Kid, age 6: "Can we get ice cream after soccer?"
Mom: "Maybe. If we have time."
Kid: "Mom! What about the ice cream?"
Mom: "It's too late, honey. Your practice ran long."
Kid, wailing: "But you promised!"
Did this mom promise an ice cream stop? Of course not! But her child heard her words as a pledge. "Five-year-olds are just learning the nuances of language," says Henry Schlinger, Ph.D., director of the applied behavior analysis program at California State University, Los Angeles, "so they tend to still be quite literal."
What can you do? Begin by steering clear of wishy-washy language ("possibly," "perhaps," "we'll see"). If your kid's crushed whenever plans fall through, take it a step further and say "No playground pit stop today," even if you think it might work out. Then if it does, you'll be the queen of happy surprises.
Also, keep your head in the game. How many times have you said "Yes, fine, just hurry up or we'll be late!"? Later, when your kid's whining about a broken promise, you're racking your brain trying to figure out what she's talking about. Moral of the story: Don't make promises on autopilot.
If the request is unrealistic, save yourself the headache and simply say no. But if your kid is asking you for something that you're 100 percent sure you could grant if you tried, say yes (no matter how high the laundry pile). It's a fact of life that you'll occasionally find yourself having to break those promises, too, but if that happens, come clean quickly, apologize, and, if possible, offer an alternative or a rain check. Your kid will handle it better when it's the exception rather than the rule.