My daughter and I completed our March Madness basketball brackets just as the Big Dance was beginning. I was surprised with some of her underdog win predictions, but her intuition guided her to correctly pick the Final Four. Last year, according to the odds makers, only .09 percent of bracket players picked the last four teams. Her feat was nothing short of amazing. On the other hand, my bracket had already crashed two weeks earlier.
She reminded me last week of the promise I made to her when we completed our brackets. I told her that if she correctly named the two teams playing in the championship game, I’d take her to dinner anywhere she wanted. I had completely forgotten about this promise. In fact, I am pretty sure that I made it expecting there was no chance of her guessing the top two teams – we had just hopped onto the men’s basketball bandwagon in early March.
Once my daughter jogged my memory, I recalled thinking that she wouldn’t go for a quick, local fast food drive-thru. No, it would be Shake Shack for burgers in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. While we’re just an hour drive from downtown, battling rush hour traffic doesn’t make it a practical dinner choice during the work week. And, carving out time on a Saturday for a burger when I could be sleeping in makes me lose my appetite. But, I agreed to the deal.
I won’t slither away from my promise, so I’ll be taking a day off of work while she’s on Spring Break to make the trip up to Shake Shack. I’ll turn an eye to the laundry, errands and spring cleaning that’s calling my name.
Far too often, our plans have changed midstream, and she remembers every broken promise – even those conditional promises that weren’t set in stone. The conditional tense that I use in making a promise is often lost in interpretation. In her mind, “If,” “We’ll see” or “Maybe” becomes “We will. I promise. No matter what.”
Last summer’s big broken promise was that we never made it to a Cubs game. Who could’ve guessed that early in the summer the going rate for Cubs tickets would already be anticipating their World Series win?
My sweet daughter can be rather conniving. She knows that I feel bad when I have to break a promise due to work or otherwise. On those occasions, she defaults to her promise of eternal forgiveness to me if I take her to a concert in London when her beloved boy band returns to performing on a yet-to-be-determined date.
I’m not really a slug who intentionally breaks promises. In fact, I am the Queen of the Pinky Promise – the promise that is so sacred that it can’t be chanced to a verbal commitment. We lock pinkies and say out loud, “I pinky swear.” Having one’s pinky chopped off was the punishment for breaking such a promise hundreds of years ago. For us, the pinky promise has been a symbol of trust going back with our girls since their earliest breaths.
The painful reality is that sometimes promises, even pinky promises, have to be broken. It rains. The car breaks down. We’re hit by the flu. A work deadline pops up. The cat has to go to the vet. Any of these unanticipated events can divert our time, money or energy from fun things like going to the zoo, taking a hike or spending a day at the beach. Yes, these annoyances are disappointing; but, they are also understandable. Each of us has to learn that life is full of hundreds of thousands of ups and downs.
Yet, when plans to go to the amusement park are thwarted, it’s not the ideal moment to teach your child about resiliency and the invaluable lesson of coping with life’s disappointments. Doing so would likely earn you angry looks and maybe a slammed bedroom door.
What can a parent do to temper the emotions from a broken promise? Clinical psychologist Sally-Anne McCormack suggests that when plans are being discussed with your child, use phrases such as, “I plan on” and “I’m going to try” (Yau, 2013). These words are not an easy escape, but rather create the understanding that your intentions are good and you’ll do everything you can to follow through on what you discussed. If you generally keep promises, your child is more likely to be able to cope with and move on from a minor disappointment. On the other hand, if you are consistently breaking promises, your child may not put much faith in your promises.
According to psychologist and parenting author Jodi Benveniste, “When we keep promises with our kids, we help them to develop an understanding of trust and respect for others.” She adds that when we are “truthful and believable”, it helps to create a sense of security. A broken promise here or there, according to McCormack, isn’t going to change that attitude of trust and respect.
When the promise is broken and you can’t make alternate plans for another day, time or activity, it’s our job as parents to help our children through the disappointment. Making it through small disappointments now will help them work through bigger disappointments that invariably will come later in life. A simple start is just to say, “I know you’re disappointed. I’m really sorry.” Sometimes, we just need to know that we’re heard.
Pamela Henderson is the director of development and communications at Dunebrook. To learn more about parenting and support programs at Dunebrook, call (800) 897-0007. Email Pam with parenting questions and comments at email@example.com.