“How I trained my little ones to sit still and quiet” (by Jessica Burrell)

This is a follow-up post to my previous post Help, The Church Nursery is Closed! in which I reference training your children at home to be content to sit quietly.  Once you are out in public, it is too late to ask them to behave in some new way that you have never taught them.  This post is an effort to convey how I trained my little ones in the peace and comfort of our home.  The Lord says to train up our children in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6), to train them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4), and to teach them to have a quiet and gentle spirit, which the Scriptures say is “precious in God’s sight” (1 Pet. 3:4).  I have tried to apply these Scriptures in some practical ways at home while teaching my children to sit quietly and respectfully.

So how do you start? Start slowly.  Start with 5 minutes, maybe less.  Sit on the couch with Mommy and children together reading a book or singing a hymn, all engaged in the same activity.  The purpose is to stay in the designated place for the duration of the time.  Most children love this quality time of having Mommy’s attention to themselves, and they rarely have any trouble complying.  The next step is to tell the child that they must read (or look at) their own book while Mommy reads a book separate from the child or works on something independent from the children, while still sitting on the couch right beside them.  In the first step, the child is the central focus.  In this second phase, the child will begin to realize that the point of being on the couch is not for Mommy to cater to their wishes, but rather for them to find contentment on their own.  While you need to be instructing the child in step one, this second step is more where reinforcing and teaching the child your expectations really comes in.  Tell the child “you may not squirm around and climb down to the floor.” And “Mommy has a timer set for 5 minutes. When it beeps, we will be all done.  Then you may get down and play.”  The child may not ask “how much longer” or similar questions.  The child must learn to be content to wait patiently until the time is done and Mommy says that it is time to get down.

I should clarify that “Still and quiet” time in our home meant no talking or moving around.  You stay in your place and entertain yourself with one quiet toy or book.  If this object was used to harass a sibling, it would be taken away, and the remainder of the time would be spent with hands folded neatly in the lap.  I do not exaggerate when I say that I can count on one hand how many times objects had to be taken away from my children in public.  They learned this lesson very well at home!  Consider anything a small child will normally do when they do not want to be still…roll around on the seat, scoot down to the floor, then they end up under the seat, or army-crawling to a nearby location.  Their innate intent is to push the limits and see how far is too far.  You as the mother need to decide what will be acceptable for your children while in public.  Are you okay with them sitting on the floor at the doctor’s office or crawling on the floor down to the end of the pew at church?  If not, be sure that you are firm in your training at home.  For us, no arm waving, clapping, or moving off the seat was permitted.  Depending on age, lying down quietly in one’s spot (not rolling) was permitted.

After the children have gotten the hang of a 5-minute interval of being quiet and occupying themselves with Mommy on the couch, the next step is to have Mommy get off the couch and do something else nearby, while leaving the children on the couch having their “still and quiet” time.  For example, I will tell the children to come and sit. Then, once they have been reminded of the rules of “still and quiet” time, I will step away while warning the children that I will be watching to make sure they do a good job.  I might sit in another area of the same room and make a call to schedule dental cleanings, while maintaining frequent eye contact with the children so they know I am paying attention to their behavior.  If a little one decides they aren’t interested in the training session, their behavior is quickly dealt with and they resume their time on the couch.  Quick and consistent discipline is necessary in this training time.  You will be training your children regardless of how you handle the situation.  While they are in the living room, it might be easy to warn them, “Mommy said get back on the couch… I mean it!”  But consider if this method will be an option in church or in the doctor’s office.  You want to train them to listen the first time, not the second or third.  They must learn to obey immediately and to realize that there will be swift consequences when they do not.  There will be no “easy out” if they disobey.  The training session will continue on after discipline has been handed out.

Once the children are able to sit quietly while you perform other tasks in the same room, the real test comes.  “Still and quiet” while Mommy leaves the room!  This was always our children’s favorite part of the training times.  I would have the children sit (they were permitted one quiet toy) while I left the room to set a timer and then come back in to check on them and see if they were still in the same place and quiet.  I might go put a letter in the mailbox but quickly return and pop in the room to surprise the children.  This can be a very fun activity.  The children never know what corner you might pop out around or what you might be wearing on your head when you return.  The “away” might be anywhere from 5 seconds to 15 seconds to begin with.  You want to help them keep their attention on the task at hand.  Don’t make this sitting session a miserable thing for them.  My children would often forget the toy they had in their lap and prefer to watch out for when I would pop my head back in the room to see how well they were doing.  I would give silent accolades whenever I peeked in and saw that the children were still doing as I had asked.

You may notice a natural progression in this: very small and familiar steps to begin with, then moving up to bigger steps.  This will not happen overnight.  I would recommend having a practice session every day, or a five-minute session in the morning and another one in the afternoon, depending on the age and personality of your child.

After the children can manage a 5-minute segment of time on the couch on their own with Mommy in and out of the room, it is time to add more time to the clock.  I would graduate them to 10-15 minutes on the couch with one quiet activity of their choice, whether it is a toy, a reading book, or a notebook with a pencil or crayon.  If the children are misbehaving or not obeying the way they should, the offending child must be removed and disciplined and brought back to resume their sitting time.  Meanwhile, the other children are expected to continue sitting quietly.  This has helped immensely during the years that my husband has been in a pastoral position and has been unable to assist me in the pew with the children.  I have been able to take the rowdy child out of the service to address behavior while leaving all of the other children (yes, even a two-year-old) sitting quietly in the pew without me in the room, knowing that they would sit still because they dare not be the next one leaving the sanctuary with me.

I have one last comment on praising your little ones for doing well.  Rewarding our children when they do well is not the same as bribery.  Bribery is a parent’s last attempt at getting what they want from their child.  It is a negotiation that puts the child in control of the situation and puts the parent at their mercy.  Rewards and positive affirmation for good behavior are very different than that.  When I ask my child to do something and they do it right away and with a cheerful heart, rewarding them in some way is a great way to help encourage and motivate the child to do it again.  They have honored me, and I want to bless them because of it.  This is a good and wholesome way to encourage good behavior in our children.

In my other post, “Help, The Church Nursery is Closed!” I talk about preparing for Sunday morning by starting on Saturday.  I mention that “less is more” when packing activity bags for kids in church or the doctor’s office, and I give a few other ideas like finding a seat near the exits and arriving early to claim it.

I hope this post has been an encouragement to you!  It is not always easy, and it is never a fast process to train up our little ones in the way they should go.  But, as the Lord commands us to do it, I hope this will be of some small encouragement to you as we strive to please Him!

Jessica E. Burrell

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