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Promises Promises

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.'"

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