Using A Family Contract To Foster Responsibility In Your Home

Does it feel like as your child gets older the discipline becomes more and more difficult? This is exactly how one father felt when he was speaking with a friend about the troubles of disciplining his teenage 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!”

As this father realized, when our children reach the teenage years sometimes we have to be a little more creative in terms of disciplining. Likewise, one of the best things we can do for our teenagers is to hold them accountable for their mistakes or poor choices. We realize that teenagers have needs for independence, separation, and a decrease in parental control. But this does not mean that we stop disciplining. Instead, the key is to develop a system that can incorporate both the need for limits and accountability and the need for less control. How can we provide this balance for our teenagers? Through the use of a family contract.

We define a family contract as a written agreement between a parent and a child that specifies the relationship between a behavior and its consequences. In other words, in answers the questions: “Who is to do what, for whom, and under what circumstances?”

Most teenagers roll their eyes or stomp their feet at the mere mention of the word “contract.” Since teenagers are attempting to become autonomous from the family anyway, rules or contracts seem to place restriction upon their freedom and subsequent tension or conflict can result. Autonomy is simply another name for independence or not being controlled by others. However, the good news is that a family contract is not intended to restrict your teenager–limiting his freedom. Instead, a family contract produces FREEDOM!

The way a contract can provide freedom instead of restriction is that by having clearly defined rules and limits this allows your teen to make informed decisions on how he or she should behave within boundaries. This freedom can only happen when your teenager is clearly aware of the responsibilities expected and the consequences that will follow his or her behavior. Real freedom is “the inner power to do what you know is best for all concerned.” Immaturity is “lacking the power to do what you know is right and not being able to delay gratification.”

One of the most common reasons that teenagers fight and argue with their parents is: There is a lack of agreement concerning clearly defined rules. The good news is that by using a family contract you can almost completely eliminate ambiguity and confusion concerning what is expected of your teenager. As this happens, FREEDOM is born.

No matter what you might see on TV or at the movies. Regardless of what some popular books or magazines might insist. Do not be fooled, teenagers really do want limits. A report entitled, Voices from the Classroom, supports this notion. The report notes that of the 1,365 high school students at North Kansas City High School, in Kansas City, Mo., surveyed, many suggest that their parents aren’t involved enough in school. As one teenager said, “I just have so many friends who wish their parents would say no–no to talking too late on the phone at night, no to going out when they should be doing their homework.” We need to listen to what our teens are saying.

If teenagers want to have rules and limits, but many parents are not enforcing them, what is the solution? We believe that the solution is to find a simple method that provides freedom for teens and the necessary amount of control for parents at the same time. We believe that a family contract can provide this needed balance.


The essence is that parents and teenagers work out some form of agreement on the acceptable behavior at home and in each other’s life. It's so useful and affective in parenting. Each article in your constitution can center around general rules such as house cleaning or as specific as driving the family car.

All of the ideas that we as a family felt were important for the daily operation of our family were written into a unique contract. Our document governed our behavior with each other somewhat like the municipal laws governs our civil behavior. Written and signed documents have a tremendous power to keep people in harmony with agreed upon loving rules.

Four Essential Features of an Effective Family Contract

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 teenager is expected to do or refrain from doing. In other words, limit the use of vague words that are open to different interpretations. For example, instead of saying that the teen needs to drive safe, carefully define the exact behaviors and meaning of the words “safe driving.” You might say, “I will never consume any amount of alcohol and then drive any vehicle;” or “I will not allow anyone else to use the car under any circumstances without permission from my parents.” Remember that a teenager is better able to conform to his parent's wishes when he understands their exact expectations. 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 teenager’s behavior. For example, “If I receive any moving violations, I will lose my license for up to one month. On the second violation, I will lose it for up to three months.” Likewise, it's important for the teen to understand how he can earn rewards for positive behaviors as well. This can be achieved through allowance, special desert, or extra use of the family car to name a few.

3. Teenager & Parent as Co-Creators in the Re-negotiation. The key to setting limits is to work “with” your teenager. Together, establish the important rules, consequences, and rewards. When you involve the teens in creating the rules, they consider them their limits, rather than standards you are imposing on them. It becomes easier for them to take ownership of the contract because the rules seem fair.

4. Get Everyone To Sign The Contract. After you and your family create the contract, it's important to make a place for everyone to sign and date the document. This shows that everyone agrees with the direction the family is going. Also, having teenagers sign may greatly increase their commitment to the contract.


The child will do what you inspect, not what you expect! This quote by Dr. Henry Brandt is the essence of enforcing the family contract. It’s helpful to inspect and evaluate each teen’s behavior on a regular basis. Up until our kid’s high school years, we met for five to ten minutes after dinner to review how everyone was doing in each area. However, during high school we limited our family meetings to several times per week or on a per-need basis. We usually kept a small chart on the refrigerator so we could mark on it with a grease pencil and erase it the next evening. Instead of having to continually correct a teen’s behavior throughout the day, the family meeting is a great way to set aside a specific time for this–unless, of course, the teenager commits a serious offense, then you deal with it immediately.

You will discover that having a written, objective contract can greatly contribute to your family's harmony. It can also make disciplining your teenagers much easier because you simply point to the family contract, and the teens can be much more willing to cooperate and adjust to it. We encourage you not to become discouraged at the first attempt to incorporate the contract into your own family. Many teens will fight you over the use of a contract. Therefore, allow several weeks or even months before you realize the value.

Benefits of a Family Contract:

  • Contracts between parents and teens decreased problems at home.
  • It brings the family into unity.
  • The contract brings consistency in behavior for both parents and teens by reducing the temptation for “double standards.”
  • It provides teens with ownership for any rule or limitation the family establishes.
  • It reduces prolonged or angry arguments by forcing meaningful and honorable communication.
  • Because developing a contract requires negotiation and cooperation, this can provide structure for and improve troublesome relationships between teenagers and their parents.
  • It provides greater security and stability for each family member.
  • It allows a family to prioritize their most important values. And then a contract provides continual reminders of those values and rules.
  • A written constitution can become the policing force at home. The parents are then free to focus on relational issues.
  • Signing the contract tends to make the family members involved more–committed to fulfilling their roles.
  • Contracts can reduce stress and brings greater relaxation.
Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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