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Take a Closer Look

Instilling in children a sense of right and wrong has always been central to good parenting. Traditionally, parents have relied on a top-down, hierarchical approach, using their authority to control and discipline their children. An authoritarian approach might train kids to follow orders, but it doesn’t necessarily teach them to take responsibility for their actions. Particularly as kids reach adolescence, an authoritarian approach can clash with the teen’s natural and healthy need to develop some independence and autonomy.

In Keeping Agreements, dad relies on collaborative agreement-making rather than authoritarian power. Four steps are part of this approach:

Propose Agreements

When his daughter asks if he’d extend her curfew on the night of a party, he proposes an agreement with several conditions. He’s not demanding that she follow his orders; he’s simply telling her what’s important to him and what he’d like from her. Although not depicted in this video, both father and daughter are free to negotiate the terms and at times compromise when making an agreement. While it may seem that the father is giving up his authority by inviting his daughter to negotiate, he can maintain an appropriate parenting role by not agreeing to a compromise unless it addresses his concerns in a satisfactory way. By opening up the process to also honoring the daughter’s concerns, there’s a greater likelihood that the final agreement will be one that both generations will find acceptable.

Confirm the Agreement

Dad asks his daughter if she’s willing to accept the agreement he’s proposing, and she enthusiastically says that she is. The responsibility now becomes hers to live up to the agreement she made.

Challenge Agreement-breaking

When the girl subsequently breaks their agreement, dad focuses on the agreement-breaking and doesn’t get lost in the details of her ride home. He doesn’t scold her with, “You didn’t listen to what I said!” or “You disobeyed me!” Instead, he makes agreement-keeping the main focus and reminds her of the importance of both of them keeping the agreements they make with one another. It’s an approach that respects his daughter’s autonomy while conveying the expectation that she’s capable of keeping her word. In confronting her, dad aims his upset at her behavior and not at the person she is. He wants her to feel healthy guilt about her misstep, rather than toxic shame about the person she is.

Link Agreements to Trust

The father wisely ties his concerns about the broken agreement to the broader theme of trust in their relationship. He wants his daughter to understand that the larger issue goes beyond this single instance of agreement-breaking to the importance of his being able to trust in his daughter’s word (and her in his) as they move forward. 

Dad thanks the girl for her stated willingness to be more mindful of agreement-keeping in the future, and, before leaving the room, he says, “I’m glad you had a great time tonight.” It’s his way of letting her know that her mistake doesn’t cancel his positive feelings toward her.

Watch the video without narration

Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.