The Value of Self-Government and Will Training

Not too long ago, I was meeting with a sweet mom in a coffee shop and she brought her two children along. They were sweet children, but they were all over her and ran her ragged. I was talking with my older children later about it and asked them what we did differently. It was humorous to hear how opinionated they were, but it also reminded me how intentionally we taught them to be patient and to wait their turn--because they all remembered it the same way. It is the concept that I call self-government--probably a Victorian character quality that I read about along the way and in a book about the principle approach to life. The definition of self-government is the idea that a person learns to command himself, his impulses, his work habits, his emotions, His intellect and talents and rule over his will in a productive way. Children can begin this at a very early age, but it is also of utmost importance to adults--as one cannot be a mature believer unless one has mastered self-government and self-control and patience.

The idea behind self-government is that all of us have a power and authority over life that comes from within that can help us to master problems, obstacles, and can use our self-will to achieve great things. It is not about gutting out life in the flesh without the power of God, but it is the idea that we have a moral character that can be strengthened and under girded by our will and by practice. He who has cultivated this kind of strong character is useful and productive in almost all areas of life. It is what helps a believer to exercise faith and courage and perseverance in the midst of trials. It is what helps a pianist to practice long hours, an athlete to exercise rigorously in order to become a champion, a missionary to master a language and remain faithful in a foreign country until there is a multiplying ministry; a wife to bear up with grace when married to an immature husband; a mother who continues over and over to practice patience with a sick or rebellious child--governing life by mature, faith-based choices, not by feelings.

An effective way that we taught this to our children was through training. Usually it started out with will-training. The biblical principle for this is found in Deuteronomy. God tells the Israelites to obey Him, and if they do, they will be blessed. If they don't obey, they will be cursed--there were consequences to their decisions. So He says, "So choose life and obey me so that you may live!" Similarly, in life all choices have consequences. Our children need to understand that "what we sow we will reap."

I used to say to my children over and over again. "Daddy and I cannot make you into great people. You have the power to determine how strong you become by how you exercise your will. We can train you and teach you how to be good and how to be righteous, but you have to decide to obey and you have to decide that you want to become a person of godly character. God made you such a wonderful child, so I hope you will decide to do your best to become all that you can be. It is in your hands. It is yours to decide to respond, but I am praying and hoping that you will."

When we appeal to our children's hearts for excellence and choices of good behavior, then we are giving them the will and desire to be excellent all for themselves. Their desire comes from within and their motivation is from their heart. But if we train them behaviorally by always forcing them to do what we want them to do because they might get a spanking, or another kind of threatened discipline, then their motivation is to avoid spanking or harshness but not to please God or to please their parents, by having a good heart and responding in obedience.

This works itself out practically by helping them to train their wills to develop strength and self control. Our children always remember us saying all the time, "You have a choice to make. If you obey me, then you will be blessed. But if you choose to disobey me, then you are choosing disciplinary consequences that will be unpleasant." for instance, if a toddler was whining, I would say, "Mommy is allergic to a whiny voice. If you can stop whining and use a normal voice, I will listen to you. If you want to keep crying and whining, then you must go to your room and when you can calm down, I will listen to you." At which point, I would take the toddler and place them in their room in their crib.

Even our toddlers learned the self-control of calming down and responding in a normal voice--gaining control of their little spirits. Or, "If you don't get your work finished by lunch time, then you will stay in your room and work alone while the rest of the children go outside for a picnic." Or if you don't get your chores finished, then you will have to clean the whole kitchen by yourself tonight. We wanted our children to find internal motivation to obey us and to learn that there were positive and negative consequences to their choices--just like in scripture. (Now, of course, the key to this is being consistent and following through unless there are mitigating circumstances--a child is ill, exhausted, overstimulated--often because the parent led the child to be overstimulated or exhausted because of a demanding and busy schedule--sometimes the only recourse a child has is to cry or complain if they have become physically or emotionally spent because of too much activity and demands on their young body.)

However, very young children, toddlers, don't always process our wishes--sometimes when they are distracted, it takes their brain a 30 seconds to a minute to understand. We need to exhibit appropriate patience and gentleness to toddlers and babies so that they will learn to be gentle and loving. We also learned that we could distract our children to help them learn patience. "Mommy wants you to wait until I have finished talking to my friend. Here is a small cup of fruit and cheese. I would like you to sit on my lap (or in your high chair) and when you get through with your cup, it will be time for me to be finished with my work."

When we were in church or a meeting, we would talk to the kids about how long they needed to be quiet and listen-we prepared them to know what to expect before we got into a situation. Clay made a "brief-case"--each a different color--a favorite Christmas gift--for each child that traveled with them for long meetings or times in the car or waiting at the doctors. We would look for fun puzzle books or coloring books or hand toys or a little legos or car, colored pencils, sewing cards, etc. We would pull these out for the kids to use when we visited others or had a situation that would require them to wait patiently. They never got to use these other times so that they always felt special--the quiet bags!

Training our children to our expectations also helped. "We will be in the grocery store for about a half hour. Here is a cup of cheerios that you can nibble while we are inside. If you stay patient and quiet for Mom, then when we are through, I will take you to the park and we can swing for a few minutes. If you misbehave, I will have to take you home. (or whatever consequences fit the plan.)

Before we went to someone's house for dinner or before we had guests, we told the children what to expect. "Tonight, Mommy and Daddy are having some grown up friends over for dinner. We want you to serve them the rolls, Sarah; Joel, you greet them at the door and ask if you can get them a drink, and Nathan, you think of one question to ask our guest so that you can get to know them better. Let's use our best grown up manners. This means eating your meal quietly, listening to the conversation and not interrupting, and waiting until Mommy can serve you, after I have served the other adults. If you can behave and sit at the table without fussing, like grown ups, then you can stay up an extra hour tonight to play. If you interrupt us too much, you will have to go to bed at the regular time and stay in your room and play until bedtime."

Helping our children know what we expected of them in most situations before they happened gave them guidelines to follow. God was also this kind of trainer--he was very specific in the law to teach his children how to live life well and so we sought to let our children know, without fail, to know what the guidelines and expectations would define their lives.

We could gently correct them and help them develop life and relational skills gradually and systematically every day. This is what the verse means, train up a child in the way he should go---giving them patterns of life, relationships, ministry, relating to the Lord, over and over and over again, so that the patterns of righteousness we are training into their lives becomes familiar and second nature.

I am amazed now, at how naturally our children are at ministry relationships and speaking in front of crowds, etc. Each year before our conferences, we would train all of the children as to what to say to the adults they served, how to greet them, how to help them in our book store, how to set up the luncheons, and how to prepare something to speak or sing or perform for our conferees. Now, each of them, having been trained and corrected and rewarded and engaged in their parts of the conferences, added this experience to their souls and it became a natural part of their life's expression. Each step along the way did not seem like we were necessarily making great headway, but after years of consistent training and experience, they became like the lives we required them to live.

Often, I see parents reacting to their children and blasting all over them harshly or on the opposite side, because the children were just acting out what they were natural at--immaturity--but had never been given guidelines and training. Or the other extreme is parents meeting their child's every whim and finding children exhaust them.

Sometimes when people find out that Clay and I are grace-based in our approach to parenting, people assume that that means lenient and undisciplined. However, we were very idealistic and had high expectations for our children, but we instructed them through consistent training, not primarily through force and multiple spankings but through relational discipleship based training. Our philosophy also looked at each child differently--as an individual--so that we could best figure out what appealed to and reached teh heart of each child. Introverts responded differently and behaved differently than our extroverts. Boys were differently wired than our girls. Learning issues and maturity levels greatly influenced a child's ability to be mature. All factors which cause us to understand that we needed to appeal to each child's heart based on knowing the heart of each child.

No matter what philosophy we as parents have for disciplining children, we need to remember that our goal isn't primarily to make them obey, but to motivate them to obedience from a sincere and loving heart. I did always feel that if I expected them to learn self-control and the ability to work harder, I also had to be sure I was meeting their essential needs in order to expect them to perform well. I needed to give them a routine life--plenty of sleep, naps when tired, not too much over-stimulation, nutritional food, life-giving, soul-filling words--so that their bodies could support my ideals and expectations for them as a mom. If they were exhausted because of being out too late, then if they cried, I would put them to bed--they didn't need discipline, they needed to go to sleep.

Bottom line, discipline is more about relational righteousness training and taking time to instruct, train, praise and correct and strengthening a child's moral character and will through the variety of all the moments of life, than a list of rules about and mandates about when and how long to spank or punish. The Holy Spirit grants each parent wisdom how to apply Biblical principles of training to each parent according to their own puzzle and their unique children--it can look different for each family and each child, but all philosophies that focus on reaching and training the heart, have a deeper influence on the outcome of the child's soul. I have learned so much from reading scripture and pondering God's parenting of me. May He give all of us grace and skill and patience!


Sally (

Just an issue some moms in my group have been asking me about. Have a great week!