Do your children occasionally shock you with antics that are entirely outside their training? Most homeschool families take seriously the admonition to “train up a child in the way he should go.” When a child’s behavior is outside acceptable boundaries, conscientious parents notice.

I experienced one such occasion when I took our youngest children to the mall. Daniel was almost 2 and Jonathan was barely 3 years old. My normally calm, obedient children squealed and chased each other around counters and wrapped themselves in hanging garments. They then played Hide and Seek among clothing racks. I was horrified and couldn’t shop because I was too busy correcting and corralling.

Finally, I realized that the boys had never been in a mall. To them the store was a stimulating playground. They weren’t going outside their boundaries—I’d never given them guidelines for behavior in clothing stores.

I called them to me, squatted down to their level, and looked them in the eye. I told them I needed them to stay close to me, keep their voices quiet, keep their hands by their sides, and so forth. I then asked questions to check their understanding.

After our chat, the boys became perfect little shopping companions. They did exactly what I had asked. We all enjoyed the excursion, and I found what I was looking for. As we walked to another store, a little hop-skip in Daniel’s step mirrored the joy in my heart.

I thought about my impatience in the past. In how many of those instances had I been the problem because I failed to set boundaries or tell my children what kind of behavior would be appropriate? Because other responsibilities demand attention, it’s easy to overlook preparing children for what lies ahead. How can they succeed if they don’t know what is expected of them?

Children Need Guidelines

Even in everyday activities, children need to know what is acceptable behavior. For example, do your children know what you want from them when:

  • They have a question or important need while you’re talking with someone?
  • They are asked by a peer to do something they know won’t please you—or God?
  • They have to wait for you in a public gathering, like after church?
  • They are overwhelmed by a task or a situation?

If our children don’t know what is expected, their disruptions lead to frustration, misunderstandings, wasted time, and possibly missed goals. Even in familiar settings, such as church, we’ll get better cooperation if we explain what we expect during the service and why, rather than constantly whispering, “Shhhh!” and “Be still!”

In new situations, it’s even more important. How could Jonathan and Daniel have known how to act in a mall when they had never been to one? If it is something that is unusual to us—like end-of-the-year testing—we’re likely to prepare them. However, what about things that are familiar to us, but not to them?

Knowing what is expected will help children succeed in strange situations, such as these:

  • A visit to the doctor
  • An encounter with strangers or a relative they tend to pull back from
  • A trip to a nursing home, a museum, or a field trip
  • A first birthday party when the other child gets all the presents

When possible, we need to make time to tell our sons and daughters what to expect, how to act, or what to say in a new situation. When appropriate, we can build internal character by explaining whys of an expectation. It takes very little time and can save embarrassment, conflict, and/or lost time later.

Social grace is a learned skill. For the shy child—or the hyper one—it’s especially helpful to have a strategy ahead of time. They will learn more quickly if we teach them how to be polite and appropriate rather than expect them to know intuitively or to absorb training by osmosis.