How to make an agreement with your child
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Think about a time when you've been told what to do. Maybe it was a boss emailing you that you had to come to a meeting today, your parent demanding you wear a certain outfit, or even your child insisting you play another round of Candyland. What is your typical response? "Yup, sounds great, can't wait!" Or "Ugh, that's not what I wanted to do."
It can certainly vary by person and situation, but typically we feel annoyed, and may even have an urge to rebel. It's called "counterwill" and it's our natural inclination to resist being coerced or controlled. It can kick in even when you don't actually mind doing whatever is being demanded, simply because you were told you had to do it. This happens with our kids all the time. They are constantly hearing demands, so it's not surprising that sometimes they resist, just for the sake of resisting.
You may have heard of giving choices, or picking your battles. These are great tools to empower our kids and provide them with more independence so they can practice making choices and learning the consequences of those choices. But how can we incorporate this into the limits that need to be set? This is where agreements come in.
An agreement, is when you take a limit and work together to negotiate the specific terms of how that limit will be reached. For example, screen time. In our family we value connection, if we spend all our times on screens it really limits the amount of time we can spend playing and connecting. But the exact amount of time spent on screens is arbitrary, and a great way to work together and make an agreement. Another example is Halloween candy. You may have a family value around health and safety, and may not want your children to experience the natural consequence of way too much sugar (although it's totally fine if you do want to go that route). But instead of mandating a certain limit on candy eating, try making an agreement instead.
Here's how you make an agreement:
1) If possible, be proactive.
It's best to make the agreement BEFORE your child is begging you for one more piece of candy, or BEFORE they ask for one more show. Doing this when you're not rushed, and everyone is in a fairly cooperative mood will ensure people are willing to listen to each other and get creative. (Here's a post I wrote about family meetings, which are a great time to make agreements).
2) State the limit or concern that's up for discussion. Make sure to show you understand their point of view too.
"You got SO much delicious Halloween candy, and it can be tempting to eat it all in one night. AND I'm concerned that you could get sick, or have trouble falling asleep tonight."
3) Ask for their input.
"What can we do to make sure you don't get sick, and you still get to eat and enjoy your Halloween candy?"
4) Accept ALL suggestions. Sometimes it's helpful to write them down.
Even if your child suggests something ridiculous like, "I'll eat 20 pieces, I know that won't give me a stomachache". Repeat it, "Okay, one idea is to eat 20 pieces each night" What are some other ideas? You can also throw your own ridiculous ideas in there, "You could give all your candy to me."
5) Look at your list or talk about each idea as they are discussed and ask if they work for everyone involved.
"Hmm... I'm not comfortable with 20 pieces each night. So that one doesn't work. What do you think of giving all your candy to me? That doesn't work for you. Okay let's keep thinking."
6) Believe that there are infinite possibilities and you CAN find a solution (even if it doesn't happen in that moment).
Keep brainstorming until you find an agreement that works for everyone involved. In this scenario, you may end up deciding on a certain number of pieces they get each night, or you may come up with a creative solution like trading in their candy for a toy from the store (Here's an explanation of how The Switch Witch works). Ultimately what works for one family (or even sometimes one child) doesn't work for another. So don't worry about figuring out the "right" answer. The only two questions to ask are, "Can we follow through with what we're saying?" AND "Does everyone agree to what we've said?" If everyone really seems stumped or someone is getting upset because they had one specific solution in mind, it's okay to take a break and come back to the conversation another time.
7) Get it in writing.
Once you've agreed on the "terms", write it down. Have each person sign it (or color in a box that says they agree). Put it near the candy as a reminder.
8) Follow through on the agreement.
It may help to talk it through, or practice how the agreement will be enforced (who is responsible for getting the candy down, where will it be kept, who will put it away). The more clear everyone is on the expectations, the more likely things will go smoothly in the moment.
9) Acknowledge that the agreement can be revised as necessary.
It is totally normal to not figure out the perfect solution the first go around. Or to have a solution that works at first, and then loses it's appeal and have someone stop following through. If this happens, don't make any big changes in the moment (particularly if they're having big feelings). Instead, acknowledge their disappointment and ask if they want to revisit the agreement later that night or the next morning or whenever works for your family. If they do, then go through the steps again, making sure to talk about what hasn't been working currently during step 2.
As you practice these steps you can start to do them quickly in all sorts of situations. Here are agreements we've made in the past:
screen time agreements
playing outside agreements
morning playtime agreements
chores / family contribution agreements
If you need support figuring out how to set up agreements in your home you can schedule a 30 or 60 minute Problem Solving Support Call by clicking here. I also love hearing from you. You can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or feedback.