When you have a front row seat to the intimacies of thousands of families over the years, you begin to see trends occur. I was lucky enough to test out what I felt were 'best practices' in parenting, and the results were fascinating.
Seeing Carol* crouch down to her son's eye-level and taking his hands before she began speaking to him of course is a great way to ensure your child is listening, but it was the words that came out of her mouth that surprised me.
"I promise you Jake that your daddy will be home for your birthday party this Sunday, okay?" He nodded though he seemed quite reluctant to believe her. She mussed his hair as he entered the classroom. She stood and smiled at me, "Jake is making my week impossible with his dad gone again."
I nodded reassuring her that Jake had been great in class that week so at least it wasn't reflecting at school. She stepped closer so Jake couldn't hear, "Well, his father always seems to miss his birthday, and I'm always the bad-guy. I can't let Jake have a bad birthday if his father doesn't get home."
Jake's father was an Airforce Pilot and was often deployed for weeks at a time. "Well, surely you let Jake know that his father is doing a very important job and that things happen, right?"
"A promise is a promise. And I never break a promise to my children, ever!" Her last words were pinched with a firm finger pointing toward her son. Luckily, he was already engaged with his friends to see her frustration.
"I hope he will be back in time for Jake's sake, then," I said, as she moved around the other mothers down the hall.
As you can guess, Jake's father was unable to get home in time for the party, and I heard all about it the next week before class began.
"I told Jake that he must feel so bad that his daddy wasn't there to see him open his gifts and jump in the bounce house," Carol said crossing her arms. She was tense and let the others mom's know it. She turned to them and began going on about how poor Jake fell apart at the party. "I told Jake how unfair it was that his daddy missed his special day, and that he should be mad at him."
Some of the other mother's nodded in agreement and one even stroked her arm to placate her.
However, I saw Andrea,* another mother who I had taught 3 of her 4 children over the years bite her tongue. She kissed her daughter Sarah on the head and walked with her into the classroom ignoring Carol's rant. Andrea gave me a look that I understood well; 'this wasn't going to bode well for Jake,' and we both knew it.
I watched Jake in the corner of the room sitting dejected watching his mother from the corner of his eye. I could tell he was greatly affected by his mother's choice of handling the situation which also reflected in the rest of the week being a stressful time for Jake. He burst into tears and had a hard time with his friends, often acting out.
Luckily, as the classroom seems to always create a situation for a teachable moment, Sarah's dad came to visit her during recess several days later. He came in his green fatigues, being an Army National Guardsman and was often gone since he was a Navigator for the C-130's squadron in town.
The class was settling in from lunch recess and he stood in the back of the room getting ready to leave. I asked him if he could stay for a bit since I wanted the children to know more about what he did.
Todd was happy to oblige. The children scurried to their seats, Sarah elated that her daddy was on center stage. Todd pulled up my stool and sat on it as I started to ask him questions about what he did for the National Guard and some of the missions he flew. Jake sat at his desk peeling away the corner of his nametag looking dispirited.
"So, Todd, how do you explain to Sarah and her brother and sisters when you can't be there for a special event like a school play or something special happening with them?"
Todd smiled letting me know he understood the reason for the question. He winked at me and clasped his hands together. Jake shifted in his chair and sat on his foot now watching Todd closely.
"You know I try to do everything I can to be there for my family any chance I get, but Sarah knows that my job also helps so many people and that our family is so lucky that I have this kind of job which gives Sarah her dance lessons and a home and vacations and such. Sarah scooted out of her seat and sat on her daddy's lap. "I also Skype or text whenever I have a chance to speak with them."
Jake then got out of his seat to sit with others on the floor in front of Todd. Sarah, being a precocious one, explained further.
"You know my daddy helps save people in trouble and brings them food and supplies if they have really bad storms and stuff. And I love it when he can Skype me because then Mom can show him the videos of me dancing or my picture I made for the art show."
"So, Sarah," I asked, "has your dad ever made a promise to you that he couldn't keep?" She turned to look at him and sweetly grabbed his cheeks. He laughed and answered my question for her.
Todd took her hands and looked at the children watching closely. "You know all of your parents love you so much, and of course we want to keep you safe and sound and happy. But I have taught Sarah that I promise to always love her no matter what. But to promise her a certain toy, or to never be late picking her up isn't realistic. Things can happen that no one can control. Does that make sense?" The class nodded their heads.
Scott, a boy whose father was an ER doctor piped up and said his mom would be so pissed if his dad was late picking him up. His mother was also close friends with Carol and had the same parenting style. The class giggled. Todd continued.
"Scott, now I do believe that we should keep our word when we can, however, what if your dad's car broke down, or he had a patient come in with a painful broken leg right before he was to pick you up from school?"
Scott grimaced and blurted out, "Oh, yeah! He had a pregnant lady come in and her water broke all over the ER floor!" Of course this caused a small ruckus of "ewww and yuck!" The class finally settled down when Todd continued.
"Yes, exactly, Scott. You see if we make promises to you and it is broken due to something not planned, then who gets hurt?"
This time Jake spoke up. "I do!" he said pointing to himself.
I took over from that point. "So, Jake. How does it make you feel when a promise is made to you and then it is broken?" Jake turned toward me on the floor, "It sucks! I feel like my daddy doesn't love me and my mom gets so mad."
"Jake, do you think your dad had control of the storm hitting the day he was to fly home?"
Jake shook his head.
"You're exactly right, Jake, and you know, I feel that promise wasn't a realistic one to make. Do you know why?"
Jake looked down picking at the tufts of carpet under him. This time Sarah spoke up. "You see, Jake, my daddy lets me know that sometimes adults have to do important things, or somethings happens that they can't control, so you know what he taught me to do?"
She jumped off her daddy's lap and pointed toward the sky, "I take control of the situation!" She marched around the carpet making her peers laugh. "I go get a book, or I color, or I write my daddy a letter of what he missed, and sometimes mommy even lets me make a video to send him."
Jake turned toward his clever classmate, still picking at the carpet but smiling and laughing at Sarah.
The children thanked Todd for speaking with them. At the end of the day I watched Sarah and Jake playing on the climbing wall. Jake seemed much more himself before his mom came to pick him up.
She stood next to me when Jake came to get his backpack in line. "Hey, mom! Sarah's dad came and visited with us and told me what to do next time when Dad can't come home!"
He explained to her all the different things he could do next time his daddy breaks his promises. Carol grumbled to him that Daddy shouldn't be late on special days. I could see she was missing the whole point. Jake began to shrink again into himself as his mother went on about how her husband was always missing special events with the family. I could feel the resentment she had and how she could have reacted in a completely different way to help Jake cope when things don't go his way.
Teaching children to be resilient is so crucial for their health and well-being. Jake became more timid and unable to cope with any change of schedule in the classroom. Sarah on the other hand, thrived regardless of what kinks occurred during her days.
Teaching our children that life doesn't always go as planned helps them become self-thinkers and doers. It also teaches them compassion when things go wrong for others. Sarah didn't blame her father on days he couldn't be there since she understood that he had an important job that didn't reflect on his love for her.
Teaching our children that life doesn't always go as planned helps them become self-thinkers and doers.
Jake, on the other hand, took every action that his father did or did not do as a direct reflection on how his father must think or feel toward him. Jake was more emotional and had more outbursts. I finally had to get the school counselor involved to meet with Jake and his mother and father.
After months of counseling sessions, Carol's husband came and spoke with me. He had no idea what his wife was telling Jake during the times he was deployed. It definitely sent Jake mixed messages. Jake always acted out the first few days his dad came home taking his anger out on his dad. He explained that his son would say things like, "You don't love me," or "I'm mad at you daddy for not watching my game!" He said now he understood what was happening. He also told me he and his wife were separating.
It now made so much more sense, and the family needed to come to terms on how to better handle the 'promises being made.'
I could give you so many more examples of how we inadvertently hurt our children when we make promises we can't keep. Teaching a child that if you break a promise then that person has wronged you, isn't teaching that child to understand that changes will occur and it's all about how we handle that change.
So the next time life happens and things go awry for your children is a perfect time to make it a teachable moment. Ask them these questions to help them process what they can do to "take charge!" as Sarah put it.
How does it make you feel that this happened to you?
What can we do to handle this situation to make us feel better?
Do you think the promise was a realistic promise to be made? (This is for 8 year olds or older)
Ask them for ideas on what they can do differently if they acted out or were hurt?
Teach them about compassion toward others especially if the person had a good reason for why the promise was broken.
Talk about realistic promises and unrealistic promises.
The final scene in Runaway Bride always reminds me of the reality of our promises with each other, and how it teaches our children to be realistic in what we expect from others.
Julia Roberts' character recites back to Richard Gere's character the realistic proposal he made earlier in the movie:
"I guarantee that we'll have tough times.
And I guarantee that at some point... one or both of us will want to get out
But I also guarantee...that if I don't ask you to be mine,
I'll regret it for the rest of my life."
Maybe making guarantees are better than making those promises life won't always let us keep.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Deborah Holmén, a 25 year veteran educator and research writer sharing her experiences in and out of the classroom, and life. www.deborahholmen.com