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Promises Promises

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."