In our adult relationships, we deal with issues of trust very differently than in our relationships with our children. (If you missed Part One of this series on trust, you can read it here.) In most adult cases, we can choose to have or not have the relationship. We generally don’t make this choice with our children. Trust is an attribute of the child-parent relationship that is first initiated by us, the adult parent. We build over time through many conscious actions and thoughtful considerations, take advantage of all opportunities to exercise an exchange of trust. With our kids it is initially more of a one-way effort from the parent rather than the sharing of trust that a typical adult relationship requires.
Telling a child to trust us and functionally demonstrating trust are really two different things. We can only build trust with our kids by demonstrating it over and over again from the day they are born. We know that repetition works extremely well with young children as a learning tool. Parents can take advantage of that fact and teach our children the meaning of trust (or any of the other elements of the relationship) by using the same approach—conscious repetition. Also, it has to be sincere. I find that most kids can sense sincerity better than many adults!
When my son Ian was less than nine months old, I would hold him high up in the air with one hand under his bottom. I would say, “Ian, son, trust me. I won’t let you fall.” I wasn’t sure if he could even understand what these words meant, but it did not matter. I was sincere and earnest, which children will always seem to understand to some degree. I must have repeated this lesson in one way or another thirty or forty times over the first couple of years of his life. Each time I would play with him in the air or set him outside of his comfort zone, I would say the same thing. “Ian, trust me.” Soon, I recognized that he was beginning to believe what I said. I was building trust. He relaxed and completely enjoyed his high aerial fun. And so did I!
I also realized that I had to be fully committed to the dynamic that I had set up and be aware of my actual and realistic abilities. I could never, ever let him fall. It is absolutely essential to say the words, “Trust me,” only when we can back it up. This is crucial. We have to be certain. Saying “sorry” if it goes wrong adds a little goodwill but it does cause consequential damage to their trust in us. It works a lot better with our adult relationships…but if used too frequently even our adult relationship will suffer. However, these little precious moments, when successful, hold the opportunity to establish or build a bond that will serve the relationship for years. Each time I played with Ian I was careful not to exceed my limits so that I could keep that trust.
Make Promises You Can Keep
Relationship trust comes from doing pretty much exactly what we say we will do. This simple common logic of standing behind our promises (or what we say we are going to do) means everything to our children. Promises are interchangeable with the intent of trust and are the powerful commitment to creating trust. Making promises that we know we may not be able to keep, or perhaps we are not completely committed to keeping, is very risky. Breaking even one promise weakens crucial support in our bridge and puts the entire opportunity in jeopardy. Kids will regretfully accept broken promises, but they should never have to. This may seem unreasonable, but it is not—it simply requires that we only make promises and statements that we can truly keep.
As my boys got older, I made fewer and fewer promises because I was not absolutely sure I could deliver. Even as adults, we declare promises that even though we are indeed stating them with sincere intent to honor them, we may have some sense of doubt that we actually will be able to deliver. Not delivering what we say erodes most all relationships over enough time and some very quickly. I realize this is puts a significant pressure on us…but kept promises can be a very valuable tool for building critical trust in a relationship as it grows and changes. I learned this early with my boys, and I am extremely grateful because as they tried to navigate through their teenage challenges and many, many personal changes, my ‘promises’ (although fewer in between) were a reliable catch hold that critically supported them in a very subtle and deep way.
Show Them You Trust Them
Our children must trust us, and we must look for opportunities to show some trust in them as well. Allowing our children to experience our trust in them in every way possible is essential to developing their belief in themselves. For example, when we ask our children to go upstairs and brush their teeth, we want to trust that they will actually do it. If we follow them and watch to make sure they, do it, then we are, in reality, displaying our distrust in them. We might be able to sneak a peek. But if we get caught, it will likely be more difficult to develop trust in other core important areas. Perhaps brushing our teeth with them for several times in succession may work quite well if there is some resistance. This small tactic works pretty well for other daily or scheduled chores as well.
Another very common situational opportunity is when we are watching our children on the playground from the bench after we just asked them in earnest to go out and play but “Be careful!” In this case, we are watching out for them, not monitoring them because we have some predisposed belief that they might fall. A different mindset might be to just ask them to have fun and pay attention. All the while we are quietly hoping that they will play within the guidelines we have already modeled or set up. Also, be ready to intervene with assistance without pushing. Their enthusiasm to get out and play probably distracts them from what we are saying anyway. By the way, always saying “be careful” in nearly every situation where they are left to their own devices will soon make those words pretty hollow and relatively meaningless. This is an expression we easily overuse, and its overuse represents more of our unconsciousness than our consciousness.
Kids will let us down time and time again with regard to trusting them because they are still learning this crucial value (possibly even into their twenties!). This is a big part of their own growing up. It is far more important for our children to trust us and learn the value of trust in this way than it is for us to have the ‘comfort’ of trusting them. Our ‘comfort’ is just not all that realistic in the beginning, as almost every parent soon discovers. We don’t have kids in order to be comfortable.
Life is mostly a one-way street for kids. As parents, we must work much harder than them to establish and maintain their trust in us without expecting them to ‘earn’ our trust in the same way we are trying to earn it from them. Their job is simply to grow up. It is our job as parents to keep their street safe and as unobstructed as possible. They will certainly learn all too soon (somewhere around adolescence) that there is a lot of traffic, and most of it is coming at them.
In Part Three of this series on trust, we will focus on trust in the teenage years.