Stop the Fighting…..Bring on the Family Contract!!

From time to time, parents come to me because they are frustrated with their children’s behavior.

For one mother it was the dreaded trip to the grocery store with her 4 year old son. If she didn’t cave in to his requests to buy a toy or candy, he would start crying loudly, creating a disturbance and embarrassing her. She tried yelling, pleading and spanking. It didn’t work.

For another set of parents, it was the frustration of having a 12 year old son who refused to clean his room, turn in homework assignments, or help with family chores. They lectured, threatened, and argued. It didn’t work.

As parents, we are responsible for preparing our children for the big world. Employers, neighbors and friends will never love our children as much as we do. They will not be tolerant of our grown up kids if they are exhibiting the same irresponsible behavior, lack of consideration for others, or poor impulse control that they are doing every day in our homes.

Parents are always wondering how to make rules stick. Since whips, chains and abuse are out of the question, I make a Family Contract. It takes a few hours to set up, and only 15 minutes a day to enforce. The Family Contracts works by setting up clear rules for behavior, it lists privileges, and clearly spells out what the child must do to earn the privileges. It is an effective tool that can make family life a more harmonious existence.

When constructing a Family Contract, you need to take into consideration your child’s age, skills, limitations, and interests. There are specific components of the contract; rules, point assignment, daily review, award disbursement.

1. Rules
Each contract will contain a list of rules with which the child is expected to comply. These are nonnegotiable expectations that the parent has determined to be important to the functioning of the family. Rules may include, but are not confined to, chores, behavior related to school, selection of friends, curfews, exercise, pet care, and personal hygiene. Each rule is written very specifically, ensuring that both the parent and child are very clear as to what the behavior is to look like.

2. Point System
Each rule is assigned a point, ranging from 1-5. When a rule is completed, the child is awarded the corresponding number of points. These points can later be exchanged for rewards. The number of points a rule is assigned varies based on the level of importance the parent places on it. For example, taking out the trash weekly may earn 1 point, whereas not hitting other children on the schoolyard, (a more serious behavior) could be worth 5 points. Also consider the difficulty of each behavior, when assigning points. Feeding the family dog daily is not as difficult a behavior as not yelling at parents.

Points are added up, preferably at the same time each day. Family Contracts often fail due to lack of parental compliance. If parents don’t take the contract seriously and enforce it daily, then the child will understand that the parent isn’t committed to it, and won’t make the desired changes.

Remember that no one is perfect, so we should not expect our children to be, either. When reviewing the chart with your child, give positive feedback for the points earned, as this reflects successful changes in behavior. When points cannot be earned, do not criticize, but give encouragement. Remind them that tomorrow is a new and fresh day, and they can again try to earn points for that behavior.

3. Privileges
This is what motivates your child to work with the contract. Consider it akin to the paycheck after a 40 hour work week. Develop a list of attainable rewards. Avoid having them be solely monetary. They can include a later curfew, a sleepover, more telephone time, an outing with a parent, or selection of toppings for the family pizza. All rewards are not equal, so points will be assigned according to the value of the reward. The child should be able to use earned points in any given weeks for a reward, or to save up some points for a larger reward.

4. Signing
This is a contract. Each parent and child for whom the rules are being established, are to sign the contract. This formality helps to increase the child’s investment in the contract.

5. Posting
Post the contract in the kitchen in a highly visible place. If tucked in a drawer, it will get overlooked on busy days. Keep it highly visible, such as under a magnet on the refrigerator, enables parents and the child to reflect on changes made, and on awards to be reached.

Are you ready to put the fun back in parenting? The Family Contract may be the tool you’ve been waiting for.

Eileen Lenson
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