Is it really wrong for children to play on the Sabbath (cf. "Duties of Children" in PCC Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 45, dated 11 May 2003)?

This question is a can of worms which I have for quite a while been seeking to cover up as well as I can. But the worms kept coming out!

From what I wrote in the article you referred to, you will know that I do believe that children,—at least children who are old enough to be able to read and understand the article,—should refrain from playing on the Sabbath. And it is quite easy to prove this conviction. The Sabbath is a day sanctified by the LORD (Gen 2:3; Ex 20:11). It is the "Lord’s Day" (Rev 1:10). It belongs to the Lord. We are not to use it in anyway we like, but according to God’s appointment. And it is clear that children are required to keep the Sabbath, for even farm animals are to rest (Ex 20:10). But how should children keep the Sabbath? The LORD said through the prophet Isaiah:

"13 If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: 14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it" (Isaiah 58:13-14; emphasis mine).

Is this admonishment and promise given for adults only? I do not think so. Surely it was spoken in the ears of, or at least written for the eyes of men, women, and children and teenagers who "could understand" (cf. Neh 8:3). And did not Solomon say: "Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right" (Prov 20:11).

If it is so easy to prove my convictions, why was I afraid to speak out clearly about it, and in a way, sinfully shunning to declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27)? As I search my heart, I think the answer is partly embarrassment and timidity, and partly because I am not exactly sure what is the best way for parents to train their children in this regard.

It is an embarrassment because I am acutely aware of my own failures in regard to my own children. And I am restrained by timidity because I perceive that some of our parents who seem more successful in training their children may not share the same conviction with me as yet. And I know how easily differences in conviction can give rise to tension and suspicion—especially when the conviction has to do with the way we train our children! I know this by experience.

Once we had guests come to our home for dinner on the Sabbath. At one point, when I was talking with our guests, my two-year-old daughter brought out a ball. Although my wife and I had placed some restrictions on our children in view of Sabbath-keeping, we did not impose a total no-play rule for the younger ones. What else can they do? What can they do when mummy is in the kitchen cutting some fruits for the guests and daddy is engaged in serious conversation with them? Well, our guests, who were not parents themselves, but out of good will, no doubt, told my daughter in front of me not to play with a ball as it was the Sabbath. I was so embarrassed! But out of consideration for our guests, I told my daughter to keep the ball. However, she could not understand what was wrong with taking out a ball, and I did not know how to explain to her. She burst out crying and the evening began to take an unpleasant turn.

Another time, it was my turn to be ‘intolerant’. It was about ten minutes after a worship service. I had just spoken about keeping the Sabbath holy as one of my applications. Then I saw my nine-year-old son playing with some toys with two other boys in a rather rowdy manner. Seeing that no one else was around, I immediately rebuked my son for his callousness. Then, as the other two boys were standing there watching, I reminded them rather sternly that it was the Sabbath day, and they should really not be playing. But as soon as the words left my mouth, it crossed my mind firstly that I really should not have spoken in the particular tone, and secondly, that the parents of the two boys might not hold to the same conviction as I do, and so I might have, by my actions indirectly challenged their authority and bring embarrassment to them if they should come to know what happened.

I am glad when members of the church admonish my children for ill behaviour. I think it is a covenant responsibility. But that does not mean that other parents will be equally happy if I do so, especially when it is a matter of differing convictions. Yes, I ought to please God rather than men or I should not be a servant of Christ (Gal 1:10). But does not pleasing God also involve being considerate to the brethren and instructing in meekness (2 Tim 2:24)?

I say all these so that you may get an idea of all the difficulties that attend this aspect of Sabbath keeping and church life. I cringed from speaking firmly on the issue because of my failures and because I am afraid of what relationship strains may be created in our young assembly once I begin to speak on the matter. But my failure is surely founded at least in part on sin and corruption in me. I have asked the Lord for forgiveness. I am praying for strength to do that which is right with charity, and I would beseech you to pray for me too (2 Thes 3:1).

With this in mind, I am offering this answer with trembling hope that it will be used of the Lord for our edification and reformation. I have no wish to impose my views or to bind the conscience of anyone on this sensitive matter. But I do personally think that children, especially older children who can understand (cf. Neh 8:3), should be urged (not forced) to keep the Sabbath holy by refraining from playing worldly games when they are not attending public or private worship, or are not under the immediate supervision of their parents. They should instead be encouraged to read or to engage in edifying conversation. Or they may be assigned to learn their catechism or do sermon and catechism worksheets (which we provide). I know that as children, they will find it hard to restrain themselves from play; but I believe that if we willgently (not harshly) remind them and set good examples for them, they will by and by grow to respect the Lord’s right to the day and to delight in the Sabbath. I do not think we should be harsh or forceful especially in this matter because we can so easily make our children hate the Sabbath rather than delight in it. It is true they cannot truly delight in the Sabbath except a work of grace first begins in their hearts. But since the use of the Sabbath is important in their conversion, I believe we should, as far as it lies with us, avoid tempting them to detest the day. Therefore we ought really to exercise extreme patience with them. I believe that parents are in the best position to judge what is best for their children. Perhaps if necessary, we could give them games with Christian themes (e.g. quizzes). I think that this might be a legitimate compromise.

What about very young children? I confess that my wife and I have very little strategy except to restrict the books they ‘read’ and tapes that they listen to in the car. We usually allow the children to watch some selected videos during the week after their lessons, but the TV remains off on the Sabbath, except occasionally when we have a Christian instructional video. Apart from that, we remind them that it is the Sabbath and what the right activities are on this special day (when we cannot be with them). We do this without strict enforcement except when they get too rowdy. Frankly, I do not know if this is the best approach, but we have not been very successful in implementing anything else in our present situation. Perhaps other parents may try some things more.

A.W. Pink tells us of how his parents kept the Sabbath when he was young:

When we were little all our toys were put away on Saturday night and pictorial editions of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s ProgressBook of Martyrs, etc., were brought out (Studies, 1931, p. 140; cited by Iain H. Murray, The Life of Arthur W. Pink[BOT, 1981], 3). and Foxe’s

H. Clay Trumbull has an excellent book entitled Hints on Child Training. Trumbull was associated with Charles G. Finney, and his bad theology shows up in numerous places in the book. But I was quite intrigued by what he has to say about "Training Children to Sabbath Observance" (Great Expectation Books, n.d., p. 81-9). I quote selectively from it:

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… A common cause of trouble in this matter is, that the training does not begin early enough. …and when the first attempt is made to show him that [the Lord’s Day must be kept differently from other days], he is already fixed in habits which stand in the way of his [obedience], so that the new call on him breaks in unpleasantly upon his course of favourite infantile action.…

I believe Trumbull is quite right in these observations. I believe too that he is quite right to say that it would be cruel to force children to behave like adults on the Sabbath.

Trumbull then goes on to recommend what might be done. I confess we have not used all his suggestions, but perhaps some of us may find them useful:

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 weekday delights in the same line.…

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 coloured pictures of Bible scenes;…books of stories which are suitable and attractive above others for Sabbath readings; dissected maps of Bible lands;…models of the Tabernacle, or of Noah’s Ark and its inmates.…

Trumbull wrote towards the end of the 19th century, when Sabbath keeping was beginning to decline. If you read carefully, you will realise that he does not object to children playing on the Sabbath. His only principle seems to be that the Sabbath must be different from other days, and therefore on the Sabbath, the children should be playing with toys that differ from those they used during the week. While this may be fine for the younger children, I believe the older children should be taught the true principle of Sabbath worship. Six days belong to us to do as we like. The Sabbath belongs to the Lord, and therefore their activities outside of private and public worship should be consciously chosen as to best reflect their status as covenant children (Ezk 20:12).