"‘How is it that you can control your people so easily? It appears that they do nothing but what you say; how is it that you can govern them so easily?’ Said he, ‘I do not govern them at all. The Lord has revealed certain principles from the heavens by which we are to live in these latter days. The time is drawing near when the Lord is going to gather out His people from the wicked, and He is going to cut short His work in righteousness, and the principles which He has revealed I have taught to the people and they are trying to live according to them, and they control themselves.'" —Brigham Young, “Leading in the Lord’s Way” (Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, June 7, 1870, p. 3)
Lately, I have noticed a popularity in various family contracts, specifically for regulating cell phone usage. As a principle, I caution families to avoid this approach to parenting. It communicates the wrong message, teaches the wrong principles and can lead to increasing the behavior you are trying to avoid. We'll see this same experience happen in missions were, very well intended spiritual, insightful mission presidents pile rules on top of the standard missionary guidelines. The already obedient continue to be obedience and the less obedient tend to become less obedient. However, the obedient often become more focused on the "rule" and neglect the quiet whisperin's of the Spirit.
With the advent of smartphones, youth are having open access to the internet. I get parents’ concerns and fears. A phone contract can be done if it is done well and with the right amount of seriousness and lightheartedness. But it’s interesting; in therapy we are discovering that “contracts” are not usually an effective method. In fact, it often enables problems.
For example, creating a contract has a tendency to remove one from living the principles and concepts to living by the letter of the law — making the parent have to spell everything out, as the child then becomes brilliantly (or desperately) clever in finding loopholes: “Well, that’s not what was said in the contract …” It can inadvertently make the contract into the parent, and both the child and parents subject to the document instead of to the spirit or intuition.
Take for example, a well-intended family who attempted to create a contract intended to help teach, remind and encourage gospel values, all with wit and humor. The son was excited and, of course, agreed to all the terms and signed the contract. It went well for the first few months. But as clever as the parents were at writing the document, it was of course impossible to consider all details and potential issues.
Like the contract in this post, it defined specifics about a curfew and never having the phone in his room. But it failed to mention that he couldn’t get up early before school and use it in the living room while everyone else was in bed. The parents were impressed that their son who never gets up on time, let alone early, was now fully ready for school most mornings. When inquiring what the new motivation was, they discovered what he was doing.
It was clear to the parents that what he was doing was not what they desired. But nowhere in the contract was it considered. Tension grew as the son continued to get up early and play his games, and because no one was up, every room became a private place. The parents told him that he was not to do that, and he argued back that that’s not what they agreed on. Do the parents revoke the contract and create a new one in greater detail or insert a provision that the contract can be edited or modified at any point per parents’ discretion? Both of those options defeat the purpose of the contract and discourage the very teachings they were intending.
While serving in the Phoenix Arizona Mission in 1995, Elder Lynn A. Mickelsen of the Quorum of the Seventies came and spoke to the leaders in the mission. He shared with us an interesting pattern of experiences he had while working with the mission presidents in his area. He was praising our mission president, Val Christensen, for the way he ran the mission, and that it was done on principles and concepts, not rules.
Elder Mickelsen said there are mission presidents who pride themselves on the binders of rules they institute in their missions. Upon Elder Mickelsen’s arrival, one such president laid a three ring binder of rules on his lap as he drove him from the airport. Elder Mickelsen said he removed it and discarded it. He warned that such things destroy missionaries.
We cannot foresee every issue, and the moment we attempt that in a contract, it becomes a burden. Natural parenting is interrupted, and you become bound to yesterday’s knowledge.
Such contracts are sometimes used to inappropriately control the behaviors of others. Another family intentionally established a contract they knew would be difficult for their daughter to follow. Whether they were cognizant of it or not, they were setting her up to fail. Instead of using the contract to govern and guide, it was used to get her to stop behaviors that annoyed the parents. Although the parents believed it was geared toward teaching her good habits, the message was one of shame and not a reminder of her being a child of God.
Creating a contract lends itself to a subtle communication that the behaviors are more important than the individual. It defines what one can’t do, but not what one should become or how they can use their behaviors for good. And good behaviors should never be contracted.
I have seen, even in the best of contracts, that it ends up binding the parents more and setting up an unhealthy power dynamic in the family — where kids will demand they have followed every rule in the contract and argue against a parent’s desire to remove them from their usage.
Using a contract can be good, but I would suggest it as more of an “articles of (faith) use” policy. As Joseph Smith taught, teach them principles and let them govern themselves. It is tempting to list rules and not principles, but I have seen this promote only rule following and not Spirit guiding. As a result, children develop the expectation “to be commanded in all things.”
Phone or no phone, my children know their electronics usage is NOT private. Their passwords are not private and at any time and length of time, we get to remove them from their usage. No questions asked.