Why trusting your children helps them become trustworthy

When a parent tells me her child isn’t trustworthy, I ask her: “What does your child have to do for you to trust him?”

Often the answer is, “I can’t trust him until he earns my trust.”

It’s understandable that a parent feels afraid to trust a child who has disappointed her in the past.  At the same time, treating a child with distrust (even nonverbally) isn’t a good recipe for raising a trustworthy child!

Recently my ds17 went to the army for his mandatory initial check-in.  This is comprised of academic testing, a physical and testing for psychological stability.  To determine how he gets along with people, they began with questions about his relationships with his parents.

“What happens when you want to do something and your parents don’t let you do it?”  

Not wanting to sound like a goody goody, he tried to come up with an example but he couldn’t think of a time that had happened.  When he was pressed for an answer he still couldn’t think of an example, so they told him to make up something.  :)

When he later told me about this, he asked me if I remembered a time in the last couple of years that I didn’t let him do something he wanted to do.  I also came up blank.  Is that because I’m a permissive parent and I let him do what he wants?


It’s about trust.


Here’s our informal process for discussing a request.  He lets me know there’s something he wants to do or somewhere he wants to go.  I listen to what that is.  Then I ask questions to clarify.  If there’s something I’m uncomfortable with, I let him know that overall it sounds fine but I’d be more comfortable if xyz were taken into account. He takes into account my feedback and acts accordingly.

I don’t have to control him.  I don’t need to assert my will.  I respect him as a mature and responsible person and communicate with him accordingly.  I presume in every interaction that he’s trustworthy.  And he really is.

How does a child become trustworthy?  And when do you begin to trust him?

Not by making him jump over or through your ‘trust’ hoop a certain amount of times.  (You know what I’m talking about. Some of you have been doing this for years with your spouse, too!)

Instead, you give your child the message that you trust them.  Then you give them opportunities to make independent choices.  After they’ve made their choices, let them know what you appreciate about how they handled that opportunity.  This starts at a young age and the choices get bigger as they get older.

As they get older, let them go somewhere by themselves.  Maybe it’s the neighbor across the hall to return a bag of sugar, the park next door.  Let them do some shopping for you.  Give them a list and rather than specify what brand of the item, tell them to get the one that he thinks is the best buy.

Sure, sometimes they make mistakes.    Maybe you sent him to the store for bread and milk, and he used part of the change for a chocolate bar.  Should you accuse him of stealing, or tell him that now you don’t feel you can trust him?  Or  that you won’t let him go to the store for you again unless you’re with him or until he shows he can be trusted?

No.  You’re hurting both you and your child in the short and long term with a response like that.

Have you ever had someone who didn’t trust you?  Even when you tried your best, they refused to notice your efforts and continued to fixate on and inflate your failings.

How did that make you feel?  Like trying harder?  Or did you give up, knowing that whatever you did wouldn’t be enough?

Maybe you did try again and again.  Are there people whose approval and trust you’re still trying to win, even after decades of unsuccessfully trying?

When you give your children the message, either verbally or through body language, that you don’t trust them, you don’t give them something to live up to.  Don’t ever tell your child: ‘I can’t trust you’.  Or, ‘I’ll trust you when you earn my trust’.  You might feel this way, but this doesn’t give a child any incentive to try harder and do better.

Our children reflect our thoughts and feelings about them.  Show them you believe in them, that you think they’re responsible, hardworking, trustworthy, able to make decisions – and then give them the opportunity to prove you right!


They are going to make mistakes – it’s all part of the process.  When your child makes a mistake, give him the benefit of the doubt.  And give him another chance, perhaps with clearer expression of your expectations or boundaries.  Pay attention to the ways your child is trying to please you and let him know you notice his efforts.  Don’t let his successes be crowded out by bigger irritations and frustrations.

Our children are a reflection of the way we think about them.  Let’s remember that power and use it wisely!


2 thoughts on “Why trusting your children helps them become trustworthy

  1. I have this as a huge issue with my oldest. He is 12. I trust him and let him make mistakes again and again, and every time he breaks my trust.
    I am starting to feel like I am being taken advantage of, since i keep on telling him that this time I trust he will do the right thing, and he keeps on not doing it, and when we talk about it, it sounds that this independence and trust is something that is not important to him.
    I do not want to punish him, but it gets harder and harder to just hope that one time it will all work out.

    I do not have these issues with my other kids.

    Is it a matter of honesty and evasive personality rather than trust?

    1. This is a great question, Ilana! Kids mature into behaviors at different rates. It’s not necessarily a character issue, but a readiness issue.

      When you give someone trust, first think about if it’s something he’s capable of doing. Don’t set the bar higher than what you know he’s likely to be able to do. He needs to have success experiences. Start small and build from there. Base your expectations of him on what you know about him – don’t give him the same expectations as everyone else at this age because it’s clearly setting you both up for failure and frustration. As he shows more responsibility, give him a little more, then a little more. Increase in small steady increments and back down to the level before if you see he’s not ready for the new level. Give him time and opportunities, but keep the opportunities the right size for him.

      Some kids need more support than others in various areas. It’s like some kids need to hold your hand when you walk because they’re more impulsive and therefore more likely to bolt into the street while other kids from the tiniest age will stay close to your side.

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