Editor’s Note: Nicholeen and Spencer Peck have been featured in a BBC television show called The World’s Strictest Parents-and their calm, principle-based parenting has made waves around the world ever since. Their segment of this show has been the most-watched of any. Before we featured them in Meridian, I wanted to become acquainted, so I intended to watch a ten-minute segment on Youtube as they took two out-of-control British teenagers into their home for eight days. I was so taken I watched the entire segment. If, after reading this article, you want to see it too you can access it here.
Nicholeen and Spencer Peck consider themselves pretty typical LDS parents, except maybe for the fact that they homeschool. With their four children they have family prayer, family council, family home evening and family scripture study. However, their home is run by principles of self-government that are unusual enough to be causing a major stir in the United Kingdom. How did that come about?
In 1998 Spencer decided to make a career change which involved lower pay and additional schooling. At that time the Peck’s had two pre-schoolers and they had made a firm decision that Nicholeen would stay home with them. Providing foster care for the Utah Youth Village in Salt Lake City felt like the right way to support her husband in his career change without having to leave the home. The Utah Youth Village is one of the largest private non-profit providers of residential treatment for children who are wards of the state.
Foster care providers are required to complete intensive training and become certified in a system of foster care called The Teaching Family Model (a model of care for troubled youth used internationally in Group Homes, etc.).
Nicholeen and Spencer took this training and it made a huge difference in their home, improving communication, increasing feelings of security, and decreasing emotional anxiety. Over the years they experienced the effectiveness of the principles of self-government that the training is based on. It all merged so perfectly with the gospel and with Joseph Smith’s philosophy, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” They saw their own children and their foster children respond in encouraging and amazing ways. Nicholeen eventually started a blog to share the principles and encourage other parents. That blog was the reason the Pecks ended up on TV in the United Kingdom
Surpise e-mail from the BBC
In January of 2009 Nicholeen got a really strange e-mail from a lady in England from the BBC asking if their family wanted to be part of a television show in the UK. She explained that her interest stemmed from Nicholeen’s “Teaching Self-Government” parenting blog.
She said, “We’ve seen your blog and we think that you would be ideal parents for this documentary we are doing on parenting called The World’s Strictest Parents.” The title completely turned Nicholeen off to the idea because she had the erroneous idea that strict meant being sour and serious and yelling at children. However, come to find out their definition of strict in England was very different from hers in Tooele, Utah. Their idea of strict is telling kids they can’t smoke, get tattoos, or hang out at pubs with their friends instead of doing home chores and school work. Many parents there seem to be so afraid of being considered “strict” that they don’t give the children limits or solid values to live by.
The BBC interviewer said, “We want your family because you are religious. Only 10% of people in the UK actually admit to subscribing to a certain religion… We want people to see that religion can be good for raising children…” The BBC became intent on finding people from all different religions around the world for troubled British teens to go stay with so they could film them for this documentary. She went on, “Your family obviously believes in giving children limits…I am also interested in your claim that you can teach children to choose to govern themselves.”
Nicholeen commented in regard to the interviewer’s words, “According to some of my British friends, lots of parents there don’t want to push their children away from them by giving them limits. Yet a large number of girls in the UK, even by age 14, choose to get pregnant because if they become a teen mother they can move out of their houses and the government will pay for rent and living expenses for them and their baby for the rest of their lives. So huge numbers of girls are saying, I want out. I want to not live with my parents anymore.’ In fact the girl who came to stay at our home was 17 and did have a ten-month-old baby, who was cared for by her mother while she came to Utah to stay with us for eight days.”
Making the Decision
After they got the e-mail from the BBC the Peck’s initially decided they weren’t going to accept the offer. Who would want to make themselves that vulnerable? they thought. However, after they talked about it and prayed about it, in the end they knew they were supposed to do the program.
Meeting James and Hannah
The experience turned out to be amazing. Two British 17-year-olds, James and Hannah, came to live with them for eight days. Nicholeen says, “I want to tell you a little bit about James. On the outside we saw piercings, makeup, colored hair, skinny jeans, smoking, drugs, and accessories. That’s what he lived for. That’s what he did. But on the inside I found out James wanted love, kindness, understanding, respect and a dream.
“One night when James sat down with our family to dinner, my little seven-year- old daughter sat next to him and just kind of snuggled up close to him on the bench and James looked down at her and said, oh, do you want to sit by me?’ And she said yeah, James. I like you.’ He melted, literally melted. I thought he was going to bawl. No one had ever just been so cute to him. He knew she wouldn’t lie. He put his arms around her and said, Oh, I like you too.’ At this point, without any warning, James felt love from this little person and I saw it. The moment touched my soul because I realized this poor boy has not felt that simple kind of love. The kind of love we take for granted when our little ones are crawling all over us.
“Hannah was all about makeup and skimpy clothes. She liked to show off everything that she had and use trendy and profane words. She was a big partier. She would leave her baby to go out and party all night and do drugs and alcohol. Her whole goal in life seemed to be desired,’ but as I got to know Hannah I realized that on the inside she wanted to know how to be a good mom. She’d never seen someone be a good mom. She also wanted to care about God which was amazing to me to see that somebody who was focusing on so many other things really in her soul wanted to care about God. And she wanted to be beautiful but she didn’t understand what real beauty was.
“I wasn’t sure it was possible in so short a time, but in 8 days the changes we saw were incredible. The reason these two were able to make changes so quickly is because they knew they needed changing. They had to volunteer to come here.
They had to want to change. No change can happen unless the person wants it.”
Teaching the Value of Work
Most of the things the Pecks taught the two British teens (and the six-man camera crew) were ordinary things. They taught James and Hannah how to make dinner, do laundry, clean bathrooms, do gardening, make jam, and nurture young children. Most of us do these kind of things without thinking about them. They’re just the regular things we do all the time when we’re raising children.
Amazingly, none of these things were part of the teens former life, and they were shocked. The teens said to Nicholeen things like, “you actually take all this time to put jam into the jar when you could just go and buy it? Why do you do that?”
She took them out to pull some weeds in the yard and they pulled one and said things like, Oh, this is disgusting. My hands are getting dirty.’ They said they had never pulled a weed in their lives.” They had never learned the value of work, and because they lived on welfare with single moms who didn’t understand the value of work, work had never been required of them.
Nicholeen said, “I realized the best thing I could do was to teach them simple things like the work which is part of our family culture. We cleaned bathrooms, swept, cooked, gardened, canned, and did it all as a family. If I had to decide what things in my life are the most boring, I would pick things like these. These are the tasks no one appreciates. Yet when families cooperate and work together, all of those boring mundane things make happy families and responsible children.”
Teaching Limits and Values
The Pecks greeted the teens with clear expectations and rules. They taught them standards in dress and speech and behavior that were completely foreign to them. For the first three days, the Pecks received a lot of static. Hannah didn’t want to live the dress standards and they both had a hard time with limits on their language and behavior. Since they were both totally used to being able to run away when things didn’t please them, they tried that. However, there was really nowhere for them to run. And there was nowhere to go to get the cigarettes, alcohol or drugs they were used to for momentary stress relief.
The Pecks felt that the most important things they could teach the teens were how to know what’s right and wrong, what a home that serves God feels like, and how to communicate honestly and respectfully.
They taught them their philosophy of self-government.
What is Self-Government?
Self-government is being able to determine the cause of effect of any given situation, and possessing the knowledge of your own behaviors so that you can control them.
How do you teach children to govern themselves?
First you must have a vision and give your family a sense of mission.
Nicholeen said, “mission is an attitude, not necessarily a thing. Every single thing you do in your life is part of who you are, part of your mission. If you approach that mission with purpose, if you have the attitude of mission, you live deliberately. Live deliberately and you have mission. The mission is living with purpose. Every single day, in everything I do there is a reason for it and the interactions that I have with my children are deliberate. We say things in a deliberate way with each other. We have family meetings that are deliberate. We do them a certain way deliberately, on purpose because we want them to be purposeful. We want our family to live that way. Live deliberately.”
“On the third day we had James and Hannah I got the idea to show them our purpose for doing what we were doing, and that we really cared about them. I recognized that if we just kept talking about the dress code and limits, they were not going to see that we really cared about them and had hope for them. So I pulled my kids together and said, “let’s do a little musical program for James and Hannah when they come back today from working at the ranch to show them how much we care about them.” One of the songs brought the Spirit into our home so strong because music has that power.”
“My husband started to cry and said, This song that they just sang, which was about going home is so significant. I hope you remember when you get home what you’ve done here. That was the message of the song. This song is how we feel about you. This is what we want for you. We want you to remember this so that you are never the same again. That’s our hope.’
“We had the kids sing this song again and James and Hannah really listened and they wept and they cried and they said, I want to have a family like your family. I want to have children that are like your children.’ They were so touched. They couldn’t stop crying. We all cried and hugged and wept. After that their time with us was completely different because they experienced our deliberate show of love to them. We made an effort to show our sense of mission, to say, this is why we’re doing this for you. This is what we want for you.’ It made a huge difference that we were deliberately expressing our love, our sense of mission, our hope that they would get a new vision of who they could be.
Be deliberate in everything that you do. Be deliberate in your communications and in your actions. Have purpose. Feel a sense of mission.
Here are the other important parts of self-government, which we will explain more in later articles:
Have an effective family government, or governing system in place in the home.
All family members need to learn effective communication skills and respect.
The feeling the home must support the family vision. Parents need to partner up with a higher power.
Finally, good character. That is the point of it all, that everyone have it.
Nicholeen writes, “One day I asked Hannah if she would like to teach school to my two youngest children as she had seen me do, so I could get some other things done. She was really excited to play school teacher for a while. I told her I try to teach them things that will help them be better people. I had her read and talk about the story, The Little Red Hen.
“I watched her nurture these little children and teach them how to draw a little piggy and how to draw a little hen and read them the story and take her job really seriously. She was trying to be the mom she thought I would be by telling them they should help out other people when they’re asked, and all these kinds of things. She did Play-Doh with them and everything, and it was so sweet. After that she said to me, I want to do this kind of thing with Tanisha.’ (That’s her daughter.) She said, I want to be this kind of mom with her.’ This was something she had never had any vision of before.
“Just before the teens went back to England, I took them to the George Wythe University Gala at the Utah State Capitol. For Hannah, that required a formal gown, her first, and she was really excited. Before we went into the dress shop I said, “Now remember, we have a family standard, and you have to choose a modest gown.” The first thing I pulled off the rack was a shiny royal blue dress that looked like something Lady Diana would wear, and Hannah loved this gown.
She put it on, came out and stood in front of a big wall of mirrors.She just stood there and looked at herself for a really long time–amazed that she looked like royalty. She finally said, “I’m all covered up and I’m gorgeous!” I was so impressed that she had recognized that all on her own. She continued, “I didn’t know I could be this beautiful covered up. I am going to cover up from now on. I like myself this way.” Hannah finally saw her real beauty. The dress somehow gave her a vision of herself she had never dreamed of. We talked about what being a princess means on the inside. She really saw her inner princess at that moment, and loved it. It was so great.
“The best thing was the spiritual growth we saw. After a few days with our family, both James and Hannah started asking to pray and be part of family prayers. James prayed to have Heavenly Father’s help to overcome his addictions, which were really controlling him. He realized he had been shaking and having all kinds of hard times because of withdrawal from his addictions, and he realized that he could ask God for help. It was really moving. Hannah e-mailed me the Monday after she went home with some great news. She had gone to her church because she decided her little daughter needs to be raised with church.
“When James and Hannah, and even some of the camera crew were ready to leave, they cried. We all did. No one wanted the growing and changing to end. James and Hannah felt free from all the things in their lives which had kept them bound. The structure of our lives and our home made them more free.
“Most people don’t know freedom happens like this, but it does. Living with limits creates more freedom. Freedom to become what God intends you to become. Through their departing tears James and Hannah begged to not have to go. They said, Can’t we just stay? You don’t understand. No one will know what we know now. They won’t understand why we want to be different. I don’t know if we can do all this at home.’ It will be hard, but if they live deliberately they can do it. I hope they can.
“The film that the crew took home with them to England after their eight-day stay with us was edited into an hour-long show that was aired on television. They have told us since that our show had extremely high viewer ratings. It was also made into six You-Tube segments available from my web site.
“Hannah and James went home with a changed vision of what was possible for their lives. By living with us and interacting with us and sensing our love and hope for them, they were able to make new decisions that are moving them away from their self-destructive lifestyles and toward becoming who they really, in their hearts want to become.”
The Ripple Effect
Nicholeen reported to me today as we were finishing up this article, “Much has happened since the show was filmed. We have kept in regular contact with James and Hannah and the camera crew (who are now some of our best friends). James’s mother tells me he is doing much better since he came home and that their relationship is better for sure. James has been trying not to use so many substances. Quitting these things is really hard, so we pray for him all the time. James also went back to school and has plans to become a designer. This is a big step since he was a high school drop-out.”
“Hannah’s biggest accomplishment is her increased dedication to being a mother. I can’t say for sure how she is doing with this each day, but I get the feeling from our correspondence that she is much more serious about making time with her child more memorable and connected. I wish her the best a mother could wish for another mother. Her life will not be easy, but we hope her experience with our family gave her a vision she will remember for what she wants for her own small family.
“After the show aired on November 5th of this year, people all over the world started contacting our family and blogging kind remarks about the show. People have asked us for help with strengthening their families, relationships, spiritual understanding, and lives. We have made friends which we will cherish forever. If there is one thing all people in every country understand it is the desire to have a strong, happy family.”
I think it is pretty safe to say that the Peck family has given the world a vision of what is possible for their families and their happiness by living their regular lives and doing it deliberately.