There will come a time in every parent/child relationship that a written contract should be considered not only for your sanity but also as a way to stimulate the adolescent’s intelligence and problem solving ability
In my private practice and work in schools I have developed countless written contracts usually for student failure and/or acting out behavior. In short, why create a written contract only because of negative circumstances? Why not create a written contract simply because it is a good strategy for stimulating greater learning, intelligence and even moral judgment or right and wrong behavior. Why wait until the adolescent fails or becomes a challlege to family rules and values?
Throughout our life we will deal with contracts in every conceivable manner. From the marriage contract, which is suppose to be an equable written agreement between two adults to a verbal contract with adolescents to support family values and rules.
Contracts are also developmental. For example, notice what happens when the marriage contract is broken and divorce ensues. More often than not you get two angry adults acting like children demanding a fair exchange but both want a larger piece of the pie; or, with the adolescent who possess the ability to think abstractly and support family values but often regress in their thinking because of conflicts between family values and the pull of the peer group. Such adolescent thinking is especially troublesome when the peer group challenges family values associated with personal freedom and responsibility. In order to successfully deal with the pull of the peer group the parent and adolescent need something more than a verbal contact because verbal contracts often fail because of the adolescent’s inherent ability to distort communication lines to suit their own needs. In other words it is simply developmentally more acceptable and popular to go with the peer group then family regardless that they have given their word. Moreover, the weakness of a verbal contract is particularly dangerous to the adolescent when associated with, sex, driving a car, curfews, alcohol, school performance, sexual experimentation — the list is endless.
One successful strategy to deal with the peer group’s influence on your adolescent and family values is to create a written contract. According to research, a written contract is more powerful and developmentally more appropriate than a verbal agreement because the written contact is something that is concrete yet abstract. Written contacts can be displayed and re-examined at anytime the rules are broken. The key to the adolescent and parent in creating a writing contract is always for the adolescent and parent to play an equal part in developing the rules, consequences and rewards for the written contract. This experience not only empowers the adolescent but acts as a buy in to the family rules and developmentally acts as a buffer between the pull of the peer group and family values or rules.
I have only scratched the surface about the cognitive and behavioral benefits of verbal versus written contacts. However, if parents will investigate appropriate research about how to create contracts with your adolescent, it twill not only make everyone’s life much easier but the positive experience will prepare the adolescent for the biggest contract of all — which is their life.