As I left the gym, I overheard a mother tell her young son, “We need to get home right now and get snacks together for your siblings, but I promise we can work more on your project tomorrow.” The boy looked content as they headed to the parking lot, suggesting that he trusted his mom to keep her word. These types of small promises happen every day between children and adults, promoting strong cooperative relationships that support spiritual well-being.
Promises are unique statements. They are cooperative, because they involve a degree of trust in the promise-maker by the child receiving the promise. They are also hopeful because they are focused on some future action for another’s benefit. Small promises in childhood set a foundation for larger promises we might make with our friends, families, and communities later in life, such as promising to fight climate change or engage in anti-racist work.
Psychologists Margherita Isella and Patricia Kanngiesser suggest that promises are different from other types of verbal statements because they are about something that is to come. When children hear promises made, they need to figure out if they believe the promise-maker’s stated intentions. Children use two main criteria when evaluating a promisor:
- They decide if the person is reliable, consistently having done what they have said they will do.
- They consider whether the person is helpful, displaying positive behavior toward others.
If these criteria are met, then a child is likely to trust another’s promise.
Children between the ages of three and five already understand that promises are something that should be kept as a matter of fairness. They also work at a task longer when they have promised to do it and mention their obligation to do so more often than children who haven’t made a promise. Encourage young children’s pro-promise thinking by following through on the promises you make and complimenting them on their industriousness when they are fulfilling a promise. Reflect with your child on what it means to promise to complete a household chore. Why would you make this promise? What would you expect if such a promise was made? What happens if the promise is not followed through on?
As children move into middle childhood (ages 6-12), they become better at keeping their own promises. They understand that promises express intentions and that people are expected to follow through on those intentions. They also become more discerning about others’ promise-making and promise-keeping. You can see where your child is in this developmental process by asking: Who would you trust to make and keep a promise? Why do you find [that person] trustworthy? Would others find you trustworthy? Why (or why not)?
While promises are mostly personal exchanges for young children, older kids are able to recognize the role that social promises play in relationships. To reinforce this skill, which is important in ethical decision-making, look for examples of promise-making and promise-keeping or promise-breaking in history and social events. You might explore with your child the promises white people have made to people of color and how the breaking of those promises has led to a lack of trust among social groups. Or you might reflect on promises made by elected officials to improve your community and the consequences (good or bad) of those promises being kept or broken.