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Promises Promises

Marla Burke's 7-year-old daughter, Cara (not their real names), always walked home from school, but one day she wanted a ride so she'd be on time for dance class. Burke, of Glen Ellyn, IL, said she'd pick Cara up, but was so busy that afternoon she didn't look up from her work until 15 minutes after Cara usually arrived.

Burke rushed to the school, but Cara had already gone home with an emergency contact, a neighbor. When Burke reached the neighbor's house, Cara was very upset. Burke said she was sorry, and explained that she'd lost track of time. But neither apology nor excuse would suffice.

"You promised!" Cara sobbed.

Susan Gilbert writes regularly about health issues for The New York Times.

The Importance of Being Earnest

From the time children start talking, at around age 3, they begin to understand what promises are and that they're meant to be kept, always, no matter what. This message is made clear when a parent looks a child in the eye and says, in a deliberate and righteous tone, "I promise" or "Do you promise?" Even in the bedtime stories we read, the good guys keep their word and the bad guys don't.

As the ultimate good guys in our kids' lives, we have a lot riding on our word. "It's more important for parents to keep promises to their children than for anyone else to," says Maurice Elias, Ph.D., author of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting. Doing so helps to cement their trust in us. In a world in which people can be unreliable, and even deceitful, who can children fully trust if not their mom and dad?

So what happens when we can't or don't keep a promise? We guarantee pancakes for breakfast, only to discover we're out of eggs. We swear we'll make it to the next Little League game, then we're called into a last-minute meeting. Or, like Burke, we simply forget.

No matter how wounded a child feels at the time, an occasional broken promise isn't likely to leave emotional scars or to cause an irreparable breach in a sturdy parent-child relationship. On the other hand, "children will make excuses for you, but only up to a point," says psychologist Lawrence Balter, Ph.D., professor of applied psychology at New York University. "If you're a repeat offender, you'll damage your relationship with your child. He'll get the message that you don't keep your promises because he doesn't matter enough."

Going back on your word regularly can sometimes lead to a cascade of behavioral and emotional problems. "A 4-year-old who's experienced broken promises throughout his life may come to feel that if he can't have what he wants now, he'll never get it," says Myrna Shure, Ph.D., a psychologist at MCP Hahnemann University, in Philadelphia. "He might become overly emotional or aggressive, and do things like hit other children in order to get his way."

Any time a child's trust in his parents is already a bit wobbly  -- during a divorce, illness in the family, or the arrival of a new baby brother or sister  -- it's especially important that promises be kept. They're the surest sign that you care about him.

Eleanor Petigrow, a public-relations consultant from Goldens Bridge, NY, admits to making seemingly insignificant promises that she doesn't intend to keep  -- when she feels desperate. They often take the form of bribes to induce her 5-year-old daughter, Samara, to behave. To prevent a tantrum in a toy store, Petigrow might tell Samara that she'll buy a plaything in the future. "I'll say, 'We'll get it another time,' hoping that she'll forget," Petigrow says.

However, says Balter, "by saying, 'We'll get it another time' when what you really mean is 'No,' you're teaching your child that it's okay to say whatever you want and not live up to it." And eventually, your child is bound to catch on that "later" means "never." "If kids are disappointed, betrayed, and hurt frequently enough," says Balter, "they'll treat you and others in kind."

Making and Breaking "Unpromises"

The tricky part is that a promise doesn't have to involve using the word. It can just be your stated intention to do something: Phrases like "We will," or "I will," or "You can have" suggest a promise. So does saying "Yes," "Maybe," or "Later," when your child asks for something.

Even a planned event can be a promise. Petigrow recalls a playdate that Samara had been looking forward to for weeks. On the morning of the playdate, Samara had just put on a special outfit when her friend's mother called to cancel because the child had a fever. "My daughter was devastated," Petigrow says. "She cried on and off for an hour."

Children under age 7 find it hard to tolerate that kind of disappointment, Balter says. "They don't allow for contingencies because they're very black-and-white thinkers. If you were supposed to go to the beach and it rains, as far as they're concerned, you lied."

Our children's steady streams of "I want" and "Can we?" can push us to make vows we don't really intend to keep. Since not all requests require downright refusals, we may respond by saying something like, "Maybe" or "I can't make any promises..." That way, we figure, we avoid making a promise. But though our words sound noncommittal, children tend to think such vague answers mean "Yes." "When my mother said, 'I can't make a promise,'" Shure recalls, "I interpreted it as, 'We're going to do it.'"

Let 'em Down Easy

When it's possible to put your child's feelings first  -- even if that means getting flack at work  -- it can be worth it. Just ask Ralph Carlton, of Cape Elizabeth, ME. He promised to be home from a business trip to London for his daughter Annie's ninth birthday party. But on the day he was to return, a meeting was scheduled. He called Annie to say that he couldn't be at the party, explaining that something important had come up.

Annie didn't cry or whine. She said calmly, "You know how much it means to me for you to be at my party. What could be more important than that?" Carlton got on the next plane home, arriving just as the party was starting.

Of course, it isn't always possible to move heaven and earth to keep a promise. How well your child weathers disappointment depends to a large extent on how you break it. Don't try to justify your actions, since this may leave your child feeling that she's less important than whatever it was that interfered with the promise. And don't make light of your child's disappointment, even if it's over something that you consider trivial, like forgetting to buy her a candy bar after saying you would. Simply apologize, suggests Elias. "Explain that you didn't plan well or that unforeseen things came up."

When she forgot to pick up her daughter from school, Burke had Cara put herself in her mother's position by asking, "Did you ever forget anything?" Cara thought for a while and realized that she had forgotten things too; then she felt less angry.

Toddlers and preschoolers aren't capable of this sort of reasoning, but you can still help them to overcome disappointment by showing empathy and getting them to talk about their feelings. "With children who are 4 and older, you can ask them how they feel," says Shure. "With a younger child, you might say something like, 'Do you feel like I do?' and then make a sad face."

When you break a promise, you owe your child some compensation, Balter says. Make amends by replacing what was lost. If you miss your child's soccer game and don't know if you'll be able to attend the next one, say so, then have her suggest something else you can do together.

Tell a 3-year-old who's disappointed over a canceled visit to Grandma's that you'll do it another time soon, emphasizing the phrase "I promise," says Shure. Then follow through as quickly as possible. Even though kids this age don't have a firm enough concept of time to know the difference between "tomorrow" and "next Saturday," if you wait longer than a few weeks to reschedule, your child may think that you've reneged yet again.

The best way to avoid breaking promises: Make fewer of them, even when you're certain you can deliver, says Elias. Since promises usually involve giving something, making a lot of them can amount to overindulging your child with unrealistic expectations. She's apt to hear promises in ordinary statements, interpreting "See you tonight," for instance, as "I'll be home in time to play a game."

If you aren't certain how to respond to a specific request, be straightforward  -- and specific. "If your child asks to go to the zoo on Saturday, say, 'I'm not sure Saturday is a good day. If it's not, we'll go on X day,'" suggests Shure.

You won't always be able to avoid breaking promises. But strong family ties  -- the kind that enable kids to withstand occasional letdowns  -- aren't built on perfection, but on the confidence children feel when they know that they matter. By making only promises we intend to keep, and breaking them only when necessary, and with care, we'll send our kids the message that they're important.

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