by Mark Timm, CEO Ziglar Family

When you think of the word discipline, what comes to mind?

Do you immediately think of a parent/child interaction in some punitive, uncomfortable, or just generally negative way?

Or maybe you tune-in more to the root “disciple” and call to mind a kinder, gentler image of a leader/follower relationship.

Whichever way you relate to the word, the fact is that discipline is key to family life.

John Rosemond, a leading parenting expert, said this:

Expecting children to obey involves having a plan for what you’re going to do if they don’t. In fact, the secret to virtually frustration-free discipline is, first, have a plan; then, carry it through consistently.

Let’s say that your teen is spending too much time on her smartphone (hard to imagine, I know!) and you’ve had a report from her teacher that homework has been coming in late or not at all. Your first reaction is threatening to take the phone away if it happens again. It does, but you don’t follow through. Oh, I need her to get in touch with me after school activities. Or, I want to be able to use the GPS tracker to see her location. 

 Here’s what often happens: because it is going to inconvenience YOU for her to lose her phone privileges, you waffle on your decision.  This is where your own discipline comes in. Any rules/consequences that you set up in your home must be followed through consistently, every time, no matter how inconvenient it may be for you to do so.

I used to struggle with this, too.  As you can imagine, with six teenaged children, my wife and I live in that tension between needing to give our children consistent boundaries while at the same time giving them the freedom to grow.

What we finally concluded was this: if it’s a discipline issue important enough to make sure there is no misunderstanding, then why not use a tool everyone knows — and kids will eventually need to understand — a contract.

How Contracts Help Parents and Kids

Using contracts has taken the heartache out of implementing family discipline and accountability in our home. We’ve created win-win scenarios where you’re not having to constantly say no. Instead of regularly being on the defensive as parents, we now have the confidence to go on offense and turn battles of will into teachable moments.

When it’s time to implement a new agreement of some sort, we all preview the terms, we all agree to the consequences, and discipline is spelled out in advance.

When we establish clear expectations by using contracts, we are free to focus on helping our children learn from the consequences of their mistakes instead of having to decide the consequences in the heat of the moment. When they do something wrong, I love being able to say, “Hey, look—I feel for you.  This really stinks.  But we had an agreement; we’ve lived up to our end, and you haven’t lived up to your end.”

I can put my arm around them, and walk back through it, without shaming or yelling at them, and just say, “I’m really sorry, but this is part of life. We both made this agreement, and unfortunately your end hasn’t held up, so you need to give me your phone. I’m really pulling for you to get it back, but this is where we’re at.” No fight. No fuss. No chaos. And—to our surprise—no pushback from the kids.

As an added bonus, using contracts in our family has given our children valuable life experience in making binding, written agreements. We adults deal with contracts every day. Yet, how many kids are prepared for what that looks like and what that means? Why not prepare them for the future by making contracts part of their present?

Here are a few ways contracts benefit our family:

  • Give clear expectations of consequences and rewards.
  • Eliminate arguing over who said what. The contract is always available for review in case of confusion or forgotten commitments.
  • Expose children to the real-world consequences of making binding agreements.
  • Minimize the potential for drama over misunderstandings.
  • Reduce the number of times you must say no. Now you can say yes more often — provided they are willing to abide by the terms.
  • Keep us from having to repeat instructions and expectations.

Our kids have so embraced the use of contracts now that they bring us contracts when they want something to demonstrate they can be responsible.

What parent wouldn’t want to create teachable moments like that?

Question: Do you spend your valuable parenting time arguing over who said what? How might contracts help you end the confusion at home and get clarity? Share your thoughts in the comments below!