Posted by: Sally | May 7, 2008

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!



  1. Thanks for this, Sally!

    I have just begun reading the book, Grace-Based Parenting. I was hesitant to begin, feeling as though I would instantly feel like a failure, that I’m way too overbearing, controlling, etc. I still have a LONG way to go, but I was so encouraged that the Lord used this to show me that because of HIS work in our hearts, my husband and I are more grace-based in our approach than I even thought we were! Praise God for that!

    I am aware that I still do have some controlling tendencies, struggle with patience, and can even be motivated by fear in my parenting at times. However…I am so thankful that the Lord chose to reveal to me that He IS at work in our hearts and our home, that He is enabling us to raise our dear children in His grace, even though we continually stumble and fall. Just because I can’t say that I haven’t yelled at my children in 3 years doesn’t mean that I don’t parent them in grace!

    I love the relationships that are already forming in our home, even with two little ones. The conversations we have…I know some people think we’re weird! But it’s a joy to me to see God’s gift of faith in a six year old who wants to discuss deep theological things. To understand the Trinity, what/why our non-Christian friends believe what they do, etc. It’s his heart for the Lord and love for Him that he likes to talk about. What a blessing, a gift from God!

    Thank you for being a continual example and encouragement to us as we seek to guide our children’s hearts and lives ever closer to an incredible relationship with Christ that governs their self-government.

    Many blessings to you, Sally!

    Much love,

  2. I cannot believe the timing of this…I really needed the encouragement. I have been struggling with my 6 year old, and finding the right ways to instruct her in obedience.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I am greatly encouraged and have been given a lot to ponder and pray about.

    In Chirst,

  3. I loved this post. I am going to print it out so that I can save it. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your wisdom!


  4. I really needed to hear this today. My husband was just telling me this morning that he felt like we need to make our unspoken expectations known to our children. It is the root of frustration. Thank you for writing this. God is using it to confirm this in our lives.

  5. This is a wonderful post to read on a day when I’m very tired, strangely enough. I was just thinking this afternoon about where we *are* with our 4 yo and 2 yo and looking ahead to where I hope we will be at further points along the road, and trying to think, how will I get there? Especially when I have a two year old who is such a handful that I am reluctant to take her into a store or restaurant with me at all because I spend the whole time constantly redirecting her and correcting her, and it’s challenging to shop or eat in peace. I know I need to train her and teach her, but wow, it’s a lot of work!

    I’m looking forward to ordering your new book and reading it soon! Thanks for your wonderful ministry.

  6. Thank you for this, Sally! I appreciate the reminder that we are raising these boys to be men, i.e. self-governed and self-controlled, not merely well behaved children who know how to meet my demands.

    I have noticed a HUGE difference in the way my boys respond to me and in the way that they carry themselves when I approach them with grace and with the reminders to them that 1) God has not given them spirits of fear, but of power, love and discipline, and 2) “if God is for us, who can be against us?”

    My children respond to grace the same way I do when the LORD convicts me. It’s that kind of correction that comes from a loving leader who doesn’t crush us utterly, but firmly and gently sets us straight. We are motivated to do what we have to do out of love for Him and with the knowledge that He has given us everything we need to accomplish what He has for us.

    I totally agree with your bottom line. Thanks for the encouragement, Sally. I appreciate your hard earned wisdom.

    God bless you!


  7. Sally,
    Your words are so sweet and full of wisdom. Thank you for helping me focus on a godly and gentle way of training my children.

  8. Sally,
    Thank you for this post.
    It always seems that you post something at just the time I’m needing it! :o)
    This has helped me to get refocused, once again, on the heart of an issue at hand.
    Lots of love,
    Amy in TX

  9. I was needing some encouragement a few weeks ago and pulled out Henry Clay Trumbull’s book: Hints On Child Training. It too emphasizes the value of self-government and will training. It was great to read this post as it was an awesome follow-up for me, another reminder, that what I’m doing is okay. They really will turn out alright if I offer grace not judgement.

    It can be hard when you’re in a group of people with a screaming two year old. You can almost hear their thoughts ‘She needs to spank that child.’ But, I praise God for bringing back to mind in those moments, the advice of older, wiser, parents and authors such as yourself. Thanks so much for your encouragement. It helps us moms to never mind the temptations we feel when we are in those situations, but better yet equips us to be the example and show with our actions that grace is the way. And, yes there are consequences, but better and more effective than repetitive spankings and harsh words or tones. God parents us by grace and so should we our children.

    God Bless!

  10. Dear Sweet Sally,

    Thank you for this sweet encouragement! I remember when my 14 year old boy was little and we were soaking up every little whim of *how to* that came our way. It left us feeling overwhelmed and exausted! I love the idea that they are little people not adults. and they get exhausted and overwhelmed too. Also, remembering that they are sinners just like we are! Where there is sin, grace abounds even more,yes?

    Blessings to you,

  11. what wonderful wisdom! my husband and i share these very same ideas, and by the grace of God, our children do seem to be catching on- though they are of course not perfect by any means! i seem to get comments all the time about how patient and polite my kids (5,3,2 and a baby who is not quite patient yet) are. often, i am told i am lucky to have such mellow kids, and that their own children “never would have been able to do ____ (sit in church when small, wait in line, etc.)

    my children are so very different from one another, but not one of them is mellow! we just live a life of respecting one another and our children pick up on it. (is there another way to live with six people in one house?!) i don’t think people realize that my children don’t act that way by “luck”, but by intentionality, and are in no way more capable of respecting others and showing patience than any other child! i also think they may not realize how much intentional planning i must do, to make sure expectations are clear to my children before we enter a situation, to be certain we are not out of the house near nap times or too close to meal times to avoid setting my children up for a hard day! so many parents seem to forget empathy, and then blame their children for poor behavior!

    it is priceless to me to read your post, knowing a godly woman i respect and who shares our same hopes and expectations for our children has come out “on the other side”! in a time of my life when teaching four little children how to live is mentally and physically exhausing, it gives me so much encouragement!

    thank you,


  12. I LOVE this post – thank you so much! I linked to it from my blog! Sunshine

  13. This is very helpful. I often have to remind myself that the point isn’t that my children do what I ask, but that they are able to choose what is right. They need to obey me, yes, but because it it right for them to do this….not because I want them to!

  14. Thank you Sally, I am just so thankfull for all that you write, it all sits so well with me. This morning it was great to be reminded to encourage our children that they can be great in Gods kingdom, that they make the choices that shape their lives. That by have to decide for them selves to obey God and please Him moment by moment and they have to decide to become the best that they can be.

    I also enjoyed reading how you trained your children when you had guests over, I’ll take that on board myself, especially having them ask questions that will help them to know the guest better. Giving them each a role, somehow I hadn’t really thought about that but it would help to train them and they would enjoy it too.

    Thank you so much Sally,

  15. Thank you, this post has encouraged my heart with what I believe, but needed some encouragement to refresh my heart and thinking! I am so blessed by your ministry to us moms in the “thick” of raising our precious gifts…thank you for being a Titus 2 women to many of us who long for that relationship in real life.
    Blessed by you,
    Liz 🙂

  16. Thanks be to God for putting you in my life. You are teaching me. You are part of the learning program that God has graciously prepared for me.

    Two of your books have miraculously made their way into my hands. Currently I am half way through “The Ministry of Motherhood”. What a great book!

    For six and a half years we have been missionaries in Bolivia. My kids are aged 10, 8, 6 and 20 months. Your words have come at a critical time. I have been especially challenged and intrigued by the grace based parenting you present.

    We have a mutual friend: Denise Holman. The Holman’s are our neighbors. They have lived here in Cochabamba for a year this month.

    Thank you for your giving heart. May God bless you in a special way.


  17. Sally, I love this post. Thank you so much. What a blessing you are!!

  18. Amazing, thank you so much for your thoughts on this. I have been praying about this and agonizing over it in respects to myself and my children.

    I love this amazing journey of motherhood but I often get trapped in a cage of fear of the responsibility of this crucial calling. I feel like I am so often all over the place in my parenting. lately I have really been staying consistent with the goal of guiding my children into joyful submission not solely to me but to God. I desperately wan them to daily understand in some small way the reality of our existence, to glorify God and enjoy Him as we daily conform ourselves into the image of His son. I know my little ones can not fully understand this but there is my goal in each day, in each disciplinary act, it is not merely outward obedience but rather inward submission.

    Sally, you have encouraged me greatly this evening and I praise God for your voice here in the blogspere.

    JOYfully in Him,

  19. I just discovered your blog, and I’m loving it! Are there any books that you would recommend to learn more about what you’ve written on in this particular post?

  20. Sally, I was one of the Canadian women blessed by your talks at OCHEC in Hamilton:) Thank you for inspiring me to reach my children’s hearts in a vast array of ways. I truly agree that our children need to be motivated to obey in their hearts — not just so they won’t get in trouble.

    I find myself wondering, though, about some of the examples you gave in this post regarding establishing expectations and consequences for met and unmet behaviours. While I totally agree that we all — including our children — have choices that result in positive or negative consequences, I found myself wondering where the line is drawn between trying to motivate the heart and, well, bribery. When we say, “If you do this (insert +ve behaviour), then I’ll give you this or do this for you” and conversely, “If you do this (insert -ve behaviour), then this will happen,” are we not simply appealing to their flesh, not their hearts? We might get the good behaviour, but little Suzy behaves at the grocery store so she can go to the park and have fun, not because it’s the right thing to do. KWIM? I understand that offering a positive incentive rather than just a negative consequence is all-round more pleasant and even more motivating — but is it really getting to the heart? I’m kinda stuck on this.

    I love the idea that obedience brings blessing and disobedience brings unpleasant consequences. I see that in the way God dealt with the Israelites (“If you obey me, I will give you victory over your enemies . . .”). And maybe I’m over-analyzing things — I just wonder how we avoid appealing to the flesh — and instead appeal to the heart — when we offer rewards for good behaviour.

    Do have any words of wisdom to help clarify things for me? I do so enjoy reading/hearing what you have to say — you have been a real blessing to me!

  21. Great post! I’m very late in getting to it!
    Question for you… I have a challenging 6 yo boy. He is gifted, very articulate, and learns well from books. He often does not “pick up” on the issue I’m training unless I lay it out very clearly using lists, posters, book lessons, etc. Do you have any character training books to recommend for kids like this?

  22. Thanks, again! I keep coming back to this, thinking about it. Please pray for me as a roll it all around in my mind.

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