We push too many adult concepts on our kids at too early of an age. Promises are one of them, and the best part is that we have a pretty miserable track record of keeping them ourselves.
The other day, my wife and I promised our children that they could have ice cream when we got home from dinner. This wasn’t a bribe – we were just happy to be together and wanted to give them a special treat.* When we arrived home, however, it was already 9pm. If we held up our promise, our kids would be going to sleep at some questionable hour, if at all. So we had to go back on our promise. This is also known as “breaking your promise,” “reneging,” or “tearing your children’s hearts out,” depending on your point of view.
Stuff like this happens all the time. A toy is promised that can’t be found, someone gets sick and things don’t go as planned, and circumstances fall on our heads that we never could have possibly seen coming.**
This is only half of the equation, though. What has become more of a bad habit with us is trying to get our young kids to make promises with us.
- “If I give you this toy, do you promise you will not cry when we take you to school?”
- “If I give you a snack now, do you promise you’ll be good in church?”
- “If we let you finish your movie, do you promise you’ll go right to bed?”
- “If I let you keep playing with your LEGOs, do you promise you’ll do your homework?”
- “If we do the best we can as parents, do you promise you’ll get good grades in school, stay off drugs, not get pregnant, go to college, get a well-paying job, and always love Mom and Dad without question?”
Warning – Parental Admission of Failure Ahead:
Insisting that your children make and keep promises is one of those habits that spawns from out of nowhere, and then grows into a monster by the time you realize you are doing it. I never forced my kids to swear they would go to college, of course, but I have been guilty of having them make some of the other above promises. Some they kept, most they did not, and there are countless others that have gone either way.
The “parenting failure” of insisting that your kids make and keep promises occurs after the children break their promises. What do you tell them? Things like, “you made me a promise and you broke it” or “see, this is why I shouldn’t make you promise me anything.” It was the latter statement that made me realize that parents should, in fact, not expect their kids to uphold their promises all the time.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have our kids make promises. They can be a great character-building skill. Instead, they should be kept small and realizable. Most importantly, no one should ever expect a 5-year-old to hold up their end on a promise to the point where they are made to feel like they “failed” simply because they didn’t hold their end up.
I hereby vow to push less promises on my children.*** A few are okay here and there, just so they can better understand the concept. I want to give them the opportunity to walk up to me someday when they are older and propose their promises from their own heart. And when a promise gets broken, as they do sometimes, maybe we can go out and talk about it over some ice cream.
* Can be read as “wanted to look like awesome parents to them that day.”
** Like promising a trip to the park, and walking outside and realizing that it just started raining. D’oh.
*** I’m also going to start making sure that I can keep my own promises. I promise.