Contracts

Shameless plug: The awesome blog The Handsome Father has graciously invited me to post a column as a guest blogger. You can read the 10 at 10: Lessons Learned entry on their site.

Meanwhile, continuing with the theme of “good ideas and bad ones” …

A few  months ago, a parent friend told me that she was feeling really bad. Her kid’s behavior on a certain issue was not improving, to the point where she finally, reluctantly, resorted to having the kid sign a behavior contract. She felt quite guilty about this—to her, a contract seemed so legalistic and formal that it didn’t really belong in a family situation.

I’m glad my kids weren’t in the room when she told me this. They would have fallen out of their chairs laughing. If contracts make a family too legalistic, we should have set up a shingle outside our door declaring ourselves “Sadusky, Sadusky, and Sadusky, Esq.” pretty much from day one.

No joke. For as long as I can remember, the kids and I have  set up contracts for just about everything:

  • Behavior in general (“I agree to clean my room once per week.” “I agree not to hide the gummy bear vitamins by dropping them behind the stove.”)
  • Behavior when they are together (“We agree that when we can’t agree about what to watch on TV, we will try these things to resolve the problem. ‘Bash my brother on the head with the remote’ is not one of the options.”)
  • Behavior when they are apart (“We agree that when one of us is not home, the other one will not go in that person’s room to look through his journal, scribble on his notebook, or take his socks.”)

Not to mention, the most common contract between kids and parents in the 21st century: The one regulating cell phone use and texting. We have gone through many versions of these—at one point, it seemed like one kid or another was signing a new contract every six months. For as well-behaved as my kids are in general, with regard to their phones, they always seem to find new and creative ways to cross the line that I hadn’t yet thought of when I came up with the contract terms.—the way hackers are always one step ahead of anti-malware solutions.

And that’s before we get to the online porn …

The second key part to any contract is the consequence: “I agree that if I [do/don’t do the behavior mentioned in the contract], I will give Daddy a quarter/give up my phone for a week/write 10 nice things I can do for my brother—and then do them.”

Maybe I’ve just been lucky—OK, I know I have—but I have found contracts to be ridiculously effective for managing behaviors. Because the kids need to read the contract aloud to me, they know exactly what they are (literally) signing up for. They always have the opportunity to request changes before signing—maybe a different consequence, or slightly different terms—and we negotiate something we are both comfortable with. The best part is, if and when they break a rule, all one needs to do is to pull out the contract and remind them what it says—no muss, no fuss.

This might be stretching a point, but I think it’s possible that contracts have even more value when you are getting kids who are at least partway up the path to the age of reason (assuming we still consider that age to be somewhere between 8 and 13, and not when reason really kicks in closer to 35). Contracts seem to strike a good balance between recognizing that your kid is already a formed person whom you respect enough to give some say in how you and they manage behaviors, and letting the kid know that you are setting up clear boundaries and limits (i.e., structure, i.e., safety, stability, home).

I tell my kids that in 10 or 20 years or so, they can come back and tell me all the things they’re mad about from our time together. I’ll keep you posted whether contracts make the list, but I won’t be at all surprised if they don’t.

Next: Perspective

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