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Parents, Teachers, Do You Trust Your Children? What Does it Mean to Trust a Child?

“I Want to be Trusted.”

When Katie was growing up, every once in a while she would blurt out an emphatic, “I want to be trusted.” She would always say it with an intensity that was a little startling, as if she were mad at not feeling trusted, or profoundly afraid that she would not be, or terrified, herself, that she was not trustworthy. Perhaps it was an emotional outburst in anticipation of a scary decision she was about to make.

We always had the same reaction: “We do trust you.” …and it was true. We did and do always trust all of our children. We never talked about it much. It was something we took for granted.

I have an old T-shirt that says, “Children should be seen, heard and believed.” My heart is committed to the sentiment, and yet sometimes activity in my prefrontal cortex makes me wonder how true it is.

We trust our children to make mistakes, to get into jams, to get over-extended, to need to be bailed out. We trust the decisions our children make not because we know they will always be good ones, but because their decisions represent who they are, or a necessary step in becoming who they are.

But trusting our children is not that simple; in fact it is really tricky business. One parent told me, “We always told our son that we would bail him out of any mistake the first time …. but he should learn from his mistakes and not make THE SAME mistake twice; if he did make the same mistake again, this time he was on his own. So far it hasn’t happened.” Is this a good strategy?

What does it mean to trust your child? Should teachers trust their students the same way? Can we trust children in the virtual world, too? Scary things can happen on hand-held devices. Does age matter? How can we guide them and keep them safe while letting them make their own mistakes?

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9 Responses to “Parents, Teachers, Do You Trust Your Children? What Does it Mean to Trust a Child?”

  1. Dr. Par Donahue March 30, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    Great post! After 4 decades of pediatrics I agree that trust is a major issue for kids, especially teens. In my book, “Messengers in Denim”, I have a whole chapter on it. I hope you have had a chance to look at it. You can find some excellent reviews on Amazon or my website.
    It looks like you have had a wonderful career. Perhaps we could share some stories and notes. Thanks, again, Par

  2. Ellyn March 30, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    Thanks again Rick – great post indeed! My mom always told me that she had great faith in me and that if I needed any assistance, she trusted that I would come to her. It gave me the freedom to try, to solve, to attempt all sorts of things, always knowing that her trust and support was right there at the fray. I hope that I have done the same thing for my children and remind them continually of their gifts and talents, actually celebrate who they are and marvel at them on a daily basis. The other day my 14 year old was surprised that her friend was unable to make what to my daughter seemed like an easy decision. Instead of merely judging the friend, when she came home, she thanked me for allowing her to make her own decisions so that she could. Trusting children in the making little decisions leads to trusting them in being able to making big decisions.
    …Ellyn

  3. Eduardo Briceño March 31, 2011 at 6:08 am #

    In the context of grown-up to grown-up relationships, I learned from Joel Peterson, a former professor, that you trust someone when:
    – the person behaves as a fiduciary for every other person, with no ulterior motive, no hidden agenda
    – the person has the competence/skills to do what he/she is doing
    – the person has the resources needed to do what he/she is doing
    As an example, “our mom” is someone we think of as trusting, but we wouldn’t trust her with flying a 747 (unless she’s a commercial pilot…)
    I believe that children are developing in all three areas. Hence, as Rick says, we can “trust them “to make mistakes” :), which is expected and leads to learning and growth. I think we can also trust them to become more and more trustworthy in different areas as they develop, and to one day become trustworthy individuals (in their areas of expertise and in general character), as our commitment to them will ensure.

  4. Peter March 31, 2011 at 6:14 am #

    Fantastic and deeply powerful question, “what does it mean to trust a child?” The first thing that jumps out at me is that this question gets its power from the fact that it omits the “to do xyx.” The verb “trust” takes an object and then there is at least an implied infinitive complement. “Do I trust you to touch anything in my study?” (Subject, Verb, Object, Infinitive Complement.) No. Easy question. “Do I trust you?” ge-DUN-dunk! (sound of heart dropping to pit of stomach). A similar effect can be created by omitting the object and exchanging the infinitive for a relative clause. “I trust that this issue is being taken care of.” Classic scary-boss language: will tend to get you on-edge by never quite asserting that the issue is in your realm of responsibility. One is trusted…. One wonders whether one is going to betray that trust…. Or perhaps if one ought to communicate this state of entrustment to a colleague…. Or if by communicating said entrustment one risks implying that one is not oneself in a state of entrustment.
    I suppose that maybe this gets back to the issue of disciplining each other by closing the information gap. If you don’t want your boss to talk in such vague terms, you have to establish a dialogue about what can reasonably be entrusted, and you have to clarify the pathways of accountability. A child that says “I want to be trusted” is omitting the truster and the category of concerns entrusted, so maybe the child is complaining that she wants to know whom she is accountable to and for what. Now, there’s a tangible need that can be addressed.

  5. Dane April 1, 2011 at 7:11 am #

    Trust builds trust. . . and kids have to be allowed to fail more than once. It’s what develops confidence and character.

  6. Jerry Metzker April 1, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    I think many parents know their children well enough to know that while the child should always be trusted, the child also needs boundaries and be observed. Responding to mistakes in judgment, bad choices and difficulties with knowledge and understanding is crucial to children. And it helps to include details of the situation in the post-conversation. This, I believe, more than the simplistic demand for trust, is where the crux of parent-child or even teacher-child relationships can be strong and supportive.

  7. Susi April 1, 2011 at 8:45 am #

    Some wise person, probably you, Rick, once said that we should at least act like we trust our teens to put the responsibility on their shoulders to be trustworthy. I think this makes a lot of sense, though I do trust then verify.

  8. Deepu Singh November 27, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    having to much trust on students….it’s beneficial or harmful????

  9. Rick November 28, 2012 at 5:32 am #

    Deepu, How could it be harmful? What’s an example of too much trust?

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