Trust is something that develops over time. As adults, we give our trust slowly, often only after testing the waters and determining that the person we trust is worthy of it or at least worthy of our chancing it. I suspect we do this because we have experienced betrayal. Confidences revealed, actions that hurt, words not kept, are the fodder that burns the fire of lost trust. And so as we get older, we trust more cautiously, and give our trust to others more slowly and even fearfully.
The more often we have had our trust betrayed the harder it becomes to trust another. Children on the other hand trust immediately. Babies trust their parents to take care of them, children trust that their parents always do the right thing and therefore whatever they do is automatically right. To a child, the expectation that you are worthy of their trust and will not betray it is automatic and so the first time that trust is betrayed in their eyes, the hurt and confusion is huge. If it is the parent who is at fault here and the betrayal seems deliberate to the child, the hurt may linger forever, hampering the parent-child relationship into adulthood.
I met Gayle* (not her real name) in one of the well spouse groups I had the privilege of interviewing. The topic was trust; trust of our spouses, trust of doctors, and trust of the system. Gayle talked about her lack of trust, or more to the point, her difficulty in trusting others. She said that her inability to trust easily began with what was, for her, a traumatic event when she was six. As she retold her story, she said she knew it sounded foolish, trite, and like a minor incident between her and her mother. But, she knew that incident was at the root of her fear of trusting others and felt it had been the seed that helped destroy her relationship with her mother.
When Gayle was six, she had very long hair. Her mother had wanted her to cut it for months, but Gayle refused. She turned down various bribes, ignored threats and took care of her long hair as best a six-year-old could in an attempt to make her hair length a non- issue with her mother. One day when Gayle and her mother were shopping, Gayle fell in love with a plastic case full of beautiful hair barrettes and ornaments.
“It was like a jewelry box full of things for your hair. I can still see what it looked like today, 45 years later,” she said. “My mother enticed me. She said she would buy it for me if I cut my hair. I thought about it for a few minutes. We were very poor and I owned very few things and nothing this beautiful (at least to my six-year-old eyes). And so I agreed.”
Not wanting Gayle to change her mind, her mother immediately detoured to the nearest hair cutting establishment where Gayle watched sadly as her long hair floated slowly to the floor. But she kept thinking about the beautiful box of hair clips that would soon be hers and she made it through the haircut without a tear.
Haircut completed, mother and daughter went back to the store to get the promised treasure. “I stood there speechless, fighting back tears, as my mother picked up two cheap, ugly hair barrettes on a card that was part of a display, paid for them and handed them to me. Without a word, we then left the store. I was only six, but I can still remember the feeling of betrayal, and the sudden realization that my mother had lied to me. She had deliberately lied to me in order to get what she wanted from me. Neither of us said a word to each other all the way home. I remember sitting on the bus trying to sort out all these feelings that were drowning me. We never talked about it, but I never looked at my mother the same after that. I never trusted her to keep her word to me. And, I think, it killed any relationship we might have had even into adulthood.
When you give your word to your child it is vital to keep it. More is at stake here than promises to do something that you become unable to do − or worse, never intended to fulfill. Going back on what you said is more than an outing cancelled or a gift not gotten. It can be the death knoll of a relationship. If for some reason you can’t do what you said you would, you need to talk to your child and explain why you are going back on your word and even apologize for not being able to follow through.
Children understand more than we give them credit for and want to keep us on that moral pedestal we were placed upon on at their birth. Deliberately making promises you have no intention of keeping just to get your child to acquiesce may result in more negative and aggressive behavior towards you than you ever thought possible. But whether the broken promise is deliberate or happenstance, just letting the incident pass without comment could have disastrous effects on your relationship for years. Worse, it can be the beginning of weakening the bond of trust that is so important between a parent and child.
You can contact me at email@example.com