Parenting by Making Commitments and Building Trust

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Several weeks ago, Dennis, my mom, our friend Christina, and I went for a group “coffee date” during the kids’ Sunday school class. We had a lovely time chatting over our coffee when I noticed the time and said, “Oh, we better get back.  The kids will be fine in the church courtyard but it’s getting late.”  We scurried off and were just a block from the church when my cell phone rang.  It was my friend Michelle, who teaches one of the Sunday school classes.  “Someone is wondering where you are,” she said.  A tearful Sienna got on the phone and I explained that we were almost back.

As I came into the classroom, Sienna was still sobbing. I hugged her close.  “Honey, we were on our way back.  We knew you were safe here with our church family. It’s okay, love.” I kept given her reassuring words and holding her close for several minutes.

The following Saturday afternoon, Sienna started asking me questions about Sunday school. “You’ll be there to pick me up, right?”  Initially, I was a little impatient with her. Recently, Sienna has been needing a lot of reassuring and often her questions strike me as absurd.  And, if I’m honest, they make me worry about her worrying, which doesn’t feel good.  I distractedly replied: “Yes, of course we’ll be there, honey.”

Sienna’s pleas for reassurance continued the next morning and hit their peak during the sermon. She was in tears as she expressed deep fear that we wouldn’t be there to pick her up after Sunday school.  I took her out of the church so we could talk.  This time, I really listened.  What I heard and related to was genuine fear.  I could see she now had an association between coming out of Sunday school and experiencing the fear of not seeing us down in the courtyard, therefore the thought of sitting in class anticipating that moment was causing her anxiety.

As I started to promise her we would be there, a thought suddenly occurred to me: “Make and keep commitments to build trust.” This reminder has been popping up on my Outlook Task list for months, as a reminder to build trust with my coworkers by making and keeping commitments. The phrase comes from Speed of Trust, a book and program we’ve embraced at our office, which argues that making and keeping commitments to people is one of the best ways to build their trust in you. It was such a perfectly timed reminder.

“Sienna, why don’t we pick out a specific place in the courtyard for us to be when you get out of class?” I offered. “That way you’ll know just where to look for us.”

“Okay. Yes, that would be good,” she replied with a big exhale of relief.

After mass, we crossed through the courtyard on Sienna’s way up to class. “Which picnic table should we be sitting at?” I asked.

“That one,” she said, pointing. “That way I can see you right from the top of the stairs!”

As Dennis and I hurried over to the farmer’s market for an iced coffee, I explained to him that we had to get back right away. I wanted to be sure to be there in plenty of time. This was now a commitment.  I’d promised to be there and I knew she needed us to help her overcome this fear.

We got back at least 20 minutes before class was scheduled to end, so we sat on a comfy couch in the courtyard while drinking our coffee and chatting with our church family members as they came and left. As the time for class to end neared, I told Dennis I was heading over to sit at the picnic table.  Even though she could see us from the couch, that wasn’t the point. I’d promised to be there, at that picnic table.  Meeting the spirit of the commitment wasn’t the same as meeting it fully.

The look on Sienna’s face when she came to the top of the stairs and looked straight down at where I was sitting was pure relief, joy, and love. She came running down the stairs. “Mommy, you’re right where you said you’d be!” she exclaimed. I gave her a big hug and said a prayer of gratitude for being there, when she needed me.

That little moment built so much trust between Sienna and me. Since that week, she’s continued to express concern about whether we’ll be in the courtyard when class gets out.  I keep reassuring her and when I say, “I’ll be sitting at the picnic table,” she smiles and nods.  Clearly the memory of seeing me sitting there the first time I promised has given her a comforting association with getting out of class.

This experience meant so much to me. It reminded me of the simple truth that just showing up and being present, as a parent, is more than half the battle.  There’s not much that’s more rewarding than connecting with my daughter by fulfilling a promise to do what I love: be there for her.

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