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How often as parents have we found ourselves in this situation. We have said something like, "After your doctor visit, if we have time, we will stop for some ice cream." Then later that afternoon you find yourself running late and you head straight for home. As you pass the ice cream store, your child says, "Mom – you said we would stop for some ice cream!" You respond, "I said if we had time. The doctor's visit took longer than I thought. We have to go home now." Your child quickly says in a disappointed voice, "But promised!!"  

Did you actually promise that you would stop for that ice cream? No – but your child probably heard it that way.

Young children are still learning the nuances of language and therefore they tend to interpret your statements very literally. They also see you as all-powerful and think that you could keep what they felt was a definite promise to them if you really wanted to.  

It is of critical importance to your child's psychological development that they learn to trust in what you tell them. Even if they don't like the answer, it is far better than wondering if you can be believed. Simple trust in a parent makes a child's chaotic and sometimes scary little world more predictable and therefore a little bit safer.

There are a few simple guidelines that can help you avoid finding yourself in these awkward situations.  

  -  Avoid using vague words such as "maybe" or "perhaps" or "we will have to wait and see." Using words like these leaves the child where they have to interpret what you meant and to set their own expectations of what will happen. More often than not, words like these will be interpreted as "yes".

  -  Pay attention to how you answer these questions. It is all too easy to be preoccupied with what is going on at the moment and say things like, "Yeah, sure, just hurry up!" You just made a promise and probably didn't even know it! You can rest assured that your child heard it.

  -  If the request is unreasonable or you really don't think you will be able to do it – say no! Don't take the easy way out and lead the child on with false expectations just to get them to do whatever is pressing at the moment. This will surely lead to the child distrusting other more important things that you say.

  -  If you are absolutely positive that you will be able to do something, then it is fine to promise that to your child. Since life is not always predictable, you may find yourself having to break that promise sometimes. These situations should always be the exceptions rather than the rule. Your child will still be disappointed – but able to understand.

  -  Perhaps the safest strategy is to adopt a slightly negative posture with such requests. Responses like, "I don't think we will have enough time" is always safe. By using this approach, if you can't do it – no problem is created because the child was not expecting you to do it anyway. If you are able to do it – surprise! You are a hero! Nice.

With a little thought, you can avoid most of the "But promised!" moments and help to build a life-long foundation of trust in you that your child needs in order to develop into an emotionally healthy adolescent and adult.

This foundation of being both believable and predictable early-on will be expanded in future columns where the critical impact of providing intra and inter-parental consistency during the adolescence period will be explored.  

 About The Author
James is a Masters level Child Psychologist and Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked with distressed families for 40 years. He is the author of the Seamus the Sheltie series of children's books that were designed to assist parents in discussing difficult issues with younger children. Both books have received multiple national awards from parenting organizations. Mr. Beverly has written and published articles on parenting in a variety of media.


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