Fairness and Not Trusting Children

“Can I PLEEAASSEE have a dog? I PROMISE I will take care of it! I will feed it and I’ll even clean up all its poop. PLEEAASSE! I’ll never ask for another thing!” How many parents have stared into the eyes of their very earnest child who pleads for a pet or toy he or she cannot live without and will play with or care for every single day?

Considering the promises of children to be trustworthy

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and GrandmotherDevelopment

How about the teenager who begs for a car or a bike or a motorcycle or an expensive musical instrument, claiming he is absolutely sure he can handle all the responsibilities associated with it?

Children can be incredibly persistent and adamant about their trustworthiness.

And how many parents have succumbed, only to find out that their children really aren’t as trustworthy as they promised to be? It can then become the parents’ responsibility to care for that pet or deal with toys that now are “boring” or musical instruments that gather dust.

Parents can be so disappointed when their children make promises they don’t keep.

Part of a parent’s job is to learn not to trust their children’s abilities to fulfill promises over time, despite the sincerity with which their children state that they are to be trusted.

Once again, as I shared in my last post, it comes down to neuroscience.

It turns out that the part of the brain – the cortex – where judgment and self-control reside, is not fully developed. In fact, this region of the brain is highly underdeveloped through most of childhood and adolescence.

It is a long, slow process for a child or young person to develop good judgment and the ability to live up to promises made. Until this executive center of the brain develops, children really are not to be trusted when they make promises. Parents can look into those earnest eyes and envision the brain behind them still being under construction. This is something the child cannot appreciate is happening within his or her brain because that would take a mature brain to fully conceptualize.

Dr. Bruce Perry, Senior Fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston describes how the brain grows from the bottom up.

The cortex, the part that sits on top of the other layers and essentially is a person’s “thinking cap” is the last to develop, not fully finishing until as late as age 31. The underlying limbic system, often referred to as the “seat of emotion” can dominate. Because this area seeks immediate gratification and feelings of excitement when there is something new and novel to experience, it pushes the child to make promises in order to succeed in convincing parents he or she is trustworthy with regard to being able to sustain a promise over time.

The savvy parent knows that it is not fair to be overly trusting when a child begs for something and makes promises with regard to his or her future behaviors.

It is also important not to discount a child’s sincerity in the moment. “I can hear how much you want a dog and are sure you will take care of it every single day. Before we consider that, I am willing to have you care for fish (or guinea pig or gerbil) to show me that you can be a responsible pet owner. If after three months you have cared every single day for this pet, we can talk more.”

Of course, even if a child succeeds in caring for small pet, wise parents realize that there still is a good chance that the child will be unable to maintain high levels of responsibility over the long run. So, parents need to be prepared for children to need extra help to remain trustworthy in fulfilling their promises.

Also, it is important not to blame or shame children when they are not able to follow through with promises. Their immature brains often prevent them from being fully trustworthy. Not trusting a child is often the fairer choice for parents to make.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. Have you observed times when your child has seemed so sincere about promising something he or she will do and then reneges on his or her promise? Have you then blamed or accused the child of being irresponsible or have you taken responsibility for being overly trusting?
  2.  Are there ways you can promote responsibility in your child without overly trusting him or her? (And yes, this requires a lot of judgment on the part of parents!)

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network