Teaching Children to Govern Themselves
June 1986

“Teaching Children to Govern Themselves,” Ensign, June 1986, 36

Handbook for Families

Teaching Children to Govern Themselves

To raise responsible, faithful children we must teach them to govern themselves. Children who have learned to govern themselves take responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, actions, and decisions. This includes controlling their emotions and expressing them appropriately.

President David O. McKay taught that “the best time for the child to learn rules of conformity is between the ages of three and five. …

“If mother does not get control of the child during those ages, she will find great difficulty in getting control later. … I do not mean to push and drag or confine—just let the little child be perfectly free to develop until he goes beyond the bounds of safety. Then let him feel the gentle but firm hand of restraint.” (Stepping Stones to an Abundant Life, Comp. Llewelyn R. McKay, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971, p. 38.)

Since our children will not always be under our supervision, we want to equip them as early as possible to use sound judgment and understand how to evaluate the consequences of their own choices.

Following are a few ideas about how parents can teach and encourage their children to govern themselves.

1. Explain the Reasons for Your Decisions

In his early years, a child has a very hazy idea of cause and effect. He needs to be taught the nature of things and why certain decisions garner certain results. Experience is a good teacher in this respect, but parents need to make sure that the experiences are safe for the child and that they explain to him the consequences, both negative and positive, of his behavior.

For example, try giving your child a responsibility like keeping his room clean. Explain the reasons a clean room is preferable to a messy one, give him his charge, and attach consequences for keeping or failing to keep the room clean. Then hold him accountable. If you have promised an ice-cream cone for a week of keeping his room clean, keep your promise.

The most effective atmosphere in setting rules and limits will be one of love and encouragement. If we kneel down and put our arm around a child’s shoulder or set him on our lap as we explain, he will associate self-government with affection rather than force. If we take time to explain to a child the reasons behind our decisions, he will begin to understand the reasons for our rules.

Though children may not understand every time we try, our very attempt to explain reasons will help to develop his ability to perceive cause and effect. In doing so, we are also modeling courtesy and consideration. We have learned by sad experience that when parents forget to exercise courtesy and respect, they begin to exercise unrighteous control over their children. As they do this, they abuse their power—a power entrusted to all parents by a Father who has shown us how to use it.

We should consider the warning signals when we hear ourselves say, “Just do as I say,” or “I don’t have to explain anything to you, I’m your father. Do as you’re told.” These words and the tone of voice and attitude they usually accompany betray a lack of gentleness, meekness, kindness, and love unfeigned. (See D&C 121:41–42.) No matter how right we are or how indignant we may feel, speaking this way to our children will lead to trouble.

For one thing, we may succeed in making our child obey us at that moment, but if he does not understand the reason for his behavior he will not appreciate its importance. And since he has felt a threat instead of love, sooner or later he will rebel against what he perceives as tyranny. The decisions he makes thereafter will be based on an emotional rejection of authority rather than a rational acceptance of righteous values and principles.

Another reason parents should avoid exercising unrighteous dominion is that their children will see them as unreasonable. One of the main causes of interpersonal conflict is poor communication, and communication between children and parents is limited—if not completely blocked—when parents refuse to listen to and reason with their children.

If your child understands the reasons for a rule or a decision, he is much more likely to accept the rule or to make the same decision on his own when you are absent. Furthermore, he will be more apt to see you as a person with whom he can talk over his problems and decisions. The time spent in this kind of reasoning is a sure investment in your child’s future and your future relationship with him.

2. Teach Correct Principles

When the Prophet Joseph Smith said “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves” (quoted by John Taylor, Millennial Star, 15 Nov. 1851, p. 339), he gave us a formula for teaching our families. Elder and Sister F. Enzio Busche used this formula in teaching their children self-government:

“My wife and I agree that in the process of maturing spiritually, children have what might be thought of as a right … to have deficiencies. … We believe that it is the duty of the parents to understand, … and to forgive, ‘lest they be discouraged.’ (See Col. 3:21.) … Their smallest beginnings toward acquiring positive gifts need to be seen, mentioned, and admired. …

“We try to guide our children toward self-respect … and mostly leave it up to them to judge themselves. We have experienced the fact that one is not as good a teacher when one discovers and points out mistakes … as when one helps a child discover for himself that he is doing wrong. When a child can comprehend his mistakes himself, the first step to change has already been taken. … I don’t think there can be greater joy for parents than to see a child handle himself well in a difficult situation.” (Ensign, Mar. 1976, pp. 41–42.)

We teach correct principles in many ways. One of the most important ways is our example. While there are no guarantees, there is impressive evidence that children tend to govern themselves according to the way their parents govern themselves. Parents interested in teaching self-government to their children would do well to begin that instruction with a careful self-analysis to determine how well they govern themselves. The Lord has promised us that if we humble ourselves before him and have faith in him, he will show us our weaknesses. And with his help we can turn them into strengths.

Sit down with a pencil and paper and take stock of your own desires, appetites, and habits. Are there any that you feel you do not control? How can you gain greater control in these areas?

Help older children with a similar inventory-taking. Show them of your interest in their self-mastery. As parents, we know our children better perhaps than they know themselves. Part of teaching self-government is helping our children to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and to decide how they can use those strengths to best advantage.

For example, suppose you have a child who has a good sense of humor but who loses his temper easily when frustrated. In an interview, perhaps, you could help him identify potentially frustrating situations before they happen and help him see the humor in them. He may then decide beforehand that, rather than becoming frustrated, he will not take those situations too seriously.

It often helps to work on a mutual weakness together. In fact, what better way to develop a deep and lasting bond with a child than to discover, admit, and overcome a weakness together? Together ask our Father in Heaven for specific help in overcoming weaknesses and resisting temptation. Remind each other in daily prayer of your sincere desire to improve.

3. Encourage Discipleship

Those who have mastered self-government have disciplined themselves. Likewise, children who have learned self-government have been disciplined. That doesn’t mean their behavior is so strictly enforced by punishment that they are afraid to enjoy life. Discipline is not punishment. Elder Theodore M. Burton said:

“There is a tendency to equate the word discipline with the word punish, but there is a difference between these words. In English, at least, the word discipline has the same root as the word disciple. A disciple is a student, to be taught.” (Ensign, Nov. 85, p. 65.)

Children become disciples of their parents as they learn to trust their parents’ decisions, admire their integrity, and feel their love. As that happens, children hopefully will adopt their parents’ values and govern themselves according to those values. For this reason, it can be said that children will become disciples when their parents become disciples of Christ.

Children have much to teach us, as every parent knows but does not always remember. Becoming disciples together in the quest for better self-government may be one of the most unifying experiences we can have as a family. It will deepen our love for one another and for the Savior, who was perfectly self-governed.

By following the Savior’s example on teachings, we become sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Ghost, who can show us everything that we should do. (See 2 Ne. 32:5.) By teaching our children to listen to the promptings of the Spirit and to rely on the Lord in making decisions, we help them gain the freedom of righteous self-government.

Photography by Marty Mayo