Listen, all parents make mistakes. We even make mistakes that we know are mistakes while we’re making them, but in the heat of the moment – we’re running late, our kid isn’t listening, the baby needs to eat – we just say whatever will move the situation in the right direction.
Often, that includes a promise we have no real intention of keeping. It can be a positive one (if you just put your shoes on you can have a treat after lunch!) or negative (if you don’t stop right now you’re not going to get to watch your iPad tonight!), but either way, they can slip out without warning, leaving us as parents scrambling to figure out how to manage them later.
We figure our kids will forget, but will they really? Is there really no harm done if no one is crying about it later?
You might be inclined to say no, but psychology and the parenting experts of the world say differently.
According to doctors like Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author, not following through with consequences or rewards can erode trust between parent and child.
“Because kids are very smart and they have radar detectors and they will find out if it’s a false promise.”
Research shows that young kids tend to keep their promises, and they expect others to do the same. They also, as we know, follow cues from the adults in their lives, and one of these things can definitely affect the other.
“When parents break their promises, it can also teach a child that this kind of behavior is acceptable,” Borba said. “If you want your child to be trustworthy, then you’ve got to be trustworthy.”
It’s believed that empty threats can cause consequences that run even deeper. If a parent threatens a consequence that doesn’t happen, kids can struggle to understand what rules are hard and fast, and what rules are arbitrary depending on the situation.
Children thrive on routine and knowing what’s going to happen next, so anything that can’t be predicted can cause considerable stress.
Experts do have some suggestions on what you can say instead of false promises or empty threats – ideas they believe will have just as high a success rate of getting your child to comply (but fewer negative consequences).
First of all, you can head off bad behavior before it starts by making sure your kid is not hungry, bored, tired, or in need of attention – all predictable moments for acting out.
Second, if you can anticipate a moment when there is going to be expected behavior – like acting excited about all gifts at a birthday party, for example – talk to your child about what you want to see and hear ahead of time (or even practice it).
If these two preventative measures don’t work, it’s very important that you don’t give your child a rushed, snap response that’s mired in negative emotion, said Robert Zietlin, a psychologist and author.
“Trust is really easy to snap and really hard to reconstruct.”
You’ll need to take a moment, suck in a few deep breaths, and remind yourself of the bigger picture.
Remember to offer praise for good behavior, because reinforcing the right thing is as important as correcting the wrong thing.
Do what you need to in order to keep your own cup full, my fellow parents. You can’t water your kids without having plenty to spill over, so really, all of this advice begins with taking care of yourself.