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The problem

From an early age all children believe that right at the top of the Ten Commandments is "Your parent shalt not break a promise." And rue the parent who does. Broken promises can produce very unhappy children.

"Dad, can we go to the pet store so I can buy a goldfish after we go to Nana and PopPops?"

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"I guess so, Joseph. If we have time."

"But please, say you will. Promise me."

"I'll try, but I'm not going to promise."

"No, promise me. Promise me. You have to promise."

"All right, I promise."

But the stay at Nana and PopPop's lasted far longer than Joseph's father had anticipated and there was not enough time for the visit to the pet store.

"I'm sorry, Joseph, there just isn't enough time. We need to get home. We'll have to do it some other day."

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"But you promised."

"I'm sorry, Joseph, we just can't."

"But you promised!"

And Joseph proceeded to have a giant tantrum.

"But you promised!"

What not to do

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Don't give him the "Sometimes in life things don't work out the way you want them to" lecture. He's really not interested in hearing about the workings of the universe. All that does is make him madder. All he knows is that at that moment he's not getting what he wants.

"I want to go to the pet store. You promised. You have to."

Also, if keeping a promise is – for whatever reason – really too difficult, you do not want to give in to the "you promised" pressure. "Oh, for goodness sake. Okay, we'll go," said Joseph's father, immediately feeling very hassled as they were now going to arrive home far later than he had wanted.

"Well, I didn't want to break a promise."

What to do

Definitely you want to be flexible if you can, but if it really is too much of a stretch to keep a promise – don't. Suggest what can be other, albeit not as satisfactory, options – such as another time. But mainly, if you are breaking a promise, sympathize with their disappointment: "I know you're disappointed. I'm really sorry."

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But also be prepared to be on the receiving end of a flood of child disappointment.

"You promised. You promised. You can't do that. You promised."

Which, after all, you did.

Which is also why you want to think long and hard before you make any further promises. Ever.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents If They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at awolf@globeandmail.com.

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