Conflicts between family members? Try negotiating a contract

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``Dad, can I take the car to work?'' ``I cleaned the bathroom last week -- it's her turn!

``But why can't I stay out after midnight? All the other kids can!''

When children turn into teen-agers, parents are apt to feel challenged by the number of new situations that must be addressed. Since adolescence is the time when youngsters pull away from Mom and Dad, their craving for independence is natural and normal. But parents must continue to watch over their teen-agers, to set limits and withstand pressure, while at the same time letting a child test his wings with more freedom and responsibility.

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It's a delicate balance, and most of us aren't quite sure how to handle this new role or what rules and regulations are appropriate.

Some families can talk it out by simply sitting around the kitchen table, discussing pros and cons, and reaching a decision that is pleasing to everyone. Other families can't discuss things well together, especially during these touchy years. Teens sometimes can be close-mouthed and defensive, parents too quick to jump to conclusions. And oral communication can be misunderstood as well.

For these reasons, many parents have found that drawing up a contract -- stating everything in unmistakable terms -- is a workable way to handle potential conflicts. Teens like a contract, too, because it gives them a chance to negotiate and add their input. Once terms have been discussed and decided upon, everything is written down and signed by both parents and adolescent. As in the real world, if one party defaults by not living up to the agreement, the contract is null and void (penalties should be spelled out clearly). And no one can claim misunderstanding or ignorance, since the terms and signatures are there for everyone to see.

We used the contract idea when our eldest applied for his driver's license. Like most parents we were hesitant about giving him the car, but we also wanted to encourage growth and responsibility.

After much discussion, we decided that he would pay his own insurance and gasoline expenses, obey the rules of the road, and inform us beforehand about where he was going and what time he would return (subject to parental approval).

If he met these terms, he would be allowed to take the car on short excursions -- work, social, and school events -- whenever he needed it. (Longer trips were postponed until he had more experience behind the wheel.)

If on the other hand, he lied about his plans, received a traffic ticket, or reneged on his share of expenses, he would forfeit his driving privileges for a certain period of time.

The contract worked beautifully. There were no misunderstandings, our son kept his part of the bargain, and we had the satisfaction of seeing him grow into a capable and trustworthy driver.

Contracts can work in most adolescent situations. A friend of mine negotiated a study contract with her sophomore, whose grades had been slipping badly due to extracurricular pursuits. In exchange for two ``quiet hours'' of study each weekday or evening in his room (with no telephone calls or TV permitted), her son was allowed to continue two of his favorite activities. His grades improved, and he learned to make better use of his time.

In another family, two teen-age sisters who had been at swordspoint over sharing a bedroom drew up their own agreement. The ``messy'' sister agreed to keep her room cleaner (tidying chores were clearly outlined) in exchange for borrowing privileges from her sister's larger wardrobe. The ``neat'' sister agreed to lend her clothes and stop nagging. If cleanliness standards weren't met, no borrowing was permitted that week. The pact was a success, especially for Mom and Dad, who were tired of all the bickering.

Contracts are an effective way of building trust among family members. Parents set a caring attitude by living up to the terms, while still being able to guide their youngsters. Teens get a chance to control more of their own activities while proving that they are mature. And the whole household benefits from a happier, more relaxed atmosphere.

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