Photo of parents reviewing a family contract
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Creating Family Harmony Through the Use of Contracts

“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.

3. Bonus Clause

According to the research of R.B. Stuart, an effective family contract contains a “bonus clause” that rewards contract compliance. For example, compliance for five out of the seven days might yield a bonus in the form of a special activity or “dividend” added to the child's usual allowance.

4. Child & Parent As Co-Creators

The key to setting limits is to work “with” your children. Together, establish the rules, consequences and rewards that you all believe to be important. When you involve the children, from the earliest ages, in creating the rules, they consider them their limits, rather than standards their parents are imposing on them. It becomes easier for them to take ownership of the contract because the rules seem fair.

5. Re-negotiation

An effective contract should be open for re-negotiation. As the children grow older, you can all upgrade the rewards and consequences to include age appropriate items. For example, teenagers might need more significant consequences for more significant offenses. However, they will also need to have opportunities to earn rewards that allow greater independence and individuation. Once again, always have them help choose and agree upon the changes. A teenager's need for independence from the family sometimes makes them reluctant contributors. Let them know that they can decide not to participate, but that the decisions will be binding for the family.

6. Signatures

After you and your family create the contract, it's important to make a place for everyone to sign and date the document. Even if you have young children, they can scribble in the appropriate place. This shows that everyone agrees with the direction the family is going. Also having children sign may greatly increase their commitment to the contract.

7. Inspect What You Expect

Once the contract is up and running, it's helpful to inspect and evaluate each child's behavior on a daily basis. Up until our high school years, we met for ten to fifteen minutes each night after dinner to review how everyone was doing in each area. We kept a 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 child's behavior throughout the day, the family meeting is a great way to set aside a specific time for this–unless of course the child commits a serious offense, then you immediately deal with it.

You will discover that having a written, objective contract can greatly contribute to your family's harmony. It can also make disciplining the children much easier because you simply point to the family contract, and the children can be much more willing to cooperate and adjust to it. Children need to learn control at the very beginning of life so they appreciate people and property within the family as well as the value of rules and limits for getting along with others later on in adult life. By using a family contract you are helping your children to learn a valuable lesson that they will benefit from for the rest of their lives.


The following article was adapted from Gary Smalley's book, The key to your child's heart. Refer to the book for more information on creating contracts and other parenting issues as well.

Stuart, R. B. Behavioral contracting within the families of delinquents. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 1971, 2, 1-11.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
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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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