“But Daddy, YOU SAID . . .”

“Yes, I know, but I didn’t know the house would burn down yesterday!”

“I don’t care! YOU SAAAAAID we’d fix my bicycle TODAY!!!!”

“But Susie, your bicycle MELTED in the fire!!!”

“But you SAAAAIID . . .”

Is Susie being irrational? Maybe. But the stage for Susie’s disappointment and the inevitable tantrum to follow was set long before the fire.

The expectation for disappointment is bred, not born. And once enmeshed in a child’s personality, it’s like gasoline poorly stored in a cluttered garage—it takes little to ignite it. And just like fire can be prevented with a few simple, practical steps, so too can volatile scenes of frustration and blame.

How? By following a basic rule of thumb: Keep your word.

This may seem an obvious yet impossible piece of advice, given the changing course of reality between promise and fulfillment. But with seven kids, I’ve made thousands of promises, with life often conspiring against my desire for trustworthiness. Still, I’ve found that it’s possible to stick to this “keep your word” rule most of the time. Here are some of the ways I found that helped.

1) Look to the Future

While disappointments will inevitably occur, it is possible for children to accept them without blame and anger, maintaining an optimistic, success-oriented outlook that will greatly aid them in achieving their life’s goals, both in the near and the distant future. But first our children must learn to trust us as parents, and come to believe that keeping our word is a vital concern to us.

By doing this, we can create in our children an expectation that what we promise, we will deliver.

Individual experiences for a child are like the continual dripping of water upon a rock. Eventually, the individual drops create a groove down which all the water that follows will flow. It’s possible to change the course of the water, but only with effort. It’s the same with patterns or “grooves” of behavior. It’s possible to change them, but much easier to create the desired grooves in the first place. In the lives of children, these drops consist of tiny, individual moments, moments that may seem inconsequential to us, but over time become a child’s expectations.

Grooves of character are easy for children to fall into, and difficult for them to climb out of. If we pattern our children for fulfillment, it will take effort for them to shift course into disappointment. If we pattern our children for disappointment, blame and anger will quickly escalate with the slightest provocation, like a railroad train at full throttle heading straight downhill with no one at the controls.

Rather than create a character “groove” of expected disappointment, we want to create one of expected fulfillment. Each time we keep our word, each time we do what we said we were going to, we are building for the future.

2) Make a Commitment—to Yourself

First, we need to make a commitment—to ourselves, even more than to our children—to keep our word. This is both a morally right decision and a practical one. Keeping our word with our children is simply the best policy.

No child wants to be angry with his or her parent. Love and trust are a child’s natural tendency. They want to believe us. They need to trust us to feel safe and secure. Everything is working on our side. Distrust and an expectation for disappointment is bred, not born. We breed it with our “little” acts of untrustworthy behavior.

We want our children to know us as people who want to do what we said we would. We want them to think of us as people who value trustworthiness.

When you can’t fulfill your promise to take your child to the zoo, for example, your disappointment at not being able to keep your word should be every bit as great as your child’s disappointment at not being able to go to the zoo.

3) Keep Your Word

Once you make this commitment to keep your word, keep it every time you can, especially when it’s easy. There will be enough times when you can’t, or when it’s hard.

If you say you’ll read a story, do it. If you say you’ll go for a walk, do it. If you say you’ll fix the bike (and the house hasn’t burned down), do it.

Sometimes you won’t want to. At 3:00 PM Sunday afternoon, you’ll make a promise to play a game of catch at 5:00. Then, at 4:00 you’ll remember the football game you’ve planned all week to watch. You’ll promise to read a story, and then after dinner you’re soooooo tired your eyes can’t find the words on the page. You’ll promise to let Becky help make the cookies for dessert, but when the time comes there’s only 45 minutes until the dinner guests arrive.

These are the times to remember our commitment and visualize those grooves of character. To force our child’s entire future to appear in our mind’s eye. To imagine that his or her entire future hangs in the balance of our choice. To say to ourselves: “Whether I keep my word or not at this moment is another drop of water carving the groove of my child’s future growth and development.”

It may seem an exaggeration. But exaggerations are helpful when we’re trying out new behaviors in ourselves, especially when these behaviors fight against our own desires.

It’s easy to say no to a child—easy to reduce the importance of our promise in the face of larger “adult responsibilities.” Self-justification makes it easy to convince ourselves that we must have this nap; that we deserve the football game; that our guests are more important than our promise to our daughter.

Keeping our word to our child at this moment has to be more important than all those things.

Sure, there will be times when adult responsibilities will interfere with our promises. That’s why we should keep our word every time we can. And, as you will see, each time we do, we will be making a deposit in our “savings account.” It will be the account we’ll draw on for the times we sadly, reluctantly, cannot keep our word.

4) Draw Attention To Yourself

Another way to emphasize the importance we place on being trustworthy is to draw attention to ourselves as people who both keep their word and want to keep their word.

Make a big deal about it. Every time you say you’re going to do something and you do it, point it out.

“Daddy, last night you read Dovid a story, and you said you would read me one tonight!” “Of course I will, sweetheart; if Daddy said he would, then he will.”

“Mommy, you took Esther to the store with you yesterday, and you said you would take me today.” “Then let’s go! If I said I would, I will.”

Mommies and daddies can be supportive in this “keep your word” bragging. “Mommy, Daddy said he’d be home by 2:00 o’clock to take me to the park, and he’s still not here yet!” “If Daddy said he’d take you to the park, he will. Daddy tries very hard to do what he says he will do; it’s important to him to keep his word to you.”

Our children will grow to trust us. We’ll begin to see fewer tantrums, less manipulative behavior. With consistency, we’ll also see a greater tolerance for delayed gratification, less frustration when our children don’t get what they want right away.

“Mommy, can I have a glass of milk?” “I’m on the phone, dear, but I’ll get it as soon as I hang up.” If Sara’s mother has built trust, Sara now believes her mother. Sara won’t wait an hour, but she will probably tolerate fifteen or twenty minutes.

“Mommy, Mommy, can I sleep over at Phil’s house tonight?” “I’m talking with Daddy now, Steven; I’ll talk to you in ten minutes.” And if Steven consistently gets an answer when he’s told he will, he’ll wait until his parents are finished speaking.

“Daddy, can you help me with my homework?” “I’d love to, but I can’t do it now because I have my own work to do. If you’ll wait a half hour, I’ll do it then.”

Each of these moments is what psychotherapist Linda Popov calls “teachable moments.” And, obviously, there are many values that can be taught: Patience. Respect. Sensitivity to the needs of others.

But for our purpose, we are using these moments to teach our children that we are trustworthy, that we are people who keep our word, that keeping one’s word is important.

Without trustworthiness, agreements and promises don’t mean anything. If we don’t keep our word, our children will never know what to expect from us. They will become sad, disappointed and anxious, because they won’t know whether they can believe us or not. In a child, sadness and disappointment quickly transform into anger and frustration, often expressed in young children as temper tantrums.

When we do keep our word, our children relax. They know we’re telling the truth, and that we’ll do our absolute best. They have faith in us. And faith enables relaxation, patience and self-control.

When this happens, our children stop trying to control and manipulate us with their anger and tantrums. They come to believe that we’ll keep our word, not just in order to give them what they want, but because keeping our word is important to us, their parent.

Ah, but what if Dad can’t do what he said? What if Dad got stuck in traffic? Or is in an important, unavoidable business meeting?

5) If You Can’t Do It When You Said, Do It Later

In case something prevents you from keeping your word, look for the first opportunity to fulfill the frustrated promise. And by golly, if we intend to be known as a man or woman of his or her word, we’d best not blow it the second time around.

As in all your promise-making, make sure that this renewed promise can be kept. Ask yourself: Do I really have the time next Thursday? Will I be able to find a babysitter? If I take Chaim shopping for clothes next Wednesday, what will I do with the other children?

It’s important to foresee obstacles, and not make commitments to our children when known or potential difficulties threaten our ability to come through. Will I be too tired? Can I get the tickets? Will I really be able to get off work early? Will my wife need the car?

It will take time for our children to develop the faith in us that we’re seeking to establish. In the early stages of building trust, we may still be in for some animated frustration when our plans are interfered with by life’s little surprises, and we are not able to do what we told our child we would do. So, patience is needed, mixed with our commitment to building those grooves for the future.

When you’ve disappointed a child, accept her or his disappointment, even share it. You may be tempted to say: “I’m upset too; I was looking forward to the ballgame as much as you were!” But you won’t develop trust with this response, as genuine as it may sometimes be. Your child will associate your disappointment with your desire for fun and pleasure. And keeping our word has nothing to do with what we enjoy doing. Being trustworthy means that we keep our word no matter what we enjoy. Your child may be sad because he didn’t get to the ball game; but s/he should get the message the you are disappointed because you couldn’t keep your word.

With time and consistency, we’ll find that our children’s disappointment may not lessen, but their anger and frustration will. They’ll be disappointed that they didn’t get to do what they wanted when they wanted to do it, but trusting that the bike ride they missed with us today is only another couple of days away will help ease their sadness.

When the car breaks down, or an important business call comes at just the wrong time, or we get stuck in traffic and just can’t get home on time, eventually your child will greet you not with blame, but with shared disappointment, and an eagerness to find the first opportunity to fulfill the promise.

6) The Bank Account

Some time ago, I scheduled a week’s vacation to coincide with my children’s school vacation. On the last day of vacation we planned to drive a couple of hours to visit a cave full of stalactites and other dark, mysterious cave-like things.

We woke up later than planned. It took longer than expected to pack the food, go to the bank to cash a check, and fill up with gas at a station packed with other holiday vacationers seeking fun and adventure.

By the time we arrived in the late afternoon, the cave was closed. (Did you know caves have closing times?)

Driving back down the mountain, my children were really upset. I listened to their disappointment. I kept silent. This was a time for them to vent, for me to listen.

Their disappointment turned to anger and frustration: It was the last day of vacation. There wouldn’t be another chance to get to the cave. The whole vacation was ruined.

And still I listened. These were expected voices of children’s frustration.

But then they started to blame and condemn my wife and me: We never get out of the house early enough. Why can’t you and Mommy be more organized? Why couldn’t you have done this, and why do you always do that?

So I stopped listening, and squelched their talking. They had crossed to the side of disrespect, and this I would not tolerate.

We drove the rest of the way home in silence. We were too tired, and had been in the car too long. We got home, ate, and the kids went to bed.

The next night, we sat down to dinner. The mood was good, and we talked about everybody getting back into their old routine.

Then I said: “I want to talk about yesterday. I’m sorry you were all so disappointed about the cave. I was disappointed too, and I’m sorry that we didn’t get to do what we had planned. But I think you were unfair to blame Mommy and me, and to be so angry. We do our best to keep our word, to do what we say we will. And you know that. But sometimes, no matter how hard we try or how much we want things to go well, our plans just don’t work out. And I think that all of you can understand that.”

I explained that it was fine for them to be disappointed. Fine to be frustrated and sad. But it was not okay to blame and criticize us.

Then I opened the bank account of past promises kept: “You know that we do our best to keep our word, and most times we do, right?” Everyone agreed.

I didn’t open the bank account yesterday in their moment of anger, because it would not have been heard, or could have been perceived as a way to manipulate their emotions.

And I didn’t open the bank account of past promises kept to defend or justify.

I opened the bank account to create a “teachable moment.” And most moments become teachable only after the heat of emotion has passed. A teachable moment attempts to affect the future. I felt it necessary to reaffirm to my children that my wife and I were people who wanted and tried very much to keep our word. And after all this time, with so many kept promises, we now expected some well-earned trust from our children. And we expected the patience and understanding that comes with that trust.

By the time dinner ended, we agreed that when we have plans for the day, we all needed to do more to get out of the house earlier and make sure that our plans would not run afoul.

Perks and Conclusions

Changing our children’s expectations and response to disappointment, and cultivating the trait of trustworthiness in them, are two of the benefits of keeping our word. But if that is our main motivation, it simply won’t work—neither for us nor for them.

Children are very sensitive to our genuineness. They know immediately when our behavior is a mask worn for their benefit. If trustworthiness and keeping our word is important only as a mechanism to develop this trait in them, they will know it and feel manipulated. But if it is a trait that we genuinely value, that is ultimately important to us, they will sense this too, and they will want to be like us.

We will be the mirror in which they see their trustworthy self.

Whether our desired outcome is the lessening of temper tantrums or to evoke and nurture the trait of trustworthiness in our children, we must begin with ourselves. The most important ingredient for success is wholeheartedness—the true desire and commitment to be a person who keeps his or her word.

We are always telling our children (and ourselves) how they (and we) “should” be: Be more virtuous, more honest, trustworthy, patient, sensitive to others.

But children rarely learn from “shoulds.” A should assumes a lack, a deficiency. It carries an unspoken message that the desired quality (in this case, trustworthiness) does not already exist. It engenders an immediate response of guilt and defensiveness.

In truth, a child possesses the potential for every virtue (or its opposite), for every possible behavior—desirable or not. The ones that we value do not need to be instilled—they need only be drawn out and encouraged. The capacity for being trustworthy already exists in us and our children. We don’t need to create it; we only need to recognize it, nurture it, expect it and praise it.

We will never be able to encourage a character trait in our child that we don’t possess and demonstrate in our own behavior. And we will never develop a character trait in ourselves for our child’s sake—we must do it for our own sake.

We must teach and practice the value of trustworthiness because it is the best way for us to be.

There will be many benefits to this “keep your word” approach. There will be practical short-term results, like avoided temper tantrums. And there will be very satisfying long-term results, as we watch our children grow to be patient, honest and dependable people. We will not have instilled these characteristics in our child—only G‑d can do that. But our example will have allowed them to draw forth these very commendable qualities from themselves.