Monday, July 6, 2015

Teaching Children Self-Government

I am always open to new ways of improving my parenting skills and the relationships in our family. In the last year, I have read and implemented techniques from two parenting books that have made a profound difference.  This post will focus on the book A House United: Changing Children's Hearts and Behaviors by Teaching Self-Government, by Nicholeen Peck. (I'll post about the other hugely helpful parenting book later on.)

I have been using the techniques from A House United for about 10 months now. 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.

A few examples:
  • Whenever possible, natural consequences are used. 
    • 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.
    • If a child chooses to throw a temper tantrum rather than talking to me calmly about an issue, they earn a chore. 

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. 

Rather than balking at the idea that they would earn chores for misbehavior, my children actually seemed relieved to have a well-known system in place. And over the last many months of using chores as consequences, I have seen that doing chores actually seems to change my children's moods: when I inspect and praise their work, they are happy and feel like they have accomplished something that benefits the household.

We have emphasized that the chores are being used as a tool to help the children learn to make good choices, and I have seen that the number of chores they earn as consequences has dwindled considerably over time. Their self-governing is working!

Family Activities

In A House United, family work and family play are also given a high priority.  Peck writes,
"One part of building a family who respects and loves each other enough to be best friends is spending lots of time together. The person who spends the most time with your child will have the most influence upon your child's decisions in the future. If your child is mostly with friends, or mostly with teachers, then he will be influenced most by friends or teachers, and the family will grow less and less important to him. By contrast, if your family often has cool, fun experiences, then your child will feel the most accepted and nurtured by the family, and likewise become an adult who values family above all else... Having these fun times together shows my children that even though I have to correct their negative behaviors, I don't want the corrections to influence our relationship."
Since reading A House United, our family has instituted a weekly Family Fun Night. We have a list of potential activities and take turns choosing the Family Fun Night activity each week. This has become a cherished weekly event for our children. (Let me know if any of you are interested in more details about what Family Fun Night actually looks like.)

A Book Worth Reading

Reading and implementing A House United has been quite beneficial for our family.  (A House United also covers much more than I've mentioned here, including specific tactics for teaching children to weigh the negative and positive consequences of their decisions, ways of mentoring children, and problem solving for specific behaviors.)  While we do not follow everything in this book precisely, overall it was well worth reading and has made a positive impact on our household.

Peck also has a series of picture books that aid in implementing the strategies for Teaching Self-Government.  My children have enjoyed reading and re-reading those books; they seem to find inspiration in seeing the children in the books learn to make good choices.

Does this book sound useful to you? What are your favorite parenting books? 

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Megan said...

Hi Sara, Great post! We have also implemented some of the parenting self government strategies. It has really united our family. And I find that really it helps me the most. The family mission helps me figure out what I want to spend my energy on correcting and what to let go of. For me creating a peaceful feeling in our home so it is a place we all consider our sanctuary is of utmost importance. This guiding principle helps me focus my energy. We have 4 kids 7 and under and things can get out of control feeling quickly. But I find if I keep the family mission in mind, I respond with more self control and I think that feels safer for our kids.
And like you I was concerned about our kids responding negatively to the extra chore consequence (which we call extra job). In reality, the time spent doing something helpful for the family really does give them time to reflect and change their hearts. Thanks for the post!

Megan said...

Also, Parenting Self Government has inspired me to read this book next. I think cultivating these organization skills, in addition to self control will be very beneficial to my kids into adulthood.

Sarah Smith said...

Thanks for sharing another resource, Megan! I'll look into it!

SG Geek said...

Sarah, I LOVE reading about your journey to self-government for your family. It is great to hear the thoughts people have when they read the book. I'm so glad you didn't skip the first two sections. Multiple people have told me to start with the third section of the book, but I just can't it. The book is written in an inside out perspective. This means the heart and tone need to be recognized and the family needs to analyze and take deliberate action on the purpose of the family before they will be able to use the skills the very most effectively.

The skills can be used with or without the first part of the book; true. But, without the first part of the book they could just become behavior modification instead of self-government success for life and a change of heart. I am always going for the more permanent transformation, not jus the temporary clean room.

Your post is very inspiring! Thank you!

Sarah Smith said...

Nicholeen, thanks for your comment and thanks for your wonderful books!

Elizabeth said...

I'd love to hear more about Family Fun Night. I've wanted to do this, but am afraid to throw off one evening a week! I'm afraid it would lead to a crazy bedtime/tired kids.