Monday, 17 February 2014

Kids and Contracts

Anyone having trouble 'negotiating' with their teens about the time they spend on technology? Of course I'm talking not only about general internet use, but also social networking and mobile phones. Sound familiar?

This thorny topic arises almost every time I work with parents - and for the most part these are parents whose kids aren't even legally old enough to be registered for the majority of online sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. These are the parents who are looking ahead to potential issues because they see what is happening around them with older kids ....and they are worried.

Adolescents crave independence, increased responsibility, a sense of 'self'. Largely, it is up to parents to provide opportunities for their kids to step up to the plate and be accountable - but it's unlikely to happen if we either act as dictators ("My house, my rules") or as one of the three wise monkeys (hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil). As my previous blog cites, the adolescent brain is not fully developed until early to mid-twenties, so we have a delicate path to navigate.

Several years ago I attended a parent information session when my oldest was in Year 10 - so we are going back to 2005. This was well before the introduction of Facebook and other social networking sites. This was in the days when MSN Messenger was the enemy! That dreaded 'blip' was the instant give-away sound to tell us that our kids had the messenger site open and were being distracted from more important tasks, like homework! How many more distractions do our kids have now?

Our school had organised this session due to parent demand for more information on how we, as parents, could take more control in our own homes, and how we could keep one step ahead of potential issues around cyberbullying. Dr Michael Carr-Gregg ( was the guest speaker and those who attended hung on every word.

A parent raised the issue of  'how much is too much computer...and how do we say no.' Dr Carr-Gregg spoke of contracts - both verbal and written between parent and adolescent. He suggested that if our young people are looking to be treated and respected as adults, they need to held accountable to the same kind of limits and expectations adults face every day. If we simply threaten to confiscate the laptop or refuse to allow them to have an MSN account (now it's Facebook etc!) we are either preventing them from making sensible 'grown up' choices or, even more damaging, forcing the issues 'underground'.

Quite simply, Dr Carr-Gregg encouraged us to sit down with our kids, have a chat about the constant tug-of-war, and come to an agreed, amicable set of limits - a contract. Some parents, he claimed, decided to make the contract a written agreement, while others simply made it verbal. The scenario went something like this:

"OK, we have a problem with constant distractions while you are doing homework. We don't want to nag every night and we don't want to be looking over your shoulder either. What we want is to be sure that you are doing the right thing and it's our job - whether you like it or not - to keep you safe and provide you with the best options to do well at school. So, let's agree on a time frame for use of the computer/mobile phone for messaging friends etc." When parents and teens communicate like this, there is more likely to be resolution than a Mexican stand-off.

The decision might be made that the teen does 45 minutes of uninterrupted homework, research, study etc and then a 10 minute break when he or she can message, text, 'Facebook' before returning to work. The conditions and time frames are agreed upon......but most importantly, there are consequences for 'breaking the rules' of the agreement. Dr Carr-Gregg's example suggested that if the teen spends 15-20 minutes on  social networking instead of the agreed 10 minutes, then that extra time would be deducted from their 'break' time the following night.

Do contracts work? According to Dr Carr-Gregg, they do. I can vouch for that as well! Not only did I employ this strategy with my own boys, but I have also suggested it at every parent session where this topic arises. I have received feedback from parents whose initial response has been "Nah, won't work", but who have contacted me later to say that not only does it work, but everyone is happier. What is particularly pleasing to parents is that their kids seem to have developed a greater sense of responsibility and independence....and they are getting more work done! Worth a try?

photo credit: One Way Stock via photopin cc

About Author:

Angie Wilcock is a highly regarded expert and speaker on transitions in education. She works with teachers, parents and students across Australia.

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