Christian Parenting and Family Resources with Biblical Principles

A family contract can foster responsibility at home

  • Gary Smalley Author and speaker on family relationships
  • 2002 24 Sep
  A family contract can foster responsibility at home
By Dr. Gary Smalley & Dr. Greg Smalley

Does it feel like discipline becomes more difficult as children get older? Consider the comments of one father regarding his teen-age son. "When I was growing up," complained the frustrated father, "I was disciplined by being sent to my room without supper. That was punishment enough because I had nothing. So I was bored out of my mind. But my son has his own color TV, phone, computer with Internet capabilities and a stereo with a CD player."

"So what happens when your son gets into trouble?" asked his friend.

"I send him to my room!"

One of the best things for teen-agers is to hold them accountable for their mistakes or poor choices, including decisions about alcohol. Teenagers have needs for independence, separation, and decreased parental control. But this doesn't mean no discipline. The key is to develop a system that incorporates the need for limits and accountability with the need for less control. A family contract can provide this balance.

Most teen-agers roll their eyes at the mention of the word "contract." They view rules or contracts as restrictions upon their freedom. But a family contract produces freedom! Clearly defined rules, limits and consequences allow teens to make informed behavior decisions. Written and signed documents have tremendous power to keep people in harmony. A family contract almost completely eliminates ambiguity and confusion concerning expectations.

A family contract must have several basic elements.

1. Precise Wording. Define the exact behaviors expected of the teen-ager. Limit vague words open to different interpretations. For example, carefully define the exact behaviors and meaning of the words "safe driving." You might have the teen write, "I will never consume alcohol until I am of legal age, nor will I ride with any driver who has been drinking." Teen-agers are better able to conform to parents' wishes when they understand their exact expectations. A written contract reduces misunderstanding and provides an objective reference when disagreements arise.

2. Rewards and Consequences. Specify rewards or privileges. For example, "If I drink alcohol, ride with a driver who has been drinking or receive moving violations myself, I will lose my license for up to one month. If any of these occur a second time, I will lose it for up to three months." Likewise, spell out how the teen can earn rewards for positive behaviors through allowance, special dessert, or extra use of the family car, etc.

3. Co-Creators. Work "with" your teenager to establish limits -- rules, consequences and rewards. Teens will more likely consider them their limits, rather than standards imposed on them. Everyone must sign and date the document, confirming agreement and possibly increasing the teen's commitment.

"People do what you inspect, not what you expect!" This quote by Dr. Henry Brandt is the essence of enforcing the family contract. Evaluate each teen's behavior regularly. During high school, our family met several times per week or as needed. Instead of correcting a teen's behavior throughout the day, the family meeting creates a specific time. But if the teen-ager commits a serious offense, you deal with it immediately.

A written, objective contract can greatly contribute to family harmony. It can make disciplining teen-agers much easier. Don't become discouraged at the first attempt to incorporate the contract into your family. Many teens will fight this. It may take weeks or months before everyone realizes the value.

Ask Dr. Gary Smalley and his sons, Michael and Greg, your questions about marriage and family relationships. Click here to submit your question.

For more information about Gary Smalley's work, visit the Smalley Relationship Center Web site.

Learn more: Read "Raising Teen-agers" in's Live It area.