How do you know when your home is running at its optimal level? What should you consider when you’re structuring discipline and punishment practices for your kids? What criteria do you focus on for evaluating your family’s health and well being? All these questions go into building a family covenant – the foundation of your home’s philosophy and vision. If you’re struggling to answer these questions right now, this post is for you (and I’ve got something special to offer you to help as well).
What Is a Family Covenant?
Most households I’ve known run on some basic rules and principles, usually put together just to keep things on track from day to day. In my home growing up, most of these rules consisted of “don’t do this” or “stay out of this,” with punishments that came along when you messed things up. A family covenant is a bit different in some key ways. Those differences, though, create major shifts in how you address conflicts, failures, and planning.
The Family Covenant Centers on Vision
More than anything, the biggest difference between basic rules and consequences and a family covenant is the vision. Rules and consequences are reactive and focus on behavior modification. In many cases, the rules follow a more control-based philosophy (i.e. “if you screw up, you’re getting this consequence,” or “if you obey, you’ll get this reward”). The key is to steer behaviors to outcomes that parents control.
In family covenants, the goal shifts from simply controlling your kids’ behaviors to giving them a vision that helps them make positive, compassionate, and responsible decisions independently. When a situation comes up, it’s not about controlling outcomes. Instead, it’s about a child knowing how to critically think about a situation given the overarching vision of their household. In short, it’s about discipleship instead of discipline.
What It Looks Like in Action
When your oldest is at a friend’s house, what happens if the friends choose to do something that your rules don’t allow? In a rules-consequences system, the goal for the child is to do what they desire without getting caught. They fear the punishment associated with the wrong choice but don’t have any specific reason to make the right choice if they can hide the wrong one. Perhaps they can even find a loophole in the house rules that makes it possible to justify their decision to take that path. After all, it’s not in their house.
In a family covenant, your oldest knows what the expectations are, why those expectations are there, and what the natural consequences of that choice are. You’re teaching them what makes something right or wrong, not just telling them not to do it. With this in mind, there are still opportunities to make poor choices, but your home is building intrinsic motivation for what choices they make.
That guiding vision, or house tenet, can be used to evaluate every situation your kids encounter. Your family covenant, then, is about the heart of the matter rather than the letter of the law. Now, equipped with this filter, they can see the choice for what it is instead of trying to justify it.
For us, our house tenet is “Love God, Love People.” It’s taken from Jesus’s teachings on the greatest command. The trick question that he was asked turned into one of the simplest and most profound teachings of our faith. And because of that, we can know that as long as our decisions fit into these two big ideas that we are building true discipleship in our home. Do you see how different this is?
Rules and Consequences, but…
Now, you can’t just completely eliminate rules and consequences. Kids are far too clever to be left to their own devices when it comes to making good decisions consistently. Instead, the family covenant refocuses rules and consequences on the bigger picture. Our covenant extends the “Love God, Love People” rule into more tangible ideas.
- Show kindness to everyone
- Live out of abundance, not scarcity
- Honor God with your words and actions
- Be responsible with your resources
These simple rules are incredibly easy to apply to almost all situations (and they fit will into the heart-soul-mind-strength command). Along with these short yet comprehensive rules, we outline consequences that will come of them. We try our best to focus on natural consequences, building the foundation that our decisions need to be motivated by real outcomes that will remain long after the kids leave our home:
- Lack of kindness means losing time with the people you want to see
- Being selfish means giving of yourself even more
- Dishonoring God requires repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation
- Irresponsible choices result in losing independence, freedom, and privilege
Sometimes these look more like punishments than consequences (losing your phone or video games for being irresponsible with time or selfish with your actions), but these consequences are real. When you strike out on your own, you’ll definitely lose your ability to pay for your cell plan if you are irresponsible with your money or time. Being rude or inconsiderate to your friends will mean those people not calling you to hang out. Speaking with vulgarity, cruelty, or dishonor will require a great deal of work to repair relationships that were affected by those words or actions.
And all of these point back to our tenet. That is what a family covenant does differently from arbitrary rules based on control or power.
A Family Covenant Litmus Test
The final piece to a strong family covenant is a way to guarantee you’re walking the walk. A proof, if you’re into math. A litmus test, if you’re a science person. I like to call it expectations: what you should expect to see if you’re following the house tenet. In my home, we use the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23):
But the fruit of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.Galatians 5:22-23
Any time we see a conflict, or need to evaluate a situation, we go back to the Fruit of the Spirit. Does this situation produce good fruit? Did we show these qualities in our responses? What would it look like if we made these fruits our priority in an argument?
When this is our mindset from moment one, the outcomes are so much better. We work hard to keep Jesus’s example in the center of our vision. And by doing so, we see a change of heart, not just a change of action.
PROPHET + PRIEST APPAREL
How Do I Get Started?
If you’re ready to get started on your own family covenant, the first step is to figure out what you believe is most important to your home. What one “command” could frame everything else you want to teach your family?
I recommend starting this journey by reading scripture. Meditate on your favorite verses, or focus on specific teachings or wisdom that you live by daily.
Sit down with your spouse and dig into your hopes for your kids. What kind of adults do you want them to become? How do you want them to approach difficult situations? How should their faith affect their relationships and choices?
I recommend looking at Proverbs or the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) to get started, but Paul’s letters are also excellent for setting your tenet.
After you establish this house tenet, think of what the consequences are for not following this command. Not what punishments to force your kids into obedience, but what happens in your own life when you neglect to follow your house tenet.
When you avoid responsibility, what happens? When you act selfish or prideful, how do your relationships suffer? What happens when living God or loving people is no longer your priority?
Set your consequences based on these outcomes. This keeps the consequences consistent, no matter where your children are in life.
It may seem counterintuitive to set your consequences before you establish your rules, but it actually works out better this way. Instead of trying to think of creative or clever ways to enforce rules, spend time developing the schema for building character in your family.
So start simple: what qualities bring you and your family closer to each other and to God? Figure out four or five rules (no more than seven). Keep them simple, but cast a wide net instead of focusing on specific scenarios. A few big rules are far easier to remember and apply than a laundry list of detailed regulations.
Now that you have your rules and consequences laid out, define the outcomes. What does it look like when the house is running smoothly? How does it look when things aren’t going well?
Course correction isn’t always optimal, but it’s important to be aware of the spiritual health of your family. So long as you know the end result, the journey becomes much easier to map out.
The final step is to sit with your family and cast the vision you’ve built. Sit down, have a real conversation, and get everyone on the same page. Until you’re all following the covenant, it’s nothing more than suggestions. Buy into it, as an entire family, and you’ll start seeing change. You’re part of this as well – if you slip, make mistakes, or stray from the path, model exactly what you want your kids to do.
After all, we’re in this together, and none of us have finished this race!
Is There Somewhere to Support Me in This Process?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, I’ve got great news: I have designed a short email mini course to build your family covenant in five days! Just fill out the form below and you’re on your way!
Even better than a simple course, I’m providing resources to guide your process, a printable template for your covenant, and full email support as you seek God’s will and plan for your family. Yep, I’ll directly answer your questions and dialogue with you as you’re getting everything set up and going. Because we all need community to be more Christ-centered people. It’s my way of showing you Christ-like love on what can often be a fairly lonely journey.
And best of all, IT’S COMPLETELY FREE. No credit cards, no costs, no upsells. All I ask is to have you as part of my email community. Sound good? Then let’s get started!