Tuesday, 02 May 2017 08:24

Teaching Self-Control to Young Children - Part 5: Sitting Still

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Helping your young children to gain self-control by teaching them to sit still is something that can be easily practiced at home on a daily basis. Expecting your child to sit through a Sunday Mass or wait an hour at the dentist office is unreasonable if not taught and practiced at home. So where do we begin to teach this important skill?

1. “Lap Time”

You can begin very early by sitting your child on your lap to read books for a set period of time every day. Do not allow him to squirm around or climb all over the couch; instead, place him on your lap and keep him there. Begin with one book and continue to increase the time he sits with you. Ideally, wait until he is still before allowing him to get down (reinforcing good behavior). A great option for “lap time” is to pray the rosary with your child on your lap. At first, maybe one decade - then gradually increase until you are able to pray the entire rosary. He can perhaps hold a rosary or a picture of the mystery you are praying. We used 8” x 10” pictures with scenes from each decade and put them in plastic sleeves - the youngest ones liked to hold them and look at them while we were praying. 

2. “Sit Time”

When your child is old enough to sit by herself, an excellent way to help her gain self-control is “sit time”. Have your child sit on a little child-size chair and table with her books for a set time each day. We had a small table and chair right in the living room with a basket of books close by. The reason behind a child-size seat is that there is less wiggle room than a couch or Dad’s recliner, decreasing the temptation to wiggle and increasing her chances of success. Sitting up in her little chair, books on her little table, gives your child a comfortable, familiar boundary. Encourage your child to select only two or three picture books - piling multiple books on the table discourages focusing. Set the timer and ask her to sit still and read quietly. If possible, sit with her nearby and read yourself, setting the good example. Reminding her gently to read to herself lessons the need for conversation and allows both of you to have some quiet reading time. There will be plenty of other times to read books together and talk about them. Start with a few minutes and gradually increase the time to 30 minutes. Practicing “sit time” often through the week will allow her the self-control needed to sit still for Mass, in the waiting room of the dentist, or on a three hour flight to see Grandma. An added benefit is she will learn to love to read!

3. “Puzzle Time” or “Coloring Time”

Another great way, similar to “sit time”, is to have the children sit at the kitchen table or living room floor with puzzles or coloring. Putting on one of the many excellent stories-on-tape and have them listen quietly while focusing on their puzzles or coloring is educational and fun. My children grew up with this, and even now as teenagers, love to sit in the kitchen and listen to books or stories on tape. There are many wonderful websites (such as https://www.reginamartyrumproductions.com) which are full of stories of the saints, heroic virtue and adventure. 

4. Practice Pays Off

Having 9 kids in 16 years meant a lot of doctor visits - and rarely did I have the luxury of a babysitter. I remember numerous times lining up a row of kids on the floor of the doctor’s office, with books or coloring, and they would sit still throughout the entire visit. When we would go to the dentist and take over the waiting room, the kids would quietly sit and read - often for 2 or 3 hours. I mention this only to encourage you that with practice and perseverance, it is possible! My children had the self-control to sit still because we had practiced it daily at home. It is also a wonderful way to evangelize the gift of life to the nurses, doctors and other patients who will invariably ask you, “How do you do it? I can’t get my two kids to sit still for more than five minutes!”

One time we were on a family vacation when my husband’s mother passed away. We had to get an emergency flight back home, which meant that our 8 young children were scattered throughout the plane since we were unable to get seats all together. In the days before portable electronics, they were happy to sit and play cards or read their books. In a stressful, difficult situation, they needed little more than simple instructions to “sit still” because they had practiced so much at home. 

5. Sit & Eat

Meal time is discussed more thoroughly in Teaching Self Control to Young Children, Part 4: Eating. The self-control it takes to sit still can be practiced daily by insisting your child sits at the table during meals. Limit the variables to ensure success - children should take care of bathroom needs before and not bring toys to the table. Family meals can be such a joy, and even more of a joy if our children are taught to participate throughout the entire meal. The results of proper training at home lead to special family nights out at your favorite restaurant or bringing joy to grandma at Thanksgiving dinner when she sees her well-behaved grandchildren.

6. School Time

The self-control of sitting still can also be practiced while doing their school work. Through the consistent practice of “sit time” (see no. 2), a very young child will have a jump start in learning the self-control needed to sit still when he reaches school age. Instead of allowing your child the “freedom” to get up when he chooses during school time (if you homeschool), you might want to encourage him to sit still and focus for a set-amount of time, gradually building upon that time. Young children need to take periodic breaks, but you as a parent should determine when those breaks will be. If a child hops down whenever he chooses, he is not acquiring the self-control to sit still or focus for a period of time without getting distracted. To avoid the temptation of getting down or wiggling at their seat during school, we had our young children sit in a taller child seat that fit them better and allowed them to sit closer to the table. Moving into a “big” chair was determined by their ability to sit still. 

7. Start with Daily Mass 

Going to daily Mass is a wonderful way to practice sitting still. The far more important reasons can be read in the article, “10 Reasons to Attend Daily Mass”. Daily Mass is only 30 minutes or less, often not crowded, and people are usually happy to have young families join them and will encourage you in your efforts. And the best part is that you can receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, giving you the necessary graces to teach your children. When we had very young children “in training”, it was easier to sit in the back so I didn’t worry about distracting others. If I had to leave, I could do so without disturbing other worshippers. Teach your children to sit still throughout the Mass without the aid of books, toys or Cheerios (unnecessary variables which will eventually have to be eliminated - it’s so much easier to never introduce them!). Instead, teach them what to do. Giving your children specific directions and setting the standard will make it easier for them to obey and give them the tools for success. For example, tell them to fold their hands in front, place both feet on the ground (not jumping on kneelers), and keep their eyes on the altar (not looking around). After repeated instructions, they will gain the self control to sit quietly through a longer Sunday Mass. 

8. Sunday Mass Success!

Once again, do not expect your children to sit quietly and still throughout Sunday Mass if you have not practiced at home. Because children love routine and feel comfortable and secure within familiar boundaries, try to be consistent each week. In our family, I held the baby (under 18 months, so I could leave if she was fussy), and my husband held the toddler (and did not put her down throughout the whole Mass).  With my husband and I in the middle, the “trainees” (3 - 5 years) sat between us and on the other side of us.  The older the child, the further away from us they sat. It sounds funny and a bit extreme to make the seating the same each week for Sunday Mass. By doing so, however, not only did we eliminate an unnecessary variable (arguing over who sits next to Dad - or furthest away from him), but we kept the boundaries tight so we could focus on the Mass and the self-control of sitting still. The children, knowing where they were sitting and what was expected, could now relax. When a child we were carrying would get squirmy, a gentle but firm squeeze reminds him to be still. When we did have to bring a toddler outside because of misbehavior, we never allowed him to get down - this would reinforce bad behavior. Instead, a gentle but firm reminder to be still was given (dads are especially good at this), then immediately back to the pew when he calmed down. When they were responsible enough and had the self-control to be still (beginning around age 3), we would allow them to sit down, stand and kneel along with us. If an older child was misbehaving, a quick lean over and “the look” was enough to remind. Occasionally, they would be asked to sit closer to us the next time at Mass - something they did not like to repeat! 

In this series, we have explored many ways in which to teach self-control to young children - through Boundaries, Sleeping, Speech, Eating and finally, sitting still. Helping our children gain this important virtue will carry throughout their childhood and into adulthood. In a culture that upholds self-gratification, they will be faced with many temptations and will need the self-control to deny themselves. Ultimately, our goal as parents is to help them to grow in virtue and holiness so they may become saints.

Cheryl HernandezCheryl Hernández and her husband of more than 30 years, Kevin, live in Florida. They have nine children, including a daughter who is a Servant Sister. They are lay members of the Home of the Mother.