Training Children to Joyfully Observe the Sabbath
Honoring God on the Sabbath
Every day in the week is the Lord's day, for children; but one day in the week is peculiarly the Lord's day, for children as well as for older persons. How to train a child to wise and faithful Sabbath observance, on the Lord's day, is a question that puzzles many a Christian parent; and, as a rule, the more true and loving and Christ-like the parent, the greater the practical puzzle at this point. The difficulty in the case is not so much, how to secure the observance of the Sabbath by a child, as it is to decide what should be the proper observance of the Sabbath by a child.
If, indeed, it were simply a question of compelling a child to conform to certain fixed and rigid rules of Sabbath observance, any able-bodied and determined parent, with a stern face, and the help of a birch rod and a dark closet, could compass all the difficulties of the case. But while it is a question of bringing the child to enjoy the loving service of God on God's peculiar day, it requires other qualities than sternness on the parent's part, and other agencies than a birch rod and a dark closet, to meet the requirements of the situation. And so it is that a right apprehension of the nature, of a wise and proper observance of the Sabbath is an essential prerequisite of the wise and proper training of children to such an observance.
Love must be at the basis of all acceptable service of God. Any observance of the commands of God which is slavish and reluctant, is sure to lack God's approval. The Sabbath is a sign, or a token, of the loving covenant between God and his people. It is to be borne in mind, it is to be remembered, it is to be counted holy, accordingly. One day in seven is to be given up to loving thoughts of God, to a loving rest from one's own work and pleasure, and to a loving part in the worship of God. On that day, above other days, the thought of God's children should be:
"This is the day which the Lord hath made;
We will rejoice and be glad in it."
How to train children to a joyous observance of the Lord's day, to a joyous looking forward to its coming, and to a joyous looking back upon its memories, is a weightier question, with thoughtful and intelligent Christian parents, than how to conform the conduct of children to the traditional ideas of legitimate Sabbath observance. An utter disregard of the Sabbath in the training of children is a great wrong; but even a greater wrong than this is the training of children to count the Lord's day a day of irksome constraint instead of a delight.
As a child's occupation on other days of the week is different from the occupation of his parents, so a child's occupation on the Lord's day ought to be different from his parents' occupation on that day. It would be cruel, indeed, to insist that on the Lord's day alone a child should be forced to do the same things that his parents do, and that so that day above all others should be a day of toil and of discomfort to a child. For parent and for child alike, the Lord's day should be a day of rest and of worship; but neither for parent nor for child is simple inaction rest; nor is hard Bible-study, or merely sitting still in church- time, worship. Rest is to be secured by a change of occupation, and worship is to be performed by turning the thoughts God-ward. How to help children to refreshing rest and to joyous worship on the Lord's day, is the practical matter at issue.
To bring a child into habits of loving and reverent Sabbath observance is a matter of training; and that training ought to begin at a very early age of the child, and continue throughout the years of his childhood. Long before a child can know what is the distinctive idea of the Sabbath, or why it is to be observed in a manner peculiar to itself, he can be trained to perceive that one day in seven is different from the other six days, and that its standard is higher and its spirit more joyous; that its tone is quieter, and its atmosphere more reverent. And all this ought to be secured to every child in a Christian home, from the very outset of the child's training to its close. Even a dog, or a horse, or an ox, learns to know and to prize some of the privileges and enjoyments of the Sabbath; and an infant in arms is as capable as
one of the brutes of receiving an impression of truth in this realm of fact and sentiment. But in the case of the infant or of the brute everything depends upon those persons who have it in training.
A common cause of trouble in this matter is, that the training does not begin early enough. A
child is permitted to go on, for months, if not for
years, without any direct suggestion of a difference between the Lord's day and other days of the week; and when the first attempt is made to show him that such a difference ought to be recognized, he is already fixed in habits which stand in the way of this recognition, so that the new call on him breaks in unpleasantly upon his course of favorite infantile action. Yet it ought to be so that a child's earliest consciousness of life is linked with the evidences of the greater light and joy and peace of the day that is above other days of the week, in his nursery experiences, and that his earliest habits are in the line of such a distinction as this. And thus it can be.
It is for the parents to make clear the distinction that marks, in the child's mind, the Lord’s day as the day of days in the week's history. The child may be differently dressed, or differently washed, or differently handled, on that day from any other. Some more disagreeable detail of his morning toilet, or of his day's management, might on that day be omitted, as a means of marking the day. There may be a sweeter song sung in his hearing, or a brighter exhibit of some kind made in his sight, or a peculiar favor of some sort granted to him, which links a special joy with that day in comparison with the days on either side of it. As soon as the child is old enough to grasp a rattle or to play with a toy, there ought to be a difference between his Sabbath rattle or other toy, and his week-day delights in the same line. By one means or another he should have the Lord's day to look back upon as his brightest memory, and to look forward to as his fondest anticipation. And in this way he can be trained to enjoy the Lord’s day, even before he can know why it is made a joy to him. A child is well started in the line of wise training when, he is carried along as far as this.
When the anniversary of a child's birthday comes around, a loving parent is likely to emphasize and illustrate to the child the parental love, which should make that season a season of gladness and joy to the child. Special gifts or special favors are bestowed on the child at such, a time, so that the child shall be sure to welcome each successive return of his birthday anniversary. So, again, when the Christmas anniversary has come, the Christian parent sees to it that the child has a cause of delight in the enjoyments and possessions it brings. It is not that the parents are lacking in love at other times; but it is that the child shall have fresh reminders, at these anniversary seasons, of that love which is unfailing throughout the year. So it ought to be, in the effort to make clear and prominent, on the return of each Lord's day, the love of God which is the same at one time as at another. As the parents will treasure little gifts as loving surprises for their children on the birthday and the Christmas anniversary, so the parents ought to plan to make each new Lord's day a better, brighter day than any other of the week; and to this end the best things for the child's enjoyment may well be kept back until then, as a help to this uplifting of the delights of the day above the week-days' highest level.
It is customary to keep a child's best clothing for use on the Lord's day. It might well, also, be customary to keep a child's best toys, best pictures, best books, best enjoyments, for a place in the same day of days in the week's round. This is a custom in many a well-ordered Christian home, and the advantages of it are apparent there.
The Sabbath closet, or Sabbath cabinet, or Sabbath drawer, ought to be a treasure-house of delights in every Christian home; not to be opened except on the Lord's day, and sure to bring added enjoyment when it is opened in the children's sight. In that treasure-house there may be bright colored pictures of Bible scenes; Sunday-school papers; books of stories which are suitable and attractive above others for Sabbath reading; dissected maps of Bible lands, or dissected pages of Bible texts, of the Lord's Prayer, or of the Apostles' Creed; models of the Tabernacle, or of Noah's Ark and its inmates. Whatever is there, ought resolutely to be kept there at all other times than on the Lord's day. However much the children may long for the contents of that treasure-house, between Sabbaths, they ought to find it impossible to have a view of them until that day of days has come round again. The use of these things should be associated inseparably, in the children's minds, with the Lord's day and its privileges, and so should help to make that day a delight, as a day of God's choicest gifts to those whom God loves and who love him. By such means the very plays or recreations of the children may be made as truly a means of rest and of worship on the children's part as are the labors of the parents, in the line of Bible study or of Sabbath School teaching, a means of Sabbath rest and of Sabbath worship to them on each recurring Lord's day.
Even for the youngest children there may be a touch of Sabbath enjoyment in a piece of Sabbath confectionery, or of Sabbath cake, of a sort allowed them at no other time. There are little ones who are not permitted to have candy freely at their own homes, but who are privileged to have a choice bit of this at their grandmother's, where they visit, after attending their service on every Lord's day. And there are grown-up children who remember pleasantly that when they were very little ones they were permitted to have a make-believe Sabbath visit together in their happy home, with a table spread with tiny dishes of an attractive appearance, which they never saw except on the Lord's day. There are others who remember with what delight they were accustomed, while children, after a certain age, to sit up and have a place at the family table at tea-time, on Sundays; although on other days they must be in bed before that hour.
If, indeed, the Lord's day is, in any such way, made a day of peculiar delight to children, with the understanding on their part—as they come to years of understanding—that this is because the day is peculiarly the Lord's day, there is a gain to them, so far, in the Lord's plan of the Sabbath for man's welfare in the loving service of the loving God. But if, on the other hand, the first impressions in the children's mind concerning this day of days are, that it is a day of harsh prohibitions and of dreariness and discomfort, there is so far a dishonoring in their minds of the day and of Him whose day it is; and for this result their unwise parents are, of course, responsible.
As children grow older, and are capable of comprehending more fully the spiritual meanings and privileges and possibilities of the Sabbath, they need more help from their parents—not less help, but more—in order to their wise use of the day, and to the gaining of its greatest advantages. The hour of family worship ought to have more in it on the Lord's day than on any other day of the week. Its exercises should be ampler and more varied. Either at that hour, or at some other, the lesson for the week should be taken up and studied by parents and children together.
There are homes where the children have a school of their own on that day, at a convenient hour of the day, in the family room, led by father or mother, or by older brother or sister, with the help of maps and blackboard, or slates. There are other homes in which the father leads a children's service of worship, in the early evening, and reads a little sermon from some one of the many published volumes of sermons for children. Wherever either of these plans is adopted, there should be a part for each of the children, not only in the singing and reading, but in asking and answering questions.
Apart from such formal exercises as these, one child can be showing and explaining a book of Bible pictures or of Scripture cards to younger children; or one group of children can be picking out Bible places or Bible persons from their recent lessons and arranging them alphabetically on slates or on slips of paper, while another group is studying out some of the many Bible puzzles or curious Bible questions which are published so freely for such a purpose. Variety in methods is desirable from week to week, and variety is practicable.
The singing of fitting and attractive songs of joy and praise will naturally have larger prominence, at the hours of family worship, and at other hours of the day and evening, on the Lord's day, than on other days of the week. And parents ought to find time on the Lord's day to read aloud to their children, or to tell them, stories suited to their needs, as well as to lead in familiar conversation with them. For this mode of training there can be no satisfactory substitute. Of course, it takes time, and it calls for courage, for high resolve, or self-denial, and for faith. But it is worth more than all it costs.
All this is apart from the question of the attendance and duties of the little ones at the at the place of public worship. When a child is of suitable age to have an intelligent part in the exercises of the Sabbath-school, he should be helped to find those exercises a means of sacred enjoyment. When, at a later day, he is old enough to be at the general service of worship without undue weariness, it is the duty of the parents to make that place a place of gladsomeness to him, as often as he is found there. Not wearisomeness, but rest, is appropriate to the holiest Sabbath services of the Lord's day. Not deepened shadow, but clearer sunlight, is fitting to its sacred hours.
The spirit of the entire day's observances ought to be a reverent spirit; but it should be understood by the parents that true reverence is better shown in gladness than in gloom. Where the Lord's day is counted a dismal one by the children, it is obvious that the parents have failed to train their children to hallow that day, as the day which is peculiarly sacred to the love of their loving Father in heaven. Whether at home, or at Sabbath-school or any other church service, the children should be helped to realize that the day is a day of brightness and of cheer; that while differing in its Occupations and enjoyments from all other days, it is the best of them all. When a little boy, out of a home thus ordered, heard one of his companions express, on that day, a wish that it was already the next day, the little fellow said, with evident heartiness, "Why I don't you like this day? I like it best of all the days." And so it ought to be in the case of every boy and girl in a Christian home.
The difference is not in the children, but in the mode of their training, when in one home the Sabbath is welcomed and in another home it is dreaded by the little ones. Such a difference ought not to exist. By one means or another, or by one means and another, all children ought to be trained to find the Lord's day a day of delight in the Lord's service; and parents ought to see to it that their children, if not others, are thus trained. It can be so; it should be so.
“Training Children to Sabbath Observance” from Hints on Child-Training by H. Clay Trumbull, pp. 139-154
Read more about raising children:
Clay Trumbull: Hints on Child-Training: "Will-Training, Rather than Will-Breaking"
J. C. Ryle: Duties of Parents