility, and that is unfortunate -- when you miss time with your child, you miss time. There is no "making it up" in the future. It is gone.
Many of you will never be able to recover the warmth or were just thrown into very difficult situations where it requires a "superman/mom" to succeed-- that is the real horror of this Family Law system of ours. But if you have Faith, I think many of us know we have a "duty" to TRY, and to keep TRYING. You can't control your child's feelings about you, and we all know the system is "out of control" -- but you can TRY to do YOUR best. As Gandhi would say, don't get caught up with the results, just take care of what you can do. You have the satisfaction of knowing you did all you could. Even if you can't improve things for yourself, you certainly have the power to help keep it from happening to others. You can be a real HERO.
WHAT IT MEANS TO TRY - For two years after Dom moved out West I couldn't never talk to him on the phone, I either got the answering machine right away or was told he "wouldn't come to the phone." I used to write him a letter every week, I only got about one in reply. My mother used to ask me, "Johnny, how do you know he is even hearing your message, or that she is just not tearing up the letters..." The answer was simple, "I can't control what she does. I just have to try as best I can to do the right thing."
I love NFL football. During playoff Sundays, when Domenic was with me, it was tough watching Winnie the Pooh videos on Sunday afternoon! Not that I didn't TRY to get him interested, but he was just too small -- so Pooh it was!
HIS OWN PERSONALITY HAS A LOT TO DO WITH IT - He's an independent minded little kid. I will share one incident that happened early on. I used to visit him for lunch at daycare (that was after the Judge said it was better to be in day care than with me during the day). We used to eat together there until finally my former spouse got another order stopping me entirely from visiting daycare (it seems I was interfering with him socializing with the other children -- imagine that!). Well, when I stopped coming, Dom stopped eating lunch, proclaiming that he "wanted daddy." Of course, no one bothered to tell me this was going on at the time, and he refused to eat for many months (it only came up later during testimony at a court proceeding). It was quite a surprise for me to hear what the "little guy" had done and it brought tears to my eyes.
Like I said before, I was lucky. A more passive child would have been entirely different (maybe one like yours). I'm lucky, but I still TRY. It's a funny thing about life, if you TRY really hard, sometimes you get lucky.
MY CHILDHOOD - Much of what is here comes from my own experience. My father, Domenico, didn't get married till he was 62, my mother, Caterina, was 40 -- when I was born he was 64. Imagine that! They were both Italian immigrants, both pretty uneducated, but how-do-you-say . with a lot of common sense. He always wanted a family. I was not an "accident", or just another part of their lives -- I was their lives! When I was born you can imagine the joy. He always had time for me -- heck, he was collecting social security!
Never say "too busy" or "don't interrupt" or "later" - My entire childhood I can never remember thinking I was not loved by both of them. When I went to my mom or dad, they were never busy. When I talked to him, he never told me I was interrupting. When I wanted to cuddle in his lap, he always had time. When I would crawl all over him and mess up his clothes and knock off his glasses, he never said NO! Maybe, "Johnny, take it easy," but never NO! I simply do not remember a single incident of him telling me to wait till later, or that he was too busy.
When my parents had me there was no such thing as an "adults only reception." My father used to tell his nieces and nephews, "You want me to come to your wedding, I'm bringing Johnny."
I work at a small business, there are not enough hours in the day to do all that needs to be done. But you know what, when it was my weekend, month, or minute with Domenic, all that could wait. I was with him. I try to catch up after he is asleep at night and before he wakes up in the morning (and I do check in during the day). But he is #1. Has it cost me money - you bet! Will my retirement probably be a lot less - probably! Has it cost the business money - you bet! Has it cost Domenic some money in his college fund - probably! Will he have to settle for a cheaper college - maybe! Has "making money" come between my child and I in any way - No! A friend of mine once told me that if I sacrificed time now to make more money -- I would be able to take Dom to Disney on vacation in the future. Really have some "quality time" -- I just laughed.
DON'T TALK/PREACH TOO MUCH - My parents wanted me to do good in school. They always watched my report card. But we did not have any parent-child "talks" until I was in College. There was only one, and I remember it vividly. I was home on break, my folks were watching TV, it might have been "Bonanza." I was sitting in the kitchen doing some homework. My father walked in and said, "Johnny, make sure you remember to help poor people. A lotta people need help, don't forget." Then he walked away again -- end of talk. Wow, twenty years later I still remember the whole conversation!
I was never directed to say please/thank you as a formula. While we had a lot of religious things in the house -- we never said grace before meals, we never talked about faith. My folks didn't tell me what they believed, and they never asked me what I believed. We did not have a car until I got my license. My dad and I always walked to church. How I used to pray for rain/snow. He never got into philosophical discussions with me, the rule was simple -- he was going, I was going. I saw he rarely missed church. It was important to him.
DON'T EVER SAY "DON'T INTERRUPT" - How many times do you have to hear this before you stop talking to someone? Or perhaps think, I'll try again later -- but then later never comes. If I am talking to an "adult" and Dom comes over I tell the "adult", excuse me, I need to talk to my son. Then I focus on Dom, right then, and listen to whatever he has to say for as long as it takes. I never want Dom to think for a moment that I might put him off. Have I disturbed any adults, maybe, but they are old enough to understand.
DON'T OVERWHELM - Let's face it, for now you can always beat your kid in any battle of "wits." You can win every argument about who to date, what college to go to, and what classes to take -- don't even go there. How would you like to live with a "Dr. Laura". Nothing will poison your relationship more that predicting failure for them, criticism from those we love cuts the deepest. Many of you still remember times when parents or close friends predicted you would fail at something or weren't good enough (how many times did you thank them for it?) I was so fortunate neither of my parents completed high school. If I had gotten a job as a manual laborer in town, they would have been ecstatic! I never was trying to live up to someone else's expectations, they never "pushed" me toward college and in no way did they have the money. (I ended up being a "cum laude" graduate of the Air Force Academy, which I did because it was important to ME).
Actually, as I am writing this I realize something: they controlled my body, but they never tried to control my mind -- especially my dad. Wow, doesn't that sound like a new psychological concept! I learned the real important concepts in life not by being told, but by watching their example. It may take a little longer, but it goes clean to the bone. Don't kid yourself -- if you don't have time to show your kid by example, don't waist your time talking, heck, just give them a Morality VCR tape -- it will probably do the same amount of good -- and a lot less damage to your personal relationship with your child. Better yet, make sure your public school has lots of "signs" up in the classroom like "Use your words, not your fists." (a lot of good that has done. The posters and slogans certainly worked in the 'former' Soviet Union).
I had a lot of responsibility as a child. I can remember as a 4th grader, riding my bike to the grocery store. Like I said earlier, we didn't have a car ... so if we needed some eggs, or a quart of milk -- I went. It was important. What I did was important.
LEARN FROM THE ANIMALS - Seen many of those nature show lately? I have watched a ton with Domenic, and you know -- human beings are animals too. Imagine that! Speech should be considered a fairly recent development which has complicated child rearing tremendously! Think about this, a new concept of communication in the animal kingdom well beyond, grunts, moans, and songs -- the ability to use finely modulated sound waves to exert detailed control over others! Want to give your child a natural upbringing -- then watch Wild Kingdom. How do all those little animals learn -- by watching mom & dad. Have you ever seen a lioness have to force one of its cubs to eat -- of course not. What comes more natural to a hungry animal than eating. You ever see a lion that didn't know how to act like a lion -- I don't think so.
How many parents have real trouble with getting their kids to eat. Do you know how screwed up you have to be to get your child to a state where they don't eat-- pretty bad! But at least you have a lot of company. Have you thought about:
When the pride eats, the cubs eat. Food isn't falling out of the sky. Yeah, maybe monkeys eat a little all the time, but if you want to have a family meal -- then wait with the snacks.
You ever see a baby lion get corrected for bad posture, or messy eating, or not cleaning their plate every time -- not likely! While your child wants to be independent, they also need to learn from you. Don't over control mealtime, let the kid eat any way he wants to. Don't turn it into a contest of wills. Just set a good example and have a healthy food selection available. Your child will learn to eat neatly, and all the rest -- remember, they want to be just like you -- unless you force them and conflict with their independence. I have a cousin I love dearly, she always complains that her kids don't eat enough fruits & vegetables - of course, I never see her eat those either!
Like my mama used to say, "when your hungry, everything tastes good." At meals we drink milk. Outside of that, if you are thirsty, you have a cup of the natural drink -- cold, cool, clear, refreshing water. Millions of animals swear by it! No sugar water in any of its forms: soft drinks, juice, etc. Did my parents plan this for me. No. We just didn't have the money for a lot of soft drinks in the house. Those were for special events, going to the park. I can still remember that with my folks, when we went out I always wanted "orange." What a treat!
Wait a minute, what has all this got to do with the warm relationship? A lot! We are trying to reduce the number of battlefields with your child. I always feel uncomfortable visiting family and watching the whole meal go by with them talking to the kids about, how they are eating, what they are eating, and how much they are eating. Language is really a mixed blessing -- try to do everything by example.
PHYSICAL DISCIPLINE - This is one which drives people nuts! My parents were old school, my mother was the disciplinarian and she used the "strap" -- man did that hurt! I can still remember her chasing me around the table -- I was a hyper active little kid (too bad I didn't have the benefits of modern drugs!). Only once in my entire childhood did my father spank me, just once, because we had broken a street light and the police came to the house (back then they didn't charge you with a crime). Have I ever had to spank Dom, no. Would I spank him in preference to grounding him for a week, in a heartbeat.
What I remember about punishment is that it was swift, and then over. Having "good things" was never predicated on how I behaved. They were neither withheld or rewarded. We were right back to being family. I've had cousins over with a child who was in the middle of being "grounded", the animosity between them and the bickering ruined part of the day. I'm sure it ruined their entire week, and even more, festered an anger between them -- yuck! Talk about playing a "power game."
I only tried the "denial" thing once. Dom mouthed off to me while we were visiting relatives. I told him we would not play "spiders" in the car on the way back. It was a quiet ride, I hated it. It interfered in our relationship.
THE "NO" WORD - You just won't hear it with me and Dom, it is VERY rare. I discipline myself to only use it when I really mean it AND I am ready to enforce what I say. I only say it once, if the behavior doesn't stop, I jump physically into the situation to bring it under control. When we are approaching that level I will use words like "take it easy" or "be careful" -- he knows what is coming next. I let his desire for "independence" teach him self discipline, he doesn't want me to jump in.
I can't help but mention an old dog I used to have, a real "alpha male." He used to hate bath time and just didn't want to go, I used to have to pick him up and carry him, but eventually he amazed me by doing it by himself. He would slowly walk to the bathtub when I would say "bath time" and jump in -- he knew there was no alternative, and it saved his dignity. Within the rules he kept control, self-discipline.
THE COMFORT OF ROUTINE - Especially when Dom was a toddler, there was always a routine when we were together. He would show up at 5pm, we would play some silly game outside for a while, then go inside and get dinner ready together. After dinner it was wash the dishes and then go watch a little tv or a video till 7:30 (I like to eat fresh fruit when watching TV, strangely enough, Dom picked up the same habit!). Then it was bath time. Then read a book, and bedtime. He had control over the routine, if he didn't want to watch "Pooh" for the hundredth time, that was fine with me! I knew he was being bounced around a lot because mom had a busy schedule. The routine was probably one of the most invaluable and simple things I did for him.
We had our "standard" jokes and goofy games we would play, things which would make him laugh. It would become invaluable when he was "relocated" and there could be months between visits. Even if words were "awkward", we knew the routine and the games. Within minutes we were back to "old times."
LEARN TO PLAY - Boy is this a big one. When is the last time you played with your child, not only your 3 year old, but your 12 year old or teenager for a solid hour. I say probably never. Imagine that! This is probably the single most important thing to creating a warm relationship (and helping you to enjoy your child) -- and we miss the opportunity. Here are some thoughts defining playtime:
No distinction between parent/child. You do not break into the parent routine by saying such key phrases as: "don't do that", "be careful", "NO" and "don't get dirty". Let your child take the lead in deciding what you are going to do, and how long you are going to do it, and what the rules are. Try to avoid the temptation to teach them how to "play properly" -- imagine that! No interruptions. Perhaps an example would help to explain. While you may be able to play inside. It is a bit tricky depending on how rowdy your child is. Domenic and I always had a lot of woods near the home. From the time he was old enough to walk we would spend time in the woods. Just doing very simple stuff: exploring, throwing rocks, finding blackberries, collecting leaves. We would usually be out for at least an hour or two every day. It wasn't work, just relaxing. It's hard to get in trouble in a field.
I have to tell a story about us playing inside. We play an imaginary came called "spiders" with our hands and voices that started when he was little, and has advanced to today. Dom has an HO Train in our play room and I'm the one who always wants to use the train, but he does not. Sometimes if I really plead he will run the train a little bit for me. At times I want to break into the parent role, or even worse, break into the child role and walk out, but I let it go. I think of all the things he would like to do, and can't -- so I guess the train is his great "equalizer." The little stinker!
I don't know about you, but I remember playing with other kids with no parents around and we managed just fine. The big kids had the toys, the little kids just waited. The big kids also learned what power was about, and also generosity. In my old neighborhood I loved to play with Dom and the other kids. For a very SHORT while, when there was a dispute (especially the every popular 'I want a toy that so-and-so has'), they would come to me for resolution. I would just throw my hands in the air and say, what do you want me to do? When they are tired of it you can have it, or maybe they will want to give it to you sooner just to be nice. Once that was settled we could get back to just goofing around, they learned to leave me alone.
I used to get exhausted watching some of the parents enforcing the "sharing" concept. Some would even keep a watch so that everyone got 5 minutes. I had always thought that sharing with others was a voluntary concept, not a right?
BEYOND EMBARRASSMENT - I remember once on a Saturday afternoon while we were playing in a neighborhood sand lot, one of the respectable parents was so flabbergasted they asked me to "stop acting like a kid." I just told them I was playing and having a good time myself... is there something wrong with that? I didn't hear any more about it.
BE JUST A SAFETY OBSERVER - Play teaches a lot of thing, especially self confidence. I took a lesson from when I used to be an Air Force Instructor Pilot. On the ground I used to talk & talk & talk to the student, giving them every bit of knowledge and experience I had, but once we stepped into the cockpit, I was silent and passive. A pilot has to be confidant -- it is something you can't "teach." They were the 'pilot', the decisions were to be made by them. I was just the safety observer, stepping in when before we could be injured. Probably one of the biggest obstacles in primary jet training was learning to land, if you couldn't land, you couldn't fly solo, if you couldn't fly solo, you were out of the program. Some instructors would "guard the stick", placing their hands right around the flight controls, not me -- by their second flight I would tell them they were going to do the landing. I would put my hands up on the dashboard as we came down final approach and proudly announce ("you land this thing or we're crashing"). To a man, they all did it, but what they didn't know is my hands on the dash wasn't much different than being next to the stick. In a split second I could have been in control..
When Dom was little, if he was getting near the edge of a deep pond I would slowly move in to closer proximity, but I wouldn't say anything to him. Safety observer. If the worst that was going to happen was fall and skin his knee, get a little wet -- I didn't care. He'll survive and be the wiser for it.
If when he's 17 he tells me, "Dad, I don't think I'm going to college. I just want to live life for a while." What am I going to say, "Well, that's great to hear." Now, if he asks me for my opinion, I'll give it to him - but if not, I'll just put a "zipper on it." If a few years later he comes back home broke. "Dad, can I live with you for a while, I can't even afford rent." What can I say but, "Come in, you are welcome for as long as you want."
PHYSICAL CLOSENESS - I still remember climbing all over my Dad while he would watch TV from his chair. I would let Dom crawl and slobber all over me. Sometimes he could really twist my ear and I would just say "ouch" to let him know it hurt, but never NO. Even in my good clothes, if he wanted to be picked up -- up it was! The most shocking thing I ever heard came from another parent (I still remember this years later). Her little toddler walked up, held hands in the air and said "up." The response was, "why, what do you want?" He didn't have an answer. She would later explain she was teaching her child to be independent -- imagine that!
WORKING ON THINGS TOGETHER - I sometimes marvel when people tell me, "I couldn't get any housework done, I was watching the kids." This is one I DID NOT learn from my Mom. She had absolutely zero patience with me helping out. I can still remember trying to help her make cookies or a cake and being chased out of the kitchen! As Dom has grown he has always had the option to "join in the fun." I used to always wash our linoleum floors when he was with me, he was just a toddler. I had the mop and I gave him the car squeegee to dip in the bucket. He made a mess, but over time got better. I RESISTED the urge to over correct and just let him do his thing - which usually meant twice as much work for me.
I like to cook and we used to make fried chicken and pizza (from scratch) together. Mixing dough is always fun! I succeeded in doing more with him because "that was the day." I left us a lot of time and wasn't too picky about the results. It changed the whole "gestalt" of housework and cooking. Dom always knew he was welcome to join in, but he didn't have to. Even when doing work I was "present" to him and he knew he could always join in.
When he was just 6 or 7 we "pointed" the stones with mortar down in my mother's basement. Slinging mortar with a trowel, that's a job that sells itself to any kid! Putting black top sealer on the driveway, another great messy job. I'm a perfectionist at times, but with Dom I made a point of letting it go. If he did something I avoided "doing it over" so he knew that was his work.
I can't wait to show him the great joy achieved in "mowing the lawn!"
DON'T FORCE THEM 'AWAY' - When it is your time together and your child wants to be with you. Don't make them go to some other activity if they don't want to. This type of conflict happens in so many little ways. Dom always wanted to sit next to me (or in my lap) at the table, especially when visiting family. I let him stay with me even if the "kids" had another table. When visiting, he often did not want to "go out and play." I made no big deal of him just staying with me (and usually he would get bored and then go out and play).
Even at church, most of the small kids would go to "Sunday School" during the service. Dom didn't want to go and I let him sit with me (more on that below).
YOUR FORMER SPOUSE - Don't make your child pass messages between you. Don't use them to "spy" on what is going on in their other home. Don't criticize their other parent. Don't ever ask them to choose between you. You see, these are easy and there aren't any exceptions. Don't make your child feel uncomfortable about the other parent. Don't diminish the worth of the other parent.
Yes, I tell Dom I wish I could be with him much, much more. When he asks why I can't, I tell him because mommy doesn't want you to. When he asks why, I tell him I really don't know (and I don't), but sometimes when people don't love each other any more, these kinds of things happen.
What I do a LOT is talk about the good times we had together with him. If we see a wedding, I will describe our wedding to him. When we visit friends, I tell them of prior visits mom & dad made to them. I bring up the funny incidents from the past that mom & dad had.