Contracts are good business, even in the home. Tom Brechlin talks about negotiating in families as both parents and kids age.
When my kids started high school, I’d already changed careers and was working as an addictions counselor in a residential facility for adolescent males. Whereas I applied some basic principles in life to work with these kids, I found that some of the things I learned in the industry could be applied to my own raising of teens.
Soon after entering the industry, because of staff shortage, I was given the responsibility of being the family counselor. A major part of that role was transitioning the adolescent back into their home. Working with these kids and their families for as much as 9 or 10 months, I found that a common problem within these families was that the parents had a lack of control and authority with their kids. They were trying to deal with teens as though they were small children.
One day I was at home reading a book (I wish I could find it so I could reference it) and found a chapter that was discussing the transition of a child to adolescent. What struck me was that the writer discussed the time where your little one is no longer little and has become a teenager. When a child gets into his teen years, he is in a position to take what he’s learned as a child (core values) and apply it to his life. As a parent we transition from explaining to them what they can and can’t do, to their taking control of their own lives and making decisions on their own.
There are benefits to making the right decision and consequences for making the wrong decisions. Teen years is when they learn how life works and that it’s not what mom and dad says but more importantly, what they know to be right and wrong.
How do we transition from a parent who dictates behaviors to a parent who sets the expectations but leaves the decision making to the kids?
As a family counselor, we had a stock “family contract” which a client would develop and sign upon discharge. It was a basic contract and addressed the typical “I’ll respect my parents” and “go to school” blah blah blah type of expectations. For me, that wasn’t enough in that if you know teens, you know that being vague is no more than an opportunity to find the proverbial loop hope and jump through it. Whereas probation court orders these kids are clear as to what the court expects of them, family contracts were at best remedial and vague. That’s why I developed a family contract that was clear as to household expectations and clear as to the consequences in the event these expectations were not met.
After successfully implementing these contracts with some of the families, I turned my eyes toward my own family and kids.
At the beginning of each high school school year, the wife and I with our teen kids ( boy and girl) would go to lunch and discuss the family contract as follows:
- Curfew (week days/weekends)
- Household duties such as who does which chore and when it’s expected to be done
- Household duties with respect to their personal space like their bathroom, bedroom etc.
- School related expectations, when homework is to be completed
- Respect of family members as in how they speak to each other, how they speak to their parents (what’s acceptable and unacceptable)
- Cardinal infractions which are behaviors that require immediate and drastic measures. An example would be staying out all night without a call or physical violence.
- Recreational expectations would include when, where and with whom they will be with.
- If they have a job, what’s expected to maintain that job such as keeping their grades up
Note: If you give them a chore like “clean the kitchen”, it’s best to clean the kitchen yourself and show them what you believe “clean” should be. Be clear as to your expectations so that they are left without a doubt as to what you expect of them.
- Have their own room / space
- Electronics, cell phone, TV, stereo etc.
- Family events such as night out at the movies
- Use of the car
Consequences – Using the idea of progressive discipline (but not being the disciplinarian) develop consequences based upon the level of infraction as well as looking at if they continue to repeat the same infractions.
- Loss of various privileges
- Additional “out of the norm” chores
- Verbal and/or written responses to the infraction
Note: You need to be reasonable in all of the above. Being a teen means that they are still kids and although they’re transitioning into adulthood, they still think and reason as kids.
We allowed our kids to be proactive in the development of this contract and I’ll be honest, they were really appropriate in that they themselves came up with a lot of the content including the “consequences.”
After we all came to an agreement, I would type up the contract and the following week take the family out for lunch or dinner and roll it out. Before anyone signed it, I would give the kids the opportunity to make any last minute changes. In their four years of high school (4 contracts each), they never made changes. We’d all sign off on it and the contract would be implemented.
Here’s the cool part of all of this and it relates to what I started this article with and that’s the transition of your teen and, more importantly, your parental transition.
One of my expectations was that their bedrooms could look as though they needed biohazard tape on their doors but by Saturday afternoon (5:PM) the rooms needed to be cleaned. Again, show them when you mean by “clean.”
It was a Saturday afternoon and my daughter came down the stairs saying that she was heading to her friend’s house. The expectation was that her room was clean. The consequence was that they would forfeit going out or having friends over Saturday evening. Don’t forget, THEY agree and sign off on the contract. They were given every opportunity to change that which they thought was unreasonable. I asked her if her room was clean, she said no but….. There are no “buts” … I pulled out the contract. Disgruntled as she was, she called her friend and said she wouldn’t be over. She went back to her room and cleaned. I went to the kitchen out of earshot and laughed out loud saying “It worked!!!”
What’s really cool is that I was not the bad guy. I wasn’t the one “telling her” what she could and couldn’t do. She made the decision all on her own. She and my son both learned, as in the real adult world, to take responsibility for their own lives and that there are consequences and benefits to the decisions they make.
What I’ve learned through the years is that a lot of issues I deal with while working with teens are not exclusive to the troubled “addicted” teen. I’ve learned that a lot of parents simply need some guidance and direction as do their kids. Something I will forever keep in the back of my mind is something that I was told when I started in the addictions field and that is, “Know the difference between addictive behavior and adolescent behavior.” A lot of the kids I work with are simply being kids and it’s part of my job to educate the families in understanding the difference.