The Gift of Self Discipline

Our goal is to help our children develop godly character instead of doing what’s easy.

Sarah K. Asaftei is a mother of two and is married to Marius, a pastor in central Florida. She works in social media management and video production and loves international travel and photography.

Most kids today can't sit still, at least not in Western culture where I live. Not through church. Not in someone else’s home.

Actually, I’m not so sure that they cannot be still; rather, their parents don’t expect them to be. Mommy and Daddy are convinced the little ones can’t possibly control themselves, so parental expectations are never very high. As a result, society boasts a generation of kids running wild and a generation of exhausted, embarrassed parents.

Some people think it’s unreasonable that we expect our children (ages four and three) to sit through church without being disruptive. They thought we were certifiably crazy when we started “church training” at six months old! But if we never set the expectation, it will certainly never be met. It takes a lot of consistent training, patiently enduring squirms and wiggles and being brave enough to “walk out of church—calm them down— walk back—repeat.”

Between eight and eleven months, my son was teething. He wouldn’t sit. He wouldn’t stand. He wouldn’t play with his toys. He stopped sleeping sweetly during church. Good sleep makes happy kids, and he was exhausted from fighting naps all week. I spent every service trotting from our pew to the lobby and back.

So we began practicing at home, helping him learn to sit still each day. We started by holding him on our laps, gently but firmly, and saying, “We are going to sit still now.” The first time, he screamed and kicked and hollered for about forty-five minutes. Since it was a training session, we fully anticipated this reaction. That made it easier to stay calm and pleasant. No anger. No yelling. Just quietly repeating, “We are going to sit here and be still until Mommy/Daddy says you can go.”

When he calmed down, we only kept him sitting for perhaps one minute. The point was to get him to cooperate and introduce him to the idea. Nothing more. The next day, the same time, we repeated the training. Again, calmly and gently, making sure we didn’t quit before he chose to cooperate. It was more about outlasting him than anything else. This time, it only took twenty-five minutes before he quieted down. We kept him there, talking and praising him for about five minutes this time.

For a week, we did this daily. Each day his fussing grew shorter, and each day we lengthened the sitting-still time by a few minutes after he calmed down. That next Sabbath, he was a total mess. It was his worst series of outbursts yet. I wondered why I was even bothering. I was frustrated; he was irritable. It would have been so much easier to let him chatter and crawl in the church lobby. But we didn’t give up because our goal is to help our children develop godly character instead of doing what’s easy.

The second week, instead of having him sit on our laps, we sat him beside us each day. (Partly because I was pregnant and had diminishing lap space.) We kept him there for five minutes after the fussing stopped. After a couple of days, the fussing disappeared. Then we lengthened the quiet sitting time to ten minutes, then fifteen minutes. Each day we kindly but firmly told him, “You must sit still until Mommy says you may go.”

The next Sabbath, he was quiet until near the end of the sermon. No, he didn’t sit still the whole time—but then I didn’t expect him to. He sat for twenty-five minutes, then played on his blanket on the floor and wiggled around and drank a bottle. No screaming, fussing, or cranky outbursts. Yay!

The third Friday, he sat on the floor in his little seat playing with a stuffed animal and a book while I cleaned house and folded laundry nearby. For forty-five minutes! Twice he crawled out of his seat, and both times I put him back, saying, “You don’t have permission to play yet, and you must wait until Mommy says you may go.” He whimpered a bit but gave in.

The next day, he made it through the entire church service. We didn’t have to go out even once. Sure, he wiggled and cycled several times through his “quiet toys.” I was delighted we hadn’t given up after the first miserable weekend!

We kept practicing at home to make sure the habit was well-established. Plenty of weekends he relapsed into old habits. But we’d seen enough to trust that the process would bring results eventually.

If a child is physically capable of doing something which is good for their character and respectful toward others, shouldn’t they be taught how and then be expected to do it? We knew our babies were capable of sitting, on their own, for ten to twenty minutes at a time by the age of six or seven months. We also knew that when their interest was engaged by music, activity, or a favorite quiet toy, they could sit for even longer. Every day our kids get loud-wiggly-goofy time and also sitting-still-being-quiet time. We also expect them to participate respectfully in daily family worship time, morning and evening, with a minimum of wiggles and shrieks (some days are better than others, of course). It may not come naturally, but when you practice something daily for weeks or months or years, it can become normal.

Daily practice gives them the vital life skill of mastering their impulses and honoring others even at a young age. We don’t yell, scream, hit, or threaten them to achieve this though, for two reasons. First, because losing our temper is counterproductive, since we’re trying to teach them to discipline and control themselves. Second, because as parents it is our role to model the love and consistency of God to our kids. Yelling destroys that.

We aren’t naïve. Some days it feels like the whole training process is a failure. If you ever meet my kids, you’ll see they are energetic, exuberant, and full of energy! But when it gets discouraging, we try to remember that without gentle parental guidance they may never learn self-control and personal responsibility.

Despite what Western society typically implies, expecting a child to learn honor and self-discipline is not unrealistic. We didn’t expect them to sit perfectly still for the entire church service at age one, but we did expect them to not be disruptive. For us, that means they were required to sit quietly on their own for as long as possible, then spend the rest of the service playing quietly with toys from their Sabbath bag. We also always sit somewhere in the front two rows, so they can easily see all the action; it makes for a long trip out the back door on uncooperative Sabbaths, but it’s worth it.

It’s not fair to expect any young child, no matter their age, to happily do something each week without providing a chance to practice and prepare. There’s a significant philosophical difference between punishment and training. Whenever possible, we choose to train them toward self-discipline rather than punish.

The key is patient consistency. No means no. Yes means yes. Sit still means sit still. No yelling or angry threats needed. Mostly, it takes being stubborn enough to simply stick to your parental expectations.

When it gets tough, many parents give up and let kids play during church in the hall or lobby, or simply leave after Sabbath School. Or they spend the next three years in the parents’ room, starving for spiritual food while the kids run amok. If this is you, don’t lose courage. If all it takes is a little extra work on our part to give them the tools to become respectful and courteous adults someday, then isn’t that an acceptable price to pay? In the meantime, you’re giving your children the gift of knowing where their boundaries start and stop. Of knowing that you can be trusted to mean what you say. The security that brings to their world is priceless.

Sidebar: Sabbath Bag Ideas

Fill a special bag with quiet, non-disruptive toys. These should be your kids’ very favorite toys, age-appropriate, non-messy, and preferably Bible-or nature-related instead of secular. Felt-books, miniature coloring books, stickers, a favorite stuffed animal, a teething ring, cardboard books—all make great contents.

Keep a Sabbath bag for each child hanging in an extra closet. Bring it back after church and hang it up, ready to take next week.

Make Sabbath highly anticipated by keeping special toys in a box to bring out on Friday nights and put back at sunset on Sabbath. Put everyday toys away during Sabbath hours, except for special (Sabbath-appropriate) books, projects, and toys.

Sarah K. Asaftei is a mother of two and is married to Marius, a pastor in central Florida. She works in social media management and video production and loves international travel and photography.