How many times have you made promises to someone? Definitely more than once! As parents it is really very easy to find ourselves in situations where we can make promises. Adults may consider them as trivial, and not particularly relevant phrases but in reality the saying “A promise is a promise” is absolutely true! If I make a promise, I'll keep it!
Children trust in that!
In the eyes of a child, or rather in their ears, Mum or Dad’s words are really important: if they are said by them it means that they’re absolutely true!
A child by nature trusts whatever their parents say unquestioningly; parents are great idols to imitate and their words are the truest in existence.
This trust towards parents arises naturally from the family relationship but over time it needs to be nourished in its purity, without deceit! Children do not need “white lies” or changes in reality, what matters is what happens: the closer our words get to actual reality, the more we will give our children a clear and concrete vision of the world around them.
A promise must always concern the sphere of reality, concerning the possible: an adult who promises something that cannot be fulfilled, ruins the sense of the promise as it is spoken and it becomes simply a handful of words.
Communication and trust
When we decide to tell a child something really important, when we seal a “pact” with them, when we cannot allow our words to be forgotten, or simply when we want to relate as effectively as possible, we can:
- Drop down to the child’s height, to say with our body that we are there for them;
- Seek eye contact, to communicate the importance of what we are about to say;
- Use a calm and serious tone, to confirm our choices;
- Choose a symbolic gesture (such as linking your little fingers) to seal “the pact” or make sure that the child will comply with the request.
Promising is never something superficial, even when the subject in question does not represent anything too important. When we promise and keep what we have said, we allow our children to feel safe. And it is precisely this “bubble” of security that assists the growth of that feeling of confidence, of being able to do things alone, of knowing how the world works. The trust that children place in their parents is innate, profound and intimate and it is clear that the adult here has an essential task: to set an example.
A promise is really a glue that unites and is indissoluble. In the words “I promise you” there is also a “I will do everything to make it so”: believing in this makes us invincible in the eyes of our children who, regardless of the result, will learn to always be able to count on us, as a team! Communicating firmly and gently what we can and want to do for our child is a way in which we tune in and create a unique and special interaction.
Making a promise: when should it be avoided?
It is essential that the words spoken are also kept: what is described by the terms of the promise must always be real and feasible. It is better to avoid phrases and situations that we do not have total control of, such as “today it is raining and we are bored but I promise you that it will be sunny tomorrow”; also avoid statements such as “I promise I’ll be home early from work tonight” if you do not know how your day will continue. Instead you can say “I'll do my best to be back soon!”
Remember that until children are about 6 years old, they struggle to differentiate what is actual reality from imaginary thoughts; what goes through their mind is not always well distinguished from what happens in reality. In addition, young children do not have such a clear perception of when an adult might be joking. And that is precisely why a reference to the real is always important.
A promise should not be a go-between to a reward or a punishment (“if you do not listen to me, tonight no cartoons"), those are effective educational tools only in the short term because they shift the focus of the action on the object of desire and do not allow the child to reflect on the motivations that move a given behaviour. Making a promise in order to obtain the actions we expect or want does not add value to this act, on the contrary it develops in the child the idea that, for every initiative that is appreciated by the adult, there will be a reward that can satisfy their desires; in this case the promise becomes a distraction and not an opportunity to strengthen the parent-child bond.
We should avoid sealing a promise when we do not know how long it will take before we can keep it: children do not have such a marked sense of time and struggles to be patient over a long time. We should reduce the time to a minimum for greater effectiveness and serenity both for ourselves and for the little ones.
What if I don't keep a promise?
It can happen and it must not be a tragedy; for reasons of force majeure we may not be able to keep our word or, even if we have put all our efforts into it, we may draw a blank. Adults are not infallible and this is an important fact that children must sooner or later recognise and learn.
What might happen in the child, as a result of a broken promise, is the growth of disappointment, frustration and probably even anger. Let’s not be alarmed. They are inner emotions and feelings that, as such, are always legitimate. We should allow every act of “feeling emotions” and help the child to manage the ensuing reactions. How?
1 - Showing our displeasure
2 - Expressing what we feel
3 - Explaining the reasons for what happened.
Some expressions that can help are:
“I'm really sorry, I understand your anger, I would feel that way too!”
“I really tried my best but unfortunately things have gone differently; would you like me to think of something to put things right?"
“I feel sad because I know how much you cared, I want you to know that I made every effort to keep the promise”
What about when it is the child making a promise?
Children process the behaviour of the adults with whom they live so as to acquire and reproduce them in their relationships.
The more we know how to be trustworthy and transparent with them, the more so in the future these aspects will remain important ingredients in the relationship we have built.
In addition to being a good example, we can encourage and accompany the use of appropriate words and expressions, reminding them, where necessary, of the value of the promise itself and the actions involved in giving one's word.
We should not take it for granted that children know for sure the meaning of what they are saying, and we should make sure that they understand the consequences; at the same time we should add value to their decisions and appreciate their courage.
“Are you sure about this promise?”
“Do you know that you have to put all your efforts into this?”
“I trust you and your words!”
“I'm glad to see you so confident!”
It can happen that children forget that they have promised something or would like to go back on their word. In the first case we can take the initiative and remind them of the agreement reached, while in the second case we can open a valuable dialogue on reciprocal trust and on how important our words are.
Today’s children are the adults of tomorrow and they need a safe guide to accompany them in the arduous task of growing up and getting to know the world around them and as parents we have the opportunity to win over their trust on a daily basis with one small daily gesture at a time.