Teaching Children Self-Government

Updated: May 13, 2018

I am always open to new ways of improving my parenting skills and the relationships in our family. For the last few years, I have implemented techniques from the book A House United: Changing Children's Hearts and Behaviors by Teaching Self-Government, by Nicholeen Peck, and these techniques have made a profound difference in our household.

With the skills and understanding I gained from this book, there has been an obvious positive shift in our family dynamics and the contentedness of our day-to-day lives. 

Begin With the End In-Mind

When I first started reading this book,  I was a bit put-off by the fact that almost half of this book focuses on "Finding Your Family Vision" and " Establishing a Family Government".  I was reading this book with an eye towards practical tips for day-to-day parenting, so I was tempted to skip these first sections and go straight to the section on "Teaching Self-Government".  However, I decided to stick it out, and I am immensely glad that I did.

Those first two sections of the book allowed me to step back and look at the big picture of our family. They walked me through the process of thinking about our family and the type of family culture we were trying to create. A House United gave my family the guidance we needed to develop very specific guidelines and goals for our family life, including our Family Standard and our Family Mission Statement.

While I had never thought that my family needed to have a Family Standard or Mission Statement, in the intervening months I have been able to see that those two things are extremely useful in creating the type of family culture we want for our family.  They give us common goals that we are all working towards, and they give us benchmarks for what we want our family to be.

For instance, one of our family goals is for our children to create lifelong friendships with each other.  Because the children have agreed that this is a goal they want to work towards, we are able to refer back to that goal when assessing their day-to-day interactions and behaviors towards each other.  When one child is behaving rudely towards their sibling, or when they are bickering, we can talk about whether or not they are furthering or harming their longterm goal of being friends-for-life. Of course there are still some times when they do not get along very well, but overall I can see that our children are really taking this goal to heart and working towards it.

Teaching Our Children Self-Government

Once the foundational steps of finding our family vision and government were accomplished, I was ready to start teaching our children self-government. In A House United, there is a strong emphasis on teaching children that they are responsible for their own actions and that they have the power to choose how they want to be.  By very clearly defining my expectations and the consequences for my children's behaviors, they have been able to learn that it is their own choices which determine how their lives will be.

Whenever possible, natural consequences are used. For instance,

  • If a child forgets to take their dirty dishes to the sink, that child is then responsible for washing their own dishes.

  • If the children bicker over a toy, that toy is taken away from them both.

Synthetic consequences, such as earning chores or losing privileges, are used whenever there isn't an obvious natural consequence. For instance,

  • If a child chooses to throw a temper tantrum rather than talking to me calmly about an issue, they earn a chore. 

  • For more serious transgressions such as lying, privileges (such as our once-a-week video game time) are restricted. 

Keeping My Cool: Improving My Own Self-Government

Teaching my children self-government only works when I am able to control my own actions. If I lose my temper and yell at my kids, the lessons of self-government fall apart. Hard as it is to admit, in the past sometimes I would get so frustrated that I would impose consequences to "get back" at my children, such as taking away a beloved toy. These instances would always end in lots of crying and/or screaming, and the overall mood in our home would be negative and unhappy.

Through the process of teaching my kids self-government, I have also been able to work on keeping my own cool.  By having well-defined consequences for the children's actions, my own emotional outbursts have been lessened significantly. Instead of trying to think of a consequence on the spot (and possibly getting pulled into the cycle of choosing a harsh consequence), I focus on calmly telling the child their consequence and maintaining a positive (or at least neutral) tone. 

When Chores are Used as Consequences, Won't They Hate Doing Chores?

One aspect of Teaching Self-Government that I was a bit nervous about implementing was assigning chores as consequences when the children have behaved inappropriately. I was concerned that my children would start to hate doing chores, but I have been very pleasantly surprised.

Before we started using chores as consequences, my husband and I sat down with the children and discussed our new plan. We talked about how chores are a great help to the family and how we all do chores just as part of being a family. [We also increased the number of daily chores for each child over a period of several weeks, with the understanding that it keeps any one of us (usually me) from having to do an unfair amount and feeling overworked]. Then we very clearly explained to the children that, when they choose to behave inappropriately, they would earn chores to help them learn to make better decisions.