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Promises Promises

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.