Why Making Promises to Your Child is a Bad Idea

There is one quality so powerful, that that quality alone will let you build a lasting and fulfilling relationship with your child. That quality is not love.

It is trust. If there is trust between you and your child, you will be able to enjoy a lifetime together. Even without love, though it seems almost impossible that love should not exist between a parent and a child…

The reverse is not true. Love, without trust, is glitter without gold.

To trust someone is to believe them. If your child trusts you, she believes you when you tell her that you’ll listen to her reciting her lines for the play after you finish the phone call you are on.

The good news is that our children are born trusting us.

You say to your 2-year old, “We’ll build that Lego model after lunch.” He practically bolts his lunch in his excitement. After lunch, he grabs the Lego box and rushes to you. You point to the table in the play area and say, “Keep it there.” And then you sit there with him and build the model. Your son, who already trusts you, learns yet again, that you do what you say you will do.

Trust makes parenting carefree, enjoyable.

You don’t need to play ‘good cop, bad cop’. You say, “If you don’t finish dinner, you won’t get to watch your favorite show.” Your daughter knows that you do what you say you will do. Of course, she will still try to have it her way (pick at dinner but watch TV), but her heart won’t be in it. Because she trusts you. Because she has learnt to trust you. Because you have taught her to trust you.

If there is trust between you and your child, he becomes trustworthy himself. Your son loves to play barefoot in the park, but there’s glass strewn all over the park today. Before he goes to play, you look him in the eye and say, “There’s glass strewn all over the park today, so I’d like you to keep your shoes on throughout.” If he looks at you and responds, “Okay, I will,” know that he will keep his shoes on. Because he has learnt from you to do what he says he will do. He has learnt that when a person says something, they do it (at least at home! :-)) As simple as that!

These scenarios play out when we keep teaching our children to trust us time after time after time. Trust needs time.

Trust doesn’t need you to be perfect. There will be times your best intentions are derailed. There might be an emergency. The weather is bad so you can’t go to the amusement park. Tell your child. Explain properly why you could not do what you said you would do.

“Dad has high fever, so he should rest rather than go out for a movie.” If possible, schedule the event for another time. “We’ll watch the movie next weekend.” If the movie won’t be playing in cinemas next weekend, would she like to watch another movie? Could you all watch the DVD together when it is released?

So why is this post titled “Why Making Promises to Your Child is a Bad Idea”?

Imagine yourself making a promise to your child. Here goes: “I promise. I’ll cook dinner tonight, and we’ll eat together. I promise. We’ll eat together.” What you are really telling your child is that this time, he should believe you. Because you are promising something. At other times, he has your permission not to believe you. Because you are not promising.

To promise means to keep your word. If you keep your word, i.e. if you do what you say you will do, you don’t need to promise anything to your child! Ever. She knows that if you have said it, you will do everything in your power to make it happen.

“I’ll bake a cake for you on your birthday.”

“We’ll set up a play date with your friend next week.”

“We’ll go to the mountains on vacation.”

“I’ll come and watch your match this afternoon.”

These “words” of seemingly little importance add up to big words.

When he asks you at age five why you and your partner divorced, you can tell him, “We had problems. I’ll tell you more about it when you are a bit more grown up and better able to understand – maybe when you are 8 or 10 years old…”

This way you have not lied to him (adding to trust in later years! :-)), you have not stressed him out by sharing information he cannot process or handle today, and you have addressed the issue that was bothering him. Also, you have not confused him by vilifying your ex-partner. You are a winner all the way!

Being told an answer at 8 or 10 is a lifetime of waiting to a child of five. But he will believe you, and be satisfied and at peace with your answer. Because you have taught him to trust you.

Of course, you’d better make a mental note and revisit this issue when he’s eight or ten. Raise it yourself, if you think he’s ready for some information. And if you raise it yourself, tell him that you’re making good on the word you gave him when he was five.

At this point, you might feel that there is less trust between you and your child than you would like. I’m sorry to disillusion you. There is no ‘less’ trust and ‘more’ trust.

Trust IS or IS NOT – just like Life. If you feel there isn’t trust between you and your child, know that you have taught your child not to trust you. I’m not blaming you! So often, life takes over and makes mincemeat of our best intentions and resolutions.

But it is not too late. It is never too late to build trust. More difficult, yes – but always doable and always worthwhile. Especially with children, because they are so accepting.

How do you start building trust with your child? Get some tips tomorrow.

11 Responses to Why Making Promises to Your Child is a Bad Idea

  1. Nandu August 23, 2011 at 7:06 pm #

    Vinita
    For once I will disagree with you. You should speak to Siddharth about how much he trusts me (or not) … but I think its very important to make a promise and stick to it. Everything I say I will do is not a commitment but an intent. And the sooner kids learn this the better. In life everybody has good intentions but that does not always translate into action – this is a reality of life and if kids understand this it will save them some disappointments in life.
    When i tell my kids I will do something (for them / with them) I usually add a disclaimer that this is subject to some conditions (eg getting back from work by a certain time or their completing their homework or the product being available in store etc) so they understand that everything in life is not set in stone and there are unpredictabilities.
    But there are times where I PROMISE … and in those instances I make sure in advance that I can keep my promise – come hell or high water. If it means skipping a meeting and leaving work an hour earlier I will do it – if I PROMISE. And this my kids have learn to accept and expect. So there … making a promise is not so bad, as long as they understand that no promise does not mean no intent!

    • Vinita Zutshi August 23, 2011 at 7:42 pm #

      Nandu, I completely see your point.

      When you say you “usually add a disclaimer…”, you are telling them that you will keep your word under certain conditions. And of course, sometimes those conditions are fulfilled and sometimes not. Also, it IS important for kids to be exposed to both situations, because life is unpredictable, as you say.

      Given all the above, your making a promise is a firm commitment to them.

      The title is more for the many parents who say a lot of things to their kids in an off-hand manner, and then beg off following through on those things on some convenient pretext or the other. For such people, using the word ‘promise’ is almost the only sign the child gets the he/she can rely on the commitment being made by the parent.

      And it is this misuse of the word that I am against. People begin to ‘promise’ their kids everything from an ice-cream the next day to a trip to Disneyland! This automatically devalues everything else they say to their children….

      I LOVE the last line of your comment: “…….so long as they understand that no promise does not mean no intent.” 🙂

      Keep writing in – there’s so much to learn 🙂

  2. rajeev August 23, 2011 at 10:01 pm #

    If one has read THE LAST LECTURE, he would agree with what Vinita has to offer. I think we all suffer from this shortsighted ness and even at times are not reasonable enough with our children when the promises are made…………..Its a matter of attitude that how much one values the bonding and promises with the child……………At personal level I find myself a failed parent on this part…………..well! it’s never late in life. so thanks Vinita for reminding as to what’s gud for us as parents

    • Vinita Zutshi August 24, 2011 at 9:15 am #

      No parent is a failed parent, Rajeev. We’re all in the same boat – trying to get better most of the time, and trying to get a break the rest of the time! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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