519. “You Promised!”

I’m sure you’ve had times when you were unable to do what you told people you were going to do. Maybe you accidentally scheduled two things for the same time, and couldn’t possibly keep both appointments. Maybe what you thought would be no problem turned out to be impossible, or at least involved more effort than you were ready to invest. The divorce rate in this country, for example, provides ample evidence that for one reason or another, people don’t always do what they promise to do. Like it or not, we humans break promises.
Adults, like children, are not perfect at predicting the future. We may sometimes have better luck than children with our attempts at prediction, because we may know more about causes and possible effects – actions and reactions – but we’re still wrong a lot. And when we promise, we stick our necks out and take some responsibility for what we may later be unable to control. And sometimes we hear, “You promised!” We haven’t lived up to someone’s faith in us.
When I first became aware of this problem, I resolved to make sure I didn’t promise anything to children. Whenever I told children about some future event I’d planned, I was very careful to phrase my announcement as an intention, not a promise. I’d warn them that some factors could interfere, and make my best laid plans fail. Children sometimes tried to get me to promise, but I’m pretty sure I consistently refused.
There were plenty of times when my refusal to promise and my accompanying caveats were heard. Children hoped things would turn out right,
but also sensibly left room in their minds for the possibility that things wouldn’t. But there were also times when disappointed children still accused me of having broken promises. From their point of view, stating my intention to do something was identical to promising to do it, and failure to make what was intended actually happen was the same thing as betrayal. “You promised!” they’d say, even though I hadn’t.
They do it, too, don’t they? Aren’t there times when children make promises they don’t keep? “I promise I’ll clean up my room tomorrow if you let me go out and play now!” “If you let me have this, I promise I’ll never ask you for another thing as long as I live!” And I think children often mean what they say when they make such promises; they can’t imagine not following through.
We owe it to children and to each other to make sure we’re clear about what we hope to do, what we intend to do, what we promise to do, and all the other degrees of commitment. And we shouldn’t have our fingers crossed behind our backs. But don’t be surprised if, after you’ve worked hard to be very explicit about the possibility of disappointment, a child still looks at you with an accusing face and says, “You promised!”

Comments are closed.