People do what you inspect not what you expect!
~ Dr.Henry Brandt

When I was growing up, my parents used a family contract as the primary method of discipline. I remember one rule was that our room needed to be cleaned prior to leaving for school. If not, then we lost our TV privileges for 24 hours. When my younger brother, Michael, was six years old, he learned the power of a family contract when it was discovered that he had not cleaned his room before school. Michael seemed unfazed at the prospect of losing TV until our older sister, Kari, reminded him of a terrible reality. "Do you know what night this is?" Kari blurted out. "It's Little House on the Prairie night!"

A collective moan resonated around the dinner table as we realized what this meant for Michael. But determined not to show his disappointment Michael boldly proclaimed, "I don't care-there's too much sex on that show anyway." We all roared with laughter after Michael's cynical critique of such a wholesome show. This is one example of many memorable nights discussing our family contract at the dinner table.

Since the Scriptures instruct us to discipline our children, a contract is a great way to help children of all ages learn limits. It's important to teach children that the world has controls and limitations. Just as the seat belt law restricts our freedom, it also ensures our safety and increases our chances of surviving an accident. It is there for our own welfare. Likewise, a family contract is used to protect a child. Contracts are not intended to restrict a child -- limiting his freedom. Instead, contracts are created to produce freedom! Having clearly defined rules and limits allows the child to make informed decisions on how he should behave. This freedom can only happen when your child is clearly aware of the responsibilities expected and the consequences that will follow his behavior. If setting limits is so important, how do parents begin?

Seven Essential Features of an Effective Family Contract

In my family, the kids were first exposed to a family contract around six years of age. Naturally, the contract was quite simple. We were taught to obey God, our parents, and to be kind to people and things. These ideas stemmed from Matthew 22:37-39. As our physical, emotional and mental abilities grew so did the contract. In its heyday, our family contract included these areas: Honoring God, others and His creation; obedience; cleanliness; chores; manners; and inner character qualities. Like baking your favorite meal requires the correct ingredients, when creating a family contract it's important to include several necessary elements.

1. Precise Wording

An effective contract begins by clearly defining the exact behaviors the child is expected to do or refrain from doing. In other words, limit the use of vague or ambiguous words that are open to alternative interpretations. For example, instead of saying that the child needs to obey, carefully define the exact behaviors and meaning of the word "obey." You might say, "Once mom or dad gives a direction, you are to immediately do it without complaining, arguing or nagging." Of course you will need to clarify the meaning of those words as well. Remember that a child is able to conform to his parent's wishes when he understands their exact expectation. Therefore, a written contract is preferred since it reduces the possibility of misunderstanding and provides an objective reference when disagreement about contract terms arise.

2. Clear Rewards and Consequences

A helpful contract will specify the rewards or privileges that may be gained or lost as a result of the child's behavior. For example, if a child is required to take the trash out after dinner then he needs to know that not doing this will result in no after-school snack for 24 hours. Likewise, it's important for the child to understand how he can earn rewards for positive behaviors as well. This can be achieved through allowance, special snack or extra TV time to name a few.