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Perspective: How to have a Warm Relationship with your Child

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From: John Murtari (
Date: Wed Apr 24 2002 - 11:23:35 EDT

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Good People & People of Faith,

In the past people have asked about my son Domenic and I and how
we "manage."   I'd like to share the following with you as one parent's
perspective on the topic.  I welcome your thoughts also and perhaps we
can share more of these in the future.

How to TRY & Grow a Warm Relationship with your Child

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

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!

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 EVERY 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

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

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.

SHOW YOUR FAITH/PRAY TOGETHER - I almost forgot this!  Every night at
bedtime, I would say some prayers out loud for him. He didn't want to
say anything, but he would listen as he fell asleep.  I was really
pretty sure he wasn't even listening, but on a couple of occasions he
amazed me.  Once I skipped over a whole sentence by mistake, and he
caught it right away.  Another time I forgot one of the prayers, and
he reminded that I missed it!

We go to church on Sunday and sit in the Church.  After he was about 3
we got out of the "crier" room.  As most of you have probably
realized, the reason for "Sunday School" is to keep a crowd of 5-10
year olds from causing an uproar in the church.  I had only ONE rule
with Dom in the church, just be quiet. He could crawl all over me, sit
down when everyone else was standing up, or not participate -- but he
just had to be quiet.  It worked out very well! I never really
appreciated it, but it give us a quiet hour every week to be in each
other presence.  Even at age 9 he still likes to sit in my lap at
times and just be held.

As I've reflected on many times, Jesus referred to the Almighty God as
"abba", translated to Father, but really "papa or daddy."  When I
think of the love I have for Domenic, with all my other faults. I am
simply floored by the love of the Divine for each of us.  What is
there to worry about, God is there.

John Murtari

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