“Promises To Children…A Slippery Slope!”

Julie Jenkins Sathe


For anyone who has children or works with children, making promises is something we adults must all consider. Really consider.

If you watch yourself, the reason that you are making a promise may have motivations that are questionable, at best. Run your commitments by the Promise Meter:

Are you making a promise as a prepayment for something you want? Ex: “Susie, I promise that I will take you to the park if you clean up your toys.” (otherwise known as a bribe)

Are you making a promise because you are paying off a debt of failure? Ex: “Johnny, I know that I promised you that we would go to the park, but now I have to work so I promise you I will take you tomorrow.” (notice this is a new promise on a broken promise)

Are you making a promise for a failure of your character? Ex: “Susie, when I am not so tired I will take you to the park.”

Are you making an unrealistic promise because you don’t want to disappoint your child? “Sure, someday we can go on vacation to Disneyland.”

If you go back and reread all of the potential scenarios and get very honest with yourself, you may recognize some of your promises fit into the above categories. The interesting point is that they are really the same. Promises are creating expectations of children that misuse your power, your personal limitations, and your failures. They are simply manipulation.

If and when an adult chooses to do something for a child or with a child that that child would like, it should be completely clear of any pay off. The adult is in complete control of these relationships and is teaching their child to use promises as currency. A promise that is a commitment and is done on time, all the time is simply lifestyle. A promise that is made verbally and not done is a debt. Debt of any kind is failure and will only lead to disappointment. Most parents try very hard never to lie to their children, but because promises are currency, they are a deadly recipe for lying. Your child may not notice the first time, but eventually he/she will see you for what you are. They won’t call you a debtor; they will call you a liar.

Parents must learn to create a clean ledger page with their child. Do what you can, when you can. Do not make promises of time, activities or property that you cannot immediately deliver.

Adults have a much better understanding of time than do children. “Tomorrow” or “later” to a young child is a concept that they simply cannot yet grasp. Don’t use your power and intellect this way.

Children benefit a great deal from understanding that “things change” in life. A child can understand something like, “maybe we can go to the movies later. I will decide after shopping if we have time to go or not.”

The parent should further explain “Maybe means ‘maybe yes’ ‘maybe no’.” Have your children repeat this back to you any time you say maybe. “What does maybe mean?”

Stop Playing the Maybe Game:
If you have no intention or you are unable to do what your child desires, tell them the truth. Don’t use maybe as a new way to lie. Children will get that quick, too.

Ex: “Mommy, can I have ice cream”. We don’t have any ice cream, Susie. You can have a banana.” This truthful NO answer will be an easier truth for your child to deal with than hearing, “maybe later if I can buy some”. That is a lie and you will be caught.

Quit Negotiating with your Kids:
Give children clear limits and what they can expect of you. Ex: “Mommy, can I have ice cream for breakfast?” “Ice cream is not healthy, how about a banana and scrambled eggs?” “”No I want ice cream?” “How about a Pop Tart?” “No. I want ice cream.” “How about hot chocolate and a donut?” This could go on for days and make you crazy.

When the answer is NO it should not be watered down by negotiations. If you are open to suggestions, make that clear, too. Children can benefit from working through alternatives, but not whittling your decisiveness down. The most successful option for young children is a two choice alternative. “Do you want oatmeal or scrambled eggs?” Now, stick to it parents!

The truthful, strong parenting answer would have been “no.” A no answer will be an easier message for your child to understand what is appropriate and what your word is worth. Parents must consider that the little things, like words do make up their character in the eyes and ears of their children.

Children are smart and will learn from their primary caregiver. They will learn honesty or deceit. They will learn trust or skepticism. They will learn reality or fantasy. They will learn strength and ethics.

Keep in mind that children until age five, or so are still “magical thinkers”. They still believe in fairy tales, in Santa Claus, in monsters under the bed and in daddy coming back from wherever he went to…. Avoid at all costs confusing being gentle or letting them down easy with lying to your children. Remember, liars are always caught. Trying to be too easy on them may end up being hard on you!