Parenting contract: Negotiating with your kids

Oct 4, 2012 at 2:00 p.m. ET

Tired of pulling your hair out because your kids constantly abuse their screen time or don't do their chores without you asking five times? Try a parenting contract.

Draw one up with your kids and sign on the dotted line. The results could change your relationship!

If you think about it, you sign contracts for many important things, so why should your children be any different? But like with any important negotiation, you have to play your cards right.

Keep it simple

Deborah Gilboa suggests that you make a contract as simple as possible. She says to define:

  1. The behavior the parents requires of the child.
  2. The privileges that continue (or get added) if that behavior continues.
  3. The privileges that are revoked if those behaviors or actions stop.

Gilboa has a contract with her own son that you can model your own contract after. "Our elementary school son wanted to play football this season. The hours are long and we worried about the impact on the rest of his life. Gilboa's contract, outlined below, has been very effective:

  • Before practice each evening, chores must be done, homework must be finished and a meal must be eaten.
  • After practice each evening twenty minutes for a snack, then shower and bedtime.
  • If all these requirments are met for the 8 weeks of the season on all three practice nights each week, then we will pay for all the gear, at least one parent will hang out for each practice and the whole family will go to each game. AND you can play next year.
  • If chores/homework/dinner aren't done before practice, no practice that night. If bedtime is more than an hour after getting home then no practice the next night. Miss two practices in a week? Can't go to the football game on the weekend.

Tired of ragging and nagging? >>

Warning: Don't create a contract unless you plan to stick to it

"If a parent feels he or she cannot enforce a contract, I would not engage in the contract, or I would suggest rewriting so that he or she is more comfortable with the provisions. An unenforced contract is counterproductive," says Dr. John Duffy.

"It takes away from a parent's authority, and suggests to the child that the implied structure isn't really there at all. In the end, though they would never admit it, children feel less safe under such an arrangement as it lacks enforcement," says Duffy.

Do you strive to be the "cool" parent? >>

What do you include?

"Many families are looking for a quick-fix checklist of family rules. Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all," says Daniel Trussel, Ph.D.

Trussel recommends the family charter technique. "It's effective because it publishes the family rules so everyone clearly understands what is expected of them, places the responsibility on the child to decide if breaking a rule is worth the established consequence to build on self-determination and making "right" choices, it adds consistency to parenting, it increases secure attachment in families, parents don't have to develop consequences for broken rules "on-the-fly."

And what if the contract is broken?

According to Trussel, there should be consequences that can be both additive and subtractive. "Additive consequences include additional chores, responsibilities and activities whereas subtractive consequences include taking away privileges, physical items and most importantly time away from family. The most effective consequences are immediate, achievable and for a specific time. The phrase “grounded for life” is not a consequence at all and most parents are really not prepared to refuse to allow a child to have any social activity for an extended period of time," says Trussel.

"Consequently, being grounded loses it’s meaning to the child and becomes a 'waiting game' to see how long it will be before the parent gives in. When a parent says, 'you are grounded for a month,' only to begin to make exceptions (the Homecoming dance, a call from the child’s best friend, an opportunity to try out for a school play, a visit to the zoo because the rest of the family had planned for it), grounded is not grounded anymore," explains Trussel.

Read more about disciplining your kids

Negotiate with toddlers? Are you crazy?
Evaluating your discipline techniques
The discipline quiz