Better Than a Promise

by Clark H Smith

#Challenge: Dads, have you ever withdrawn privileges from your kids because of their bad behavior? Good dads know that discipline and even punishment is necessary to help shape our children’s character, but what’s the “big picture” in terms of promises made to our kids?

#HeadGear: My oldest son is now 26. About twenty years ago, I sat with him watching one of his favorite shows—Blues Clues. The show featured the book, Knots on a Counting Rope (by John Archambault). The show host read through the book, but everything stopped for me when I heard:

“I love you. That’s better than a promise.”

Everything I’ve ever tried to do as a parent (yes, son, even the discipline) was bound up in my love for my children. And to be frank, in my children’s eyes, everything I ever did as a parent is a test of my love. The food, shelter, and clothing I provided are proof of my love for them. My commitment to my wife is proof of my love for my children. The time I spent, the gifts I gave, the interest I took in their lives all stand as proof of my love for them. When I heard this line, something shot through my mind like a lightning bolt.

In the summer of 1966, my mom and brother and I wound up in Seattle with a few hours to kill before catching a plane back home to Fairbanks. As we wandered around, my mom told us we’d visit the Space Needle—just completed in 1962 and a true spectacle.

As we neared the site, my brother and I got into some bush-league dispute over something stupid. That’s what 8 and 10 year old brothers do. My mom, understandably exhausted, wheeled on us and snapped, “That’s it. I told you, ‘No fighting.’ Now we’re not going to the Space Needle.” In my mature, adult eyes, I don’t blame her. But at that moment she sealed in me a decision that has served me well as a dad.

For me, my promises are bound up in my love and not my sons’ behavior. I have never taken back anything good that I’ve promised my sons. If promises are conditional, then kids may assume that love is conditional. That’s the last thing I wanted them to think. I repeat: I have never taken away anything good that I’ve promised my sons.

If there is a disturbance in the peace close to an activity or thing promised, I may alter other benefits down the line, but nothing that was already on the table gets taken off. By the way, if I had only thought about doing something special, but not expressed it yet, I still did not pull it back. Many times I’ve said, “You didn’t know that I was planning to ________. I’m very disappointed in your behavior right now, but I’m not going to take back what, in my heart, I have already given you.” Consistency doesn’t begin with our words, it begins with the heart.

Yes, I’ve frequently made rewards conditional …. “If you finish your chores today, we’ll go get ice cream.” There’s nothing wrong with teaching your kids cause and effect. But if I made a one-sided promise, I felt in my bones that I was bound by love to deliver on the promise.

#ManUp: Dads, do you agree with my premise—that promises reveal the character of our love? Do you have some cleaning up to do at home; maybe a conversation to have with your kids about promises, behavior, and love? Parenting takes courage, and apologizing to your kids may take the most courage you’ve ever summoned. But imagine the impact on your kids when you tell them you want to show your love more consistently and without consequences. It’s worth it. Man up, if you need to, and tell your kids that things are going to be different from now on.

#SoundOff: This is a challenging topic. What do you think about the tension between being a generous parent and teaching consequences? How do you do it? What difficulties have you struggled with?

clark-h-smithClark H Smith is a husband, father, writer, and pastor. Clark’s four sons have taught him well to appreciate the joy of fatherhood, the mystery of childhood, and glorious uniqueness of every person. 

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