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Editor’s note: read the full series here.
“Behave or else!” I heard different adaptations of this phrase up to my teenage years.
The “else” could have been anything from not getting my favorite treat to light physical consequences (it was the 80s—it was normal back then).
Many children back then were raised with some unhealthy parenting techniques. One, a demand from the “alpha” of the houseful for fear-based respect. Another, a gentler yet more psychological approach using a subtle mixture of guilt trips, silent treatment, and “white lies.”
The problem with these techniques was the lack of communication.
In our family, we never really sat to talk about feelings, expectations, or life. There was always that underlying belief that what we thought or felt was just not that important because we were children. And when we did express ourselves or our discomfort with a situation, it was seen as hurtful or dismissed as just part of childhood.
I remember one day at age six standing in my grandma’s kitchen staring at the magnets on her fridge feeling the tears welling up in my eyes. My mom walked in at that moment and was highly disturbed by my tears. She asked me if I was hurt. I shook my head no. “Then why are you crying?” she uttered, worried and confused. I just shrugged. She gave me a hug and we went about our day. It’s very possible that it was just a random moment of sadness—those happen. But things never really went further than that, as sadness, they believed, was something you could just shrug off.
As we grew up, my sister and I learned the technique of just naturally keeping things in as a way to show love to those around us, to not stir the pot, or just because we knew we would just not be heard. Because expressing our emotions or disagreeing with a decision would be viewed as hurtful, the opposite must hold true.
All this dysfunction that I carried into my adult life caused many unhealthy relationships that took years of self-development, therapy, and inner child work to adjust. With everything I learned throughout the years, I vowed to give my children a voice and the tools to form healthy relationships in their lives.
One of the ways I found was creating an atmosphere of mutual respect within the home and allowing children to co-create their lives.
We do this by creating a family contract. This came in very handy as I started homeschooling as a way to have them get their work done without feeling forced or tortured, and thus why now I teach my clients how to implement this technique.
A family contract is basically an understanding between all members of the family. You can create rules, but I much prefer creating a container within which we can all move freely. We set parameters of mutual respect, like personal time, tasks they need to get done, procedure around meals or snacks, and how to express a need.
The most important aspect is communication. We have family meetings regularly, during which we check in with each other and evaluate how everyone is feeling, short-term goals, long-term goals, and anything that might be coming up. This gets adjusted to the age of the child, but it is never too early to start. My kids participated in the decision to homeschool, travel, and every major decision that the family has had to make, presented in an age-appropriate discussion.
This becomes empowering for them as they know they have a voice, and at the same time creates a willingness to reciprocate. Thus, I encourage my clients to set boundaries in the early stages of their homeschooling or schooling at home experience by creating a family agreement.
Here are some guidelines:
1. Give everyone a voice.
Communication is key. Teaching the little ones to express themselves and understand their needs can create a foundation for future relationships and make the home flow easily.
Having ice cream for breakfast every day will probably not be something you agree to, so make sure to explain why and compromise in some way, maybe by allowing them ice cream once a week after their tasks are done.
3. Create clear boundaries.
Explain clearly what is expected, what they have room to choose to do and how often, and how to request something they might need that has not been yet discussed. This is where you make sure your work from home is respected, there is a set plan for snacks so they don’t have to constantly ask, and you create “me time” for each person in the household to be alone, relax, and unwind to keep extra little stressors at bay—as sometimes, it seems that too much time together makes us easily annoyed by the small things.
4. Revisit the agreement often.
Family agreements are fluid containers that adapt regularly to the needs of all participants. Life does not stop changing, so this agreement needs to keep up with life. So family meetings are a must to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Having a process within the family can help create an atmosphere in which everyone can thrive. Each person’s personality needs a certain amount of time and care: to do what they enjoy, to come up with agreements on how to relate to one another, and to get the things on their to-do list, whether school-related or not, done. And then check in regularly, as the contract will need regular updating as life flows.