Contracts: The Ties That Bind.

by Christie Clarke

I raised four children who taught me how important it is to have clear vision. I was reminded of it recently after a series of taxing assignments and long hours found me on an 800 mile road trip for the holidays wondering why my eyes were so tired. I could certainly see well enough to drive but the focus was laborious and the roads signs indistinct. After muddling (literally) through a week of cloudy perspective, I finally realized that either a late night or early morning had provided me with the opportunity to inadvertently put my contacts in the wrong eyes (not my neighbors’ - but my right contact in my left eye and vice versa). The jobs of seeing near and far had been reversed, resulting in barely adequate functioning. I could still see, but not well.

A generation of mothering has provided me with the luxury of retrospection. What do I see now that was unclear then? What would I have done differently? What did I miss? What should I have overlooked? At what point should I have taken off the blinders? When should I have pulled the hat down over my eyes, and just trusted?

Raising children is a joint operation…cooperative venture between you and them. As you are helping them grow into adults, they’re helping you become better parents. I often wish I had seen more clearly their ability and desire to do their own growing. In one sense, they’ve inherited the job of raising parents! After all, you’re not “certified” simply because you’ve produced offspring. That baby comes with no documentation of authorship, provides you with no certificate of merit, and most certainly has no instruction manual, remote control, volume switch, auto correct, warrantee, or return policy. So as budding parents we must be ready to listen to (or help them find) their innate good sense, be willing to learn and grow together, be able to clearly see the child’s potential. I’ve found in the intervening years that it’s more effective to elicit good behavior than to superimpose it. More rewarding to bring forth positive qualities than to create them. Easier to model acceptable behavior than to construct it.

Like a sunrise, it eventually began to dawn on me that by taking my Personality out of the driver’s seat and replacing it with the Principle I wished to see lived, I could effectively reduce stress and produce a more responsible, self-reliant, and happier young person…not to mention a more relaxed, even-tempered, flexible parent. The answer, in short, is the written word! You can’t argue with it, talk back to it, hurt its feelings, slam the door on it, irritate it, insult it, or make it cry.

The standard “contract” has the child essentially on the receiving end of a directive. I found more success in the collaborative effort between parent and child in constructing the agreement. Children are often tougher on themselves in setting guidelines. Only they know the loopholes through which they might slip. In bringing this “treaty” to life as a living, breathing document, most kids want to do their best to make sure there is no “t” uncrossed, nor “i’” undotted. They take pride in the details when they feel the article is their creation. When it’s completed, they’ve essentially drawn a line in the sand for themselves. Consequences for deviation from the established guidelines having already been agreed upon, the justice that is meted out is swift, unarguable, and of their own doing.

Having more than one child, one job, one extracurricular activity, one PTA obligation, one church committee, one ballet lesson, one softball practice (you get the idea), I found that I could actually be convinced by my clever children that I had indeed been confused as to which child had been given the green light to sleep over at a friend’s house; who was at which movie; who had extended curfew; who had been promised a pick-up from the mall. My choice was to be put in a “home” or come up with a solution. To eliminate confusion (read: arguments) and before I completely lost my mind, we sat down together and crafted the following gem which surfaced from the depths of my “Parenting Ideas” file not long ago. It reads:

  • My name: Becca Alt
  • Date of activity: Friday, 3/13/92
  • Time of activity: From: 7:30 pm To: 3/14; 9am
  • Type of activity: to Tippen’s for food, then to Victoria’s, then to Erin’s house for night
  • Or movie title: ___NA______________ Rating:__NA__
  • Phone number where I can be reached: 537-5279
  • Who will be there: boys? Yes or no parents? Y/N
  • How I’m getting there: Mom
  • How I’m getting home: Erin’s Mom Time: 9am
  • These parents approved this proposed plan: CA and RA.
  • I understand and will abide by this agreement: Rebecca Alt
  • (P.S. Thank you both very much for letting me have the responsibility! xoxoxoxo)”

Notice that it was a “proposed plan” – not activated until parents and child had signed. Once validated, it was posted on the side of the refrigerator by the kitchen door (more importantly, by the phone), so if the ETA (estimated time of arrival) couldn’t be made, a quick call and check on the fridge could readjust for extenuating circumstances.

Late? Confused? Wrong movie or location? There’s no arguing with the fridge! (And if you wonder about the boys: yes or no question, this was designed for a family of four daughters!)

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