Helping Families Heal

Parenting expert Nicholeen Peck on the ripple effects of teaching 'self-government'
September 29, 2020 Updated: September 29, 2020

Nicholeen Peck has become known worldwide for teaching good parenting and self-mastery, helping parents to raise children who are calm communicators. After seeing Peck featured a decade ago on a BBC reality TV program in which two wild teenagers spent a week in her home and left with renewed hope to better themselves, audiences worldwide were astounded.

The philosophy of self-empowerment and responsibility was actually one that dawned on Peck in her teenage years—because, as it happens, Peck was herself a very difficult 14-year-old.

“I was a really strong-willed child,” Peck said. Her father was a play director, teacher, and public speaker, and her mother reigned in the home, always cooking, canning, growing, and so on. At an age when kids normally pull away from their parents anyway, Peck would butt heads with her father constantly. By then, she’d pulled away so far that her relationship with her parents was at its worst point.

“At that point my parents pretty much had me on lockdown. Quite frankly, they couldn’t trust me, because I was just always arguing with them on something. If a child shows their parents they’re not on the same page, the parents feel they have to keep the child safer by not letting them spread their wings.”

Peck was bright and opinionated but always had to get her way. She was sociable and thought of herself as popular, but had made a habit of lying, which fostered distrust. A confluence of factors came together that put Peck on the interesting path she is on today.

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Nicholeen Peck has written books for parents, children, and created a program at TeachingSelfGovernment.com. (Candace Ashworth Simpson)

‘Why Would I Choose to Be Any Other Way?’

Peck was on good terms with the vice-principal of her school, and one day as he passed by in the hall they exchanged greetings. When she asked how he was, he said, “I’m happy, thank you.” That response nagged at her, and later that day she visited his office to ask how he could possibly just decide to be happy.

“Because I am happy,” he told her, prompting her to insist that there were days he couldn’t possibly be so.

“This guy was like a World War II vet, super inspiring guy, very wise, everybody looked up to him, loved him. And he looked at me with all seriousness, and I knew where he was coming from because I knew his past, and his eyes just pierced my soul, and he said, ‘You’re right Nicholeen, not every day can be perfect. But why would I choose to be any other way than happy?'” Peck said. “He said, ‘If I tell myself I’m going to be happy, then I can be happy.”

It blew her mind: here was a man who had been through the terrors of war deciding and willing himself to be happy. He was strong-willed too, but in a positive way. “He learned to instruct himself to be a better version of who he was,” Peck said.

Not long after that, Peck and a friend were planning a big neighborhood party, with all the local kids invited, when all of a sudden, it hit her—she wouldn’t be able to go herself, as her parents had all but permanently grounded her. They couldn’t trust her.

“This friend’s mother asked me a question and it changed my whole life: She said, ‘Nicholeen, have you ever thought about just saying OK?'” Peck said. She was baffled; as a matter of fact, she hadn’t.

“I told her, ‘That would never work. That’s what they want me to say!’ Because a strong-willed person thinks the only way to get your way is to force it.” Compliance, much less being sincere about it, isn’t even on a strong-willed person’s radar, she said, as they have a power-struggle mindset.

In an effort to prove her friend’s mother wrong, Peck said she would try it—she would comply with her parents, and watch them not allow her to attend the party in two weeks anyway.

That night, as it happened, was Peck’s turn to do the dishes, and it was part of her routine to attempt to weasel her way out of dish duty. Instead of coming up with yet another excuse, Peck said OK and started on the dishes without complaint.

“My parents looked at each other with such an expression of shock,” Peck said. She chalked it up to just surprise at being caught off guard and told herself she needed more proof that compliance was something that could change her parents.

A few days later, Peck’s mother reminded her to clean her room—an order Peck had ignored for literally months. But this time, Peck said OK and started picking things up immediately.

“And she stood there and she watched me, and I remember she was just leaning in the doorway as I cleaned, and because I still had a little bit of a dishonest bent I pretended I didn’t see her watching me,” Peck said.

“But as I was just cleaning, there was this kind of voice that rang in my head. And the voice said: ‘I am so powerful.’

“All of a sudden, I [realized]: I am so powerful. I am happy and I am cleaning and I [chose] to be happy. And then I said, ‘I am never going to [choose] to be anything but happy again.’ Why would I?

“I had found the truth. And that’s very important, because strong-willed people are always looking for the truth, and if they find it, they are willing to die on that [hill].”

Peck had just acquired an invaluable skill and was determined to learn another: she created for herself a skill set to control the impulse to lie. She learned to lie as a young child, as all young children do, but rather than growing out of it or being confronted about it, Peck continued to lie impulsively until she realized that people didn’t like her because of her dishonesty.

“I went home realizing nobody liked me, and I was a really social, what I thought a more popular person, and I realized they were all putting up with me, knowing I was lying. And I had to stop this,” Peck said. Peck went into deep reflection, sorting this out in her mind, and came up with a step-by-step process where she could catch a trigger and make sure she spoke a truthful statement instead of a lie. She resolved to take responsibility for her words and the consequences that came, and realized it wasn’t at all a burden. “I found this extreme freedom that happened at that point.”

Having realized this as a teenager, Peck already had many of the tools she would later need in fostering troubled teens.

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Peck does some one-on-one teaching in Park City, Utah. (Courtesy of Nicholeen Peck)

Teaching Skill Sets, Not Manipulation

When Peck, a mother of four, had her first child, she went through a lot of effort to stop working so that she could be at home. But when her two oldest were very young, her husband’s career went through a change and the family needed to bring in additional income. This led to the Pecks to open their home as a treatment center for foster teens who had behavioral issues and processing difficulties; some had been incarcerated, some had had fetal alcohol syndrome, some had addictions.

The training Peck underwent for the treatment center was intensive, and she realized the big book of skills she was given was so similar to those skills she had taught herself since she was 14.

Every child was dealing with multiple issues and typically took an array of medications to deal with them. Peck started to wonder whether she could help the children to not need so many drugs, and whether they could be taught to really master self-control. Regardless of the outcome, working toward these goals would benefit them.

“I decided I was going to teach them self-mastery,” she said. “We were going to do the treatment, but my focus was going to be really lasered in on empowering them not just to get out of treatment and step down a level, but also to make a life shift so that it would be something they had for their whole life.” She wanted them to step back into the world with the knowledge that “I can conquer anything I want, because I’ve conquered myself first.”

Peck was successful; so much so, that people started asking her to speak at churches, PTA meetings, and support groups. She thought what she was teaching was common sense, and maybe others just weren’t aware of some of these skills.

“To train yourself is a normal human process. It’s only when people bring in lots of external measures and give people lots of excuses and don’t require that they control themselves, that people do not find that power that lies within,” she said. Her own problems with habitual lying when she was a young teen gave her insight on how our so-called impulsive behaviors develop and how we can retrain ourselves.

Peck thought the interest in her foster care treatment would be short-lived. But instead, interest grew with each year that passed, and people kept asking where they could buy her book (she didn’t have one, nor the time to write). Then someone recommended their family for a BBC reality show, and it blew things out of the water.

Peck initially didn’t want to do the show. It wasn’t that she was concerned about unruly teens in the house—she’d managed that well for years.

World’s Strictest Parents” was a show that would send pairs of British teenagers to homes of strict host families around the world for a week to try to change their behavior. It’s a premise that guarantees drama, but Peck knew there would be no power struggles in her house. She had developed a six-step process (YouTube.com/c/TeachingSelfGovernment) for calmness, and it worked every time, for parents and for children. No matter what the teens did, the Peck family would be calm.

Eventually, Peck agreed to do the show, thinking it might help some other families out there. The producers kept warning her the teens’ behaviors would be out of control, but she knew something they didn’t. So Hannah and James came to stay with the Pecks for a week, and when the segment aired, it immediately became the popular series’ most-watched episode.

“People didn’t know that you could have that type of effect on teens, have them want to change their behavior, without getting angry or just giving them what they want—people think those are your only two options, either you be their friend and try to give them what they want, or you fight them and try to bend them to your will. But those aren’t your only two options, in fact those two options and everything in between, varying degrees of mixing those two together, are just manipulation,” Peck said.

“What I knew was the only way to change a heart was to have traditional, strict values. Traditional, meaning principles: I had to have principles and live by them myself.” If she has a secret to parenting success, it’s this one, she says.

“Then I have to present those truths and principles, as well as skills, to the children, and they would see the truth of those things,” she said. “And then when I corrected their problems, it would never be about emotions or anger, it would always be about logic and about appealing to truth.

“[When] these strong-willed kids see the truth of it, they realize they are only battling themselves, and they come out of it. That’s what always happens.”

Perhaps it sounds too good to be true, but Peck has proven time and time again that this works. Calm and open communication solves problems.

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Peck on a talk show. (Courtesy of Nicholeen Peck)

After the show, interest snowballed and Peck knew there was no going back. There was something lacking in the culture that made it so that the common sense and traditional values she was teaching sounded so faraway and novel to many. She wrote a book (“Parenting: A House United”) and wrote 10 more. Governments and religious leaders would see issues like instability and dishonesty in the culture and realize the problems were starting with the breakdown of the family, and people would tell them they needed to speak to Nicholeen Peck. She started creating programs (TeachingSelfGovernment.com) and started speaking all around the world (always family trips, which were doable since they were already homeschooling) and leading in-depth training.

The pandemic, which made all parents homeschoolers, created a spike of interest as well. Within a week of shutdowns, Peck launched an online homeschooling seminar and expressed heartfelt wishes that all families would stay strong.

“Parents want their children to self-govern, because they’re like, ‘I want them to do their chores without being asked, I want them to do their homework without being asked,'” she said. “But when I start teaching them about how to set up the environment where a person learns something in it, where they learn to want to control themselves, where they learn to break free from the emotional bondage they may be carrying around about different things, the parents always look at me with astonishment, and almost with excitement in their voices, and they say ‘I just realized, if I’m going to teach my children self-government, I have to govern myself.'”

What Is Self-Governance?

Peck’s program is rife with many skills that parents can use (to become calm, to teach their children to determine consequences, and so on), but the core of it is about creating the kind of home environment in which children learn to self-govern.

For children, there are four important skills: following instructions, accepting “no” answers, accepting consequences, and disagreeing appropriately. Peck has written corresponding children’s books to go along with each skill (featuring her own children in the books).

“Self-government means having a knowledge of cause and effect, being able to determine the cause and effect of any given situation and possessing the knowledge of your behaviors so you can control them,” Peck said.

“Understand yourself, and regularly analyze yourself to see if you’re getting the effects you want. And if you’re not, you might have to change your thoughts, you might have to change your behaviors, you might have to curtail some of your emotional responses that are getting in the way of you achieving your goals. All of those things can be changed, and I think it’s a tragedy that today so many people think that your feelings have to be followed no matter what in order to find happiness.

“Think of how many hardships, if you look through history, people have overcome. Did they always just follow their feelings? Well, so many of them would have just run and hid, because they were afraid, and surely they were afraid. But they didn’t, they found this courage, this strength within to say, ‘This is the feeling I have right now, and it’s truly a feeling I’m having, but is this a feeling I want to follow? Do I want my actions to follow that?’

“And all great people do this, if you read biographies of some of the most inspiring people. People who invent, people who explore, people who overcome or who are heroes for whatever reason, we find that they harness this power called self-government.”

“Parents absolutely love it because they want their children to have that freedom,” she said.

Self-government is a concept that goes back through antiquity; our founding fathers may have said that a free people are a moral people, but they were far from the first to declare that truth.

“Every society that has become free in one degree or another has had that self-governing model in place. And when people stop self-governing, they lose their freedoms,” Peck said. “Self-governing is taught in the home though.”

It’s critical for parents to model this behavior so that children may aspire to it. This approach—which isn’t about foisting responsibility onto children before they’re ready, but rather about wisely leading them toward it—strengthens parent-child relationships. After those two weeks of saying OK and being OK at age 14, Peck and her parents rebuilt their trust.

“This type of parenting program is about making really united, solid relationships,” she said. “It’s not just about controlling behaviors. In order to do that, you have to know how to solve problems in a way that’s not going to break you apart.”

Parenting methods that involve manipulating children end up eroding at that relationship.

“It’s even marketed to parents: ‘Oh, just do this one trick and your kids will be perfect.’ You shouldn’t be tricking your children. They should know everything that you’re going to do or say before you even say it. That way, you remove all of the manipulation,” Peck said. It’s a system that enables children to realize when they are trying to manipulate things into getting their way as well and move away from that dishonesty.

As Peck started giving more talks, more and more parents would ask, “But what do I say?” She realized they wanted and needed actual scripts, because barring that, they were getting their scripts from popular culture or the media, where the picture of a family is rarely a happy one.

She wrote her book “Roles” because she realized many people didn’t understand what roles she was referring to (“you have parents acting like neighbors”), and she tells parents exactly what she says in various situations if they need to use her words as a model.

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Nicholeen Peck and her husband Spencer. (Courtesy of Nicholeen Peck)

Helping Families

Peck regularly takes walks with her 18-year-old daughter where they can talk about anything, including the boy her daughter’s interested in. Her youngest, her 16-year-old son, gives her hugs and kisses every day. Her two older children are married now and still feel comfortable talking to her about anything. People tell her, “Nicholeen, your kids are the happiest kids I know.”

The Peck family doesn’t raise teenagers. Years ago, Peck found an article that explained the evolution of the “teenager,” actually a rather modern term that was originally used in a derogatory way; “teenagers” were those confused and wayward people who weren’t mature enough to be called “young adults.” Prior to World War II, families aimed to raise sons and daughters with the same manners expected of adults, and those children aspired to be like their parents—not how we think of the typical teenager today.

Peck says she and her children are all really good friends, but not because she tried to be their friend.

Along with making clear what family roles are, the Peck family has a family mission and vision, and hold regular family meetings.

Despite the skills, methods, and regular rules—all of which provide the sort of stability a child needs—Peck isn’t the kind of person who needs to stick to a script or schedule (“If it’s raining, I’ll say let’s roll up our pants and go play outside in the rain”). It’s just that when it comes to family, Peck isn’t leaving things to chance. Family is too important.

She thought differently when she was younger.

“You know, I’m going to have to be honest and say that there was a time when I was a young woman, and it before I was married, but I kind of drank some of the social Kool-Aid, and I had some of the negative effects of feminism,” Peck said. “There’s some good effect from feminism, but then there are these negative or selfish dialogues and these war-like mentalities which are very damaging to society and truthfully tearing a whole lot of women down.”

One day, her family gathered at her grandmother’s house for Mother’s Day, and after dinner someone proposed they go around the room and each say some words of gratitude for their grandmother. People started speaking, and Peck being one of the last, got a chance to listen to everyone else first.

“My grandmother has five children and lots of grandchildren, so the room was full of people,” she said. “And as I heard person after person share their tribute and sweet love to my grandmother, I remember looking at my grandmother and thinking to myself, she has got to be the most perfect lady.

“She is sweet and so kind, and she is so strong, spiritually and morally, and she loves everybody, and what I recognized, as everyone went around the room and told stuff about her, things that were instrumental in their lives, I realized that she was the most powerful person in that whole room,” Peck said. She had learned that career was supposed to be the top priority in her life, but her grandmother was never a career woman. “She was a mother and a grandmother her whole life and she had dedicated everything to it.”

“And when it finally got to me, I felt myself saying this little bit of honesty that I didn’t even know was in me,” she said. Peck told her grandmother: “I am so grateful for the example of womanhood that you are, and that you have shown me …  Grandma, you have shown me what it really means to be a powerful woman.”

At that moment, Peck said she realized the family really is the most powerful unit in society—though she didn’t know yet how much she would dedicate herself to helping families.

Many years later, Peck got a call from the Worldwide Organization for Women (WOW), a pro-family non-profit, to speak at a United Nations conference, and she agreed. But before the conference even took place, the president of the organization called Peck asking her to take her role as president, as she was stepping down. Between raising four children, homeschooling, and running her organization, Peck didn’t think she had time, but after she took a moment to reflect and pray, she realized her home and organization were running smoothly and many tasks had been delegated, and she in fact did have time. When WOW president Nina Palmer called again, Peck agreed.

“Every year we go to the Conference on the Status of Women at the U.N., and some of these other conferences, and we sit there and listen to everybody talk about sex for class after class,” Peck said. “That was a very eye-opening year.”

Peck hadn’t realized there were even forces and groups with the goal of dismantling the family, but they were running amok at the United Nations.

“I realized this was super important, and it matched my other mission, which was to heal families, I need to make sure families have the chance to heal, and even be families,” she said. Eighty percent of women in the world still become mothers, and WOW wanted to offer them resources supporting motherhood and family.

In recent months, Peck has been putting videos online to provide resources for families and hopes to be able to train more people. Her speaking schedule has been put or pause or moved online, but she is happy for her time at home and looking forward to the next phase of life.

“I want to be able to do more of whatever it is to make the world a better place,” Peck said. “If you want to boil it down: Whatever it takes to make the world a better place for families, for my family and for everybody’s family. And actually in my mind that just means I’m doing whatever it is God wills for my life. That’s where my happiness comes from.”