We mothers like to think of our word as law, at least when it comes to our children. We don’t even mind, nor are we surprised when a question asked of Dad is diverted to Mom with “Go ask your mother.” After all, mother knows best, right? We know the agenda of the day, the rules, the after-school commitments, the nap schedule. We are queens on the throne of motherhood, granting and denying permission as we see fit. Our loyal subjects — the children — await our rulings on tenterhooks, trusting that their royal leader, Mom, has only their best interests at heart. But how do children view what Queen Mom says? Are her words really to be depended on, or are they simply empty proclamations — words made up of good intentions with no real follow-through?
“Mom, can we go to GameWorks?”
“Sure! Maybe next week.”
“Mom, will you play Clue with me? Color a picture? Take a bike ride?”
“Absolutely! Just as soon as I finish this.”
“Mom, I can’t find the basketball pump. Will you help me?”
“Sure, honey. But first, we need to go to the grocery store. We’ll look when we get home.”
And so the promises go, stacking up like jobs on a honey-do list that sits in a pile of neglected papers gathering dust. How often do I make a promise to my children, only to let it slip by the wayside in the wake of our busy life? My oldest child recently put it into perspective for me. As we piled into the car on the first day of school, he reminded me of a promise I had made at the beginning of summer: “Mom, you promised to take us to Schlitterbahn this summer, but you never did. You told a lie.” I admit I was offended. I like to think of myself as a good mother and role model. Certainly, I would never intentionally lie to my child. How dare he insult the queen that way! I reminded him of all the things we had done this summer: a trip to the beach, a week at the lake, play dates, summer camps, sleepovers and numerous afternoons swimming at the local pool. I then went on to remind him that we had sold our home and moved into a new house as well, all while Mom was in her third trimester of pregnancy.
It wasn’t as if I had lollygagged around all summer.
“Yes,” he said simply. “But you did tell a lie because we didn’t go to Schlitterbahn. You made a promise, and you didn’t keep it.”
In truth, I had no rebuttal. My intentions had been pure when I had made the promise, but I had not followed through with it. The mighty queen had been dethroned! This is but one example of the numerous half-thought-out pledges I have made to my children in an attempt to appease them at the moment. A promise made with little thought to the actual obligation I was making. Little white lies, half-truths, off-the-cuff remarks made in the heat of the moment — parents tell them all the time. You do what you have to do and say what you have to say to get through the grocery store checkout line without incident, right? How harmful can it really be to promise a pack of gum the next time you’re at the grocery store?
So what’s the big deal?
According to Melinda Downs, licensed psychologist in San Antonio and mother of two, consistency and dependability are the cornerstones for childhood development of emotional security and trust. “Children thrive on the safety and comfort found in reliable routines, steady examples and promises kept,” she says. “Attachment studies have indicated the importance of consistent affection, guidance and support in shaping the child’s self-esteem, relationship styles and sense of the world. Promises are part of parenting that should be consistent and matched with expected follow-through.” And, of course, one of the most significant lessons we teach our children is the importance of honesty and being true to your word. Parents are the most influential role models that a child has in his or her life. They depend on us and look to us as examples of how to go about managing their world. Dr. Downs agrees: “Positive role modeling in this arena not only helps the child to feel more secure in his predictable environment, but also helps children to develop the moral fortitude to keep promises themselves later in life.”
Oops! I’ve screwed up!
Don’t panic. An unfulfilled trip to Schlitterbahn does not mandate that your child will be a chronic liar and unreliable adult, so breathe easy.
“Children are quite resilient and can bounce back from disappointed expectations rather easily,” Dr. Downs comments. “Harm typically results only from chronic patterns of unreliable relationships.” She also offers several guidelines to help parents repair any damage that may have inadvertently occurred from a promise not kept.
“If a parent makes a genuine promise and then is unable to keep it, it is important for the parent to apologize to the child and provide an explanation of why the promise was not able to be kept. If this happens frequently, the parent should examine his/her time management skills and emotional issues that may be interfering with the parent keeping promises,” she explains. She also warns parents to beware of “off-the-cuff” promises made in an effort to distract a child from “negative” affect, (e.g., anger, sadness or disappointment) or to try to alter unwanted behavior (e.g., whining, sibling fighting, difficulties doing chores or homework). “This situation is suggestive of larger parenting and emotional issues that need to be addressed,” Dr. Downs says.
Give yourself a break.
Moms, we’re not perfect. Parents make mistakes every day, and somehow strong, healthy adults continue to emerge into our society. Don’t beat yourself up over every small infraction. “We’ll leave in five minutes” often turns into a departure in 15 minutes. Ultimately, Dr. Downs assures us, children are extremely forgiving and eternally seeking love and trust from their parents. By being honest and forthright with our children, we are shaping honest and forthright adults who will go out into the world and prosper. And isn’t that a mother’s ultimate goal?
On keeping promises, Dr. Downs says:
Look for signs of emotional security in your child as a benchmark of how you are doing.
Don’t make excuses.
Apologize when you mess up.
Be open to examining your track record on keeping promises.
Examine times in your own life when you were disappointed by a caretaker’s failure to keep a promise.
There is always time to improve the way in which promises are kept within a family.
Psychotherapy can be helpful when emotional issues are interfering with the development of consistent and healthy relationships within the family.