For the past week, my son has been officially 'under contract.'
By that, I mean he's now subject to very specific language, spelled out in his own handwriting, in a new family document that allows him to join an online-gaming Web site that had been off-limits to him for more than year. In return for the privilege of playing, he must hew to a strict set of rules -- and harsh penalties should he violate any of them.
This was not my or Amy's idea. Both of us were happy to keep this Web site off-limits, not because we're against the content (it's basically kid-friendly), but because we don't like his attitude when he has to give up playing the free version to go run errands, eat dinner or get ready for bed.
Instead, this was our son's idea.
He knows where we stand on this Web site, so he saw the contract as a way to change our minds.
It did. And now we're finding that a handful of written sentences can change his behavior more powerfully than any of the dozens of threats we can conjure up at the spur of the moment.
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I'm not sure where my 11-year-old son came up with this idea for a contract; I've asked him, and I get vague non-answers.
Whatever the case, when I first heard his idea my initial reaction was to reject it outright. It seemed like yet another desperate attempt to get us to agree to something we didn't particularly care for. And I admit that some of it was simply a knee-jerk reaction that parents too often have: It's easier to say no than yes. We sometimes like to exert our authority just for the sake of, well, showing we can.
The result isn't always fair to our kids, who sometimes just want the chance to prove us wrong for once. In this particular case, my son wants the opportunity to prove to his mom and me that he can be responsible for his actions. Too often, especially when it comes to the computer, he lives under the presumption of guilt (not without reason, mind you).
So, I listened as my son made his plea to his mom and me.
And as he talked, I realized this wasn't a half-baked idea that served only his wants. His rationale was solid, and the consequences he laid out for himself for failing to live up to the contract were fairly harsh -- though as part of the ensuing negotiations, Amy and I made them even harsher. He said that the money to join the Web site -- $6 a month -- would come from his allowance.
Amy and I talked it over and thought this was a concept that might do some good.
A longtime friend of mine seconded our opinion. He once used a contract with his young daughter after a therapist friend told him about the concept. He found the contract worked pretty well.
The problem was that his daughter was acting rudely whenever he made any request of her, and he was getting frustrated with his inability to get her to stop and think about the consequences while they were in the moment.
But he was also frustrated with his own ability to think rationally at the moment. Too often, he says, we parents use random punishments that have little to do with the transgression itself. It starts off reasonably. If you don't get off the computer now, you can't play on the computer for the rest of the day. Or tomorrow. Or the next day. But it quickly gets absurd and unrelated to the act itself. You can't play for a month. You can't have a sleepover next week. You can't eat for a month.
I once told my son I was revoking his allowance for a year. He didn't believe me; I didn't even believe myself. That, though, is precisely the problem: You end up concocting consequences in the heat of the moment that both of you know won't come to pass. It makes a mockery of the punishment -- and so has no effect on the behavior itself.
'The good thing about the contract,' my friend says, 'is that it's all been thought out beforehand, and it's all on paper, and everyone agrees to it and knows what is expected. The most important part, though, is that you follow through on the punishments.' He says the contract ultimately faded away, 'and that points to its success. Though not all the bad behavior was corrected, it improved so much we no longer needed the contract.'
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My son's contract isn't terribly formal, written in his messy handwriting on scratch paper. Nevertheless, it's binding, and he knows that.
At its core, the contract stipulates that he can spend his money for a monthly subscription to the Web site, but, as the document notes:
'1. When Mom or Dad says get off the computer, you have to get off. And you can't act out in frustration at having to get off.
'2. You can only play on weekends, weekdays when there's no homework, or when Mom or Dad give you permission to play.
'3. Playing time is limited to two hours on weekends and one hour on weekdays.'
And the penalty for noncompliance: 'Violate any of the rules and you lose access to the paid or free version of the Web site for one year.'
So far, so good. We've noticed a distinct change in his behavior. He occasionally slips and starts to get mouthy, but with a raised eye from Amy or me, he quickly remembers what's at stake, apologizes and complies.
The contract has given him control over his own destiny. And in doing so, it also moves him in the direction we want him to go.
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