Contracts with My Teenager

It is very hard to leave a legal job at the end of the day and not take it home with you. I watch TV and guffaw over the ridiculous courtroom scenes that never would occur in real life. I read and reread the fine print on every piece of mail (particularly from credit card companies!). I won’t let my husband sign his teaching contract for the next year without my approval.

But the one area where it has really paid off to be an attorney in my family life is in the area of contracts with my teenage son, Hart. A few years ago when he received his first cell phone, I considered all the horror stories I had heard about runaway bills due to teen texting or replacement phone costs due to teenage negligence. I’ve always been the kind of parent who believes in spelling out my expectations ahead of time and then encouraging my son to meet them. This has worked for grades, for manners and I figured it should work for cell phone ownership also.

So I drafted a simple, plain English agreement for Hart to sign when he received the cell phone. I let him know specifically how many minutes and text messages he could send per month. I explained the rules about free nights and weekends and what time those free periods started and ended under our plan. I let him know the cost of a replacement phone. I told him how much I would charge him for any excess minutes or texts. I emphasized how he would lose his phone privileges if he were to ever use it during class time. And I required him to get permission from the subject of any picture he took or conversation he recorded so as not to invade any other person’s privacy. If I were writing that contract today, I would also include a prohibition of sending or possessing sexually explicit photos with a cell phone, a practice known as “sexting” that can lead to a criminal conviction and sex offender status that could haunt a teen for the rest of his or her life.

In the three and a half years that Hart has had a cell phone, he has paid me $1.10 in overcharges. He has never lost or broken his phone, never had it taken away at school and seems to use it appropriately to keep me informed of his whereabouts. Granted, being a boy, he has little interest in sending thousands of texts in a month or spending every minute on the phone with friends. But I really think that spelling out the rules and the consequences of breaking those rules has helped him be more responsible with the cell phone.

Fast forward to last week, when Hart turned 16 years old. He obtained his driver’s license on his birthday after ten months of driving with a learner’s permit. We gave him my ten-year-old Toyota Avalon to use as his car from now on. Time for a driving contract.

Obviously, the consequences of irresponsibility with a car are much greater than with a cell phone, so the driving contract is longer and more detailed than the one page cell phone agreement. But again, I used plain English to convey important rules like wearing a seat belt, never using a cell phone while driving, and at least while he is in high school, getting permission before he drives the car out of Potter or Randall counties. Violating those kinds of rules results in a $100 fine (you gotta make it painful).

The most serious consequence is reserved for driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs. There is no penalty if he calls us to come get him and doesn’t get in a car. However, the penalty for driving while impaired is a loss of driving privileges for three months and no chauffeuring by a parent (catch a ride with friends, ride a bike or hoof it for three months). A second violation of that rule results in the car being sold and again, no chauffeuring by parents during the duration of high school.

The driving contract also sets out who pays for any traffic ticket he receives (he does), gas he uses (he does), getting oil changes and regular maintenance on his car (he does), insurance deductibles he incurs (he does) and increases in insurance premiums he causes (he does). I hope this will short-circuit any arguments that may arise over the significant costs of car ownership and irresponsible driving.

Let me say that I don’t think you can solve all teen problems with a contract. There was a lot of parenting that went on before these contracts. Hart is an excellent student, a polite, witty and responsible kid. While his parents are divorced, we have worked hard to achieve a friendly and cooperative relationship that allows us to consult with each other and enforce similar rules at both houses. So we have had few problems with Hart and don’t really anticipate any big issues with his driving.

But why wait until a problem arises to anticipate how to solve it, particularly if you could avoid the problem altogether? That’s what I spent three years in law school learning to do: prevent difficult legal problems or resolve them as painlessly as possible if they can’t be prevented. When it comes to my only son, I am definitely in favor of trying to prevent problems before they arise.

I heard the other day of a parent who required her daughter to sign a college contract, which reminded the girl about the expectations for her GPA, her financial contribution and her behavior if her parents were going to support her for four more years and pay for tuition, room and board and expenses. Looks like Hart has another contract in his future . . . !

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