My wife taught me a valuable lesson when our children were very young. Sometimes the kids would ask me about going somewhere or doing something special and I would think it was a great idea. So, my response was, “Yeah, I like that, it would be fun; we can do that sometime”.
Paula later (out of the hearing of our children) warned me that my words were misinterpreted by them. When I said “sometime” I meant in the future, but they were hearing “today” or “tomorrow”. I began to watch my words more carefully. Promises were unintentionally being made to my children that I was not keeping in their eyes.
When a child loses confidence in our word it not only results in a lack of respect, but if repeated over time can cause anger, especially when it is something they really want to do.
The Bible exhorts parents to “…provoke not your children to wrath…” (Ephesians 6:4). Unkept promises can be a prime source of a child’s anger to Mom and Dad. The challenge, as stated above, from a parent’s perspective is that an event a child mentions is an idea worth discussing, pursuing and planning. But that often isn’t what the child hears or understands.
The younger the child the more you have to be careful about saying, “Sure, we can do that later”. They count that as a promise soon to be delivered. Again, if you say, “Maybe”, you didn’t make a promise, but young children count that as a “Yes”. I had to learn to watch my words and make sure there was a clear understanding in terms of when we would go to the park and feed the ducks or whatever the activity was.
When my oldest son, Jeremiah, was five years old I was taking him to an Atlanta Braves’ game in the late spring. We got our things, headed to the car and told everyone good-bye. I kissed Paula and Jon and told them we would be back the next day.
What I didn’t realize is that Jon, my second child, knew exactly where we were going. I was about to back out of the driveway and waved to Paula and Jon. Suddenly, Jon ran into the house and then burst out of the front door and just stood on the porch with a helpless look on his face, tears streaming down his face. In his hand was a tiny suitcase with some clothes he had thrown in it earlier that morning.
Paula said, “Rick, you have to take him”. Jon walked beside the car, looking at me with pleading eyes holding his little suitcase. The problem was that we were in the process of potty training him (he was doing well with it) and I hesitated to take him. But there was no way I could say no.
I opened the door and said, “OK, buddy, you can go, too!” He was as excited as I have ever seen him. (Jon loved baseball even as a little guy). Paula went back in the house and packed clothes for Jon that were more appropriate for the trip. He ran out with her, a big smile on his face, cheeks still wet from the tears. I had some tears of my own.
We went to the game and there were no “accidents”. It’s one of the most special memories I have in the early years of being a father, not only at the game, but in the expectation my precious son had that I almost missed. Though I was totally blind to it, Jon not only had a strong desire to go to the baseball game with us, but it was more. He assumed that since I had promised to take his brother that he was included in it. He even packed his own clothes, never telling a soul, hoping I had meant him, too. And I almost missed it.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in this area. Once our family was at Opryland (an amusement park in Nashville that is now closed) and they had a petting zoo with some small animals. We have always attacked amusement parks with a specific plan to avoid the lines and make the most of our time because it costs so much. So, we (the parents) were thinking of getting a good return on what we had paid.
When Jeremiah saw the petting zoo and those animals he wanted to go and see them. I made a promise to him we would return and see all the animals. We did – and it was closed. They shut it down at dusk and we didn’t know it. He was upset with me and cried; I felt like the lowest person on the earth. I had sincerely promised him and could do nothing about delivering on it now.
I apologized as best I could and was aware of the importance of this moment. I had not kept my word, even though I meant to, but a little boy cannot always understand outside influences that change things. To this day I still feel tender and am sorry that happened.
Incredibly, I did the same thing in a different way at the same park the next year. Have you ever had “Dippin’ Dots” ice cream? They are miniscule ball-shaped, flavored ice cream flash frozen at 40 degrees below zero. They literally melt in your mouth.
It happened to be Jeremiah again. At Opryland we walked by one of those little stands where they sell those treats and he said, “Daddy, I want some of that ice cream?” I promised him we were coming back that way and I would stop and get him some of the special “Dippin’ Dots” ice cream.
We came back there about two hours later and the person that was selling it had closed for the day. I still remembered the petting zoo failure the year before and now this. I was so mad at myself. I hadn’t lied to my son, but I knew that a little boy understood the reality of a promise, not extenuating circumstances.
To this day, whenever we are together on vacation as a family and they have “Dippin’ Dots” I buy them for Jeremiah if he wants them. Is he angry at me about it? No, I don’t think so. He may not even remember these events, but I do. I know the damage it can do to the relationship between a parent and child.
Sometimes failed promises are more brazen. I don’t know of any parents that intentionally mislead their children, but their promise of a trip or an activity keeps getting bumped by other priorities until trust in the parent is eroded.
Be careful of making promises you cannot keep. Underpromise and overdeliver. I’ve known children that became teenagers and then college students whose parents had promised them a trip to Disney World or Six Flags, a special vacation, or a hunting trip together. Yet, it never happened. As the children become teenagers they develop a cynicism to protect their heart from being hurt from promises that will never be fulfilled.
Broken promises result in disappointment which leads to bitterness. Perhaps you are reading this and it has touched a tender place in your heart as an adult. Your folks made promises they never kept to you. Rather than being bitter and angry with them, even though they may know nothing of your hurt, forgive them and learn a valuable lesson from it. Focus on the good they did for you and let it motivate you to keep your promises to your kids.
As parents let’s remember the wisdom of God’s Word about the importance of keeping our word and being careful what we promise – “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2)
I had much rather for my kids to remember that I tried my best to do what I told them I would do than being one full of empty promises. The sure result is not only a disappointed heart of a child, but one day an angry, cynical young man or woman because of raised expectations that were never fulfilled.
Is there something you have promised to your family that you have been putting off? It may not be important to you, but it is to them. They may have their bags packed hoping you will remember and invite them to come along.
“A promise made is a debt unpaid”. (Robert Service)