Promises, Promises, and the meaning of words

promisesI was talking with another parent a few days ago and she mentioned that her children constantly use the line “but you promised” when she says that they can’t eat something, do something or go somewhere. She insisted that she had never promised anything but simply stated that the activity was a possibility. What they heard, however, was “I promise we’ll do this”.

I laughed because my kids and I have the very same issue that crops up, where the dialog goes something like this:

what I say: “Maybe we can go for ice cream this afternoon. Let’s see how it goes.”

what they hear: “I promise that, come heck or high water, we’ll have ice cream today. You can count on it.”

It’s no surprise that things sometimes unravel around this dramatic difference between what’s said, what’s heard and the intention of the discussion and resolution. I mean, if someone swore to me, promised me, that they’d do something then I too would be disappointed if it didn’t come to pass.

But language is a tricky thing, and there are many instances where we hear what we want to hear even while the other person is saying something often quite different. It’s part of what makes online chat so much more difficult for meaningful conversations than, say, sitting across from each other at a cafe or cantina.

I’ve learned to use what the psych crowd calls “reflective listening“, where you ask the other person “what did you just hear me say?” but even that doesn’t solve the problem because sometimes they’ll say “I heard you say that maybe we can get ice cream this afternoon” yet come 3.30pm, it’s “you promised! jeez, you always break your promises.”

Now I’m hip to child manipulation and my kids are pretty darn good at the game too, smart, savvy and aware of the power of words. They also know that I take honor and trust quite seriously, so impugning my honor is a big deal. I mean, if I can’t be trusted to be a man of my word, well, what’s left?

If I didn’t actually promise something, however, then it’s not a matter of honor and trust but instead a matter of clear communication and my children understanding that wanting and yearning isn’t the same as having a guarantee of something happening. If it was then I’d already have won the lottery a few times and be driving a far nicer car than my Highlander. 🙂

Where this gets even more tricky is that sometimes I promise things because I’m not paying enough attention and we still aren’t going to do it because in the intervening period things have changed. You know the deal. You say “after school, I promise we’ll get ice cream.” and they end up coming home early because they’re sick or got into trouble, or you pick them up just to find that something bad happened in the interim, a tussle in the playground, some backtalk with a teacher, etc.

Then the dialog’s like this in my family:

them: “So can we get ice cream?”

me: “Uhhh… no. Not after you got into trouble / got sick.”

them: “But you promised!”

me: “I did at that, but things changed. I get to change things based on what’s going on, sorry to disappoint you.”

them: “Oh man. You promised. I mean, what does a promise mean anyway?”

me: “Sorry, bucko. That’s the way it is.”

them: “Ah jeez….”

There’s no obvious solution other than for my children to keep in mind that parenting isn’t a democracy and that while I strive to be benevolent and inclusive, I’m still the boss, the king of the proverbial castle, and I do indeed reserve the right to change my mind if I want. Is it fair? Perhaps not, but did anyone say that being a kid was going to be within a framework of complete fairness? If so, I’d sure like to see that clause in the contract.

I promise I’d pay close attention to it.

One comment on “Promises, Promises, and the meaning of words

  1. Sometimes I say yes to my son because I can’t interpret 4 year old speak … gets me in trouble.

    My wife says she was really hurt when her mother would promise something and not deliver, so we do our best to keep our word for the reasons you mentioned. That said, my son will call me out if I forget something … saying, “you promised to do xx’ even though it simply slipped my mind. Emotional land mines, all!

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