Saturday, August 14, 2010

Helping Children in Church

(I wrote this when I was on Wordpress...I wanted to repost it here)

How children should behave in church, and what limits should be set can be quite a contentious issue. Personally, I like children in church. I don’t even think it is tantamount to a crime to hear them babbling or fussing in church. Over the years as a pastor’s wife and a La Leche League Leader, I’ve heard so many stories about getting the evil eye by simply walking into the sanctuary with a babe in arms or a toddler. Obviously, if your child is proving to be a distraction or too loud for others to hear, it is a matter of consideration to take them out and deal with it. What that means is defined by your family perspective on it and the age and temperment of your child.

But I am a firm believer in “faith comes by hearing,” and children certainly belong in the presence of their savior, and need to be a part of the body of all believers from the instant they are baptized. I am always scared that nurseries, children’s church, or Sunday school during church give one of two (or both) messages to children: That they don’t belong in the presence of God, or that they should be involved in activities that are more fun than church. Either message can be incredibly damaging to their faith. We segregate so many aspects of life according to age, I don’t believe worshiping our Lord and receiving His gifts is an area where we should be doing this.

That being said, having children in church can be a challenge. I ought to know. As a pastor’s wife, I am a single parent on Sunday. With so many men who are not involved in church anymore, and so many babies not born into nuclear, married families—many women are put in the position that if they want to go to church, they have to take care of their kids alone, and so many of them put off the challenge of having children in church until an age when they might be easier to handle.

I don’t think there is an age that is “easier to handle.” Babies and toddlers are truly a challenge, but they don’t get easier, they just change how they fight against it, if they are not used to it.

I don’t want to make it seem like I believe this is easy. There were days I stayed home because I wasn’t up to the fight of keeping Maggie in the pew that day or dealing with Chris’s moods (he definitely was NOT a morning person. A wonderfully friendly person would go up to him and say “Good morning, Christopher, and he would glare at them and yell “NOOOO” and then bury his head in my shoulder). And there were days when I wonder why I was there because I didn’t hear a word of the sermon, wasn’t able to go to communion, etc. and I was exhausted or in tears the rest of the day (which is why having a husband or family there with you is wonderful.) But as I sit with my kids in church now, and even watch them frequently go to church even when I can’t, simply because they want to, I know that it was worth it.

So here are some things that did make it easier for me:

1. Sit in front. Most parents have a tendency to sit in the back because they don’t feel like the whole church sees when their children act up, and they can make an easy exit. But scooch down to your child’s level. They can’t see anything besides the back of people’s heads. They don’t see why they are there. They often behave a lot better when they can see what is going on.

In our church, there are side aisles, so while I sat up front, I didn’t necessarily sit front and center, so I could still make an easy exit. There even was a door off to the side to a hallway. But even if you don’t have that, it is less distracting to everyone than you think if you need to walk down the aisle (side) or the nave.

2. Bring quiet toys, non-messy snacks, and a drink in a bottle or sippy cup (or discreetly nurse). The fact of the matter is, young children don’t have the attention span to deal with nothing but church for the whole service, and having something quiet to do helps, and if nothing else, it helps you. Chris used to love to stack hymnals, and when he got done, he would put them in a new stack. Plastic animals, stuffed animals, Hot Wheels (if your kid is not the kind that goes Vrroomm) or coloring books can be a help. And also, kids behave better when their blood sugar is even. Something like Cheerios is generally fine. And, having a drink right there means there is one less reason to take them out which means you get to hear more.

3. Pay attention to what is developmentally appropriate. For instance, a baby or toddler will have difficulty sitting still. He is not being rebellious or difficult, his mind is just hard-wired for movement at that age. Also, take into account temperament. My son Chris could sit still and become absorbed in books at an early age. At the same age, Maggie needed to move.

I would take my kids out if they couldn’t sit still, but somewhere around late two or early three, it became clear to me that it wasn’t that my child COULDN’T keep from being active, he just didn’t want to. This was then more of an issue of limits rather than ability. When this became the case, leaving the sanctuary meant that we went and sat perfectly still in a chair for 5 minutes out in the parish hall. They then learned that since snacks, coloring books, etc. were still in the church, they could actually do more in church than they could if we left.

Children are even hard-wired to challenge limits. My rule was they could play quietly in the pew, but couldn’t leave the pew. Maggie would go to the edge of the pew, get “that look” in her eye and then bolt. We’d do the chair in the parish hall thing and then I’d ask, “are you ready to go sit in the pew now?” Often, especially at first, we’d be right back in the parish hall in five minutes. After a while, it became a non-issue. As frustrating as this is, it is actually quite normal, and is part of their learning to think for themselves. Your job is to set good limits and make them stick!

I know a discussion on my homeschool board had where some parents with each five minutes their child was good they’d give them a pile of tokens and then take one away for each infraction during church. With my kids, just leaning over and whispering to them, “you are being SO good” was enough. If I were doing tokens and such, I’d be inclined to give them one every five minutes that they were good rather than take them away. Some kids will do anything to keep from losing one, and with my kids — Maggie probably would’ve cried, and Chris would’ve debated with me why he shouldn’t have lost it.

3. Try 1-2-3 Magic. This is a book or video you can generally get in the library or at Barnes and Noble/Borders. When I was working as a social worker, this was one of the programs we taught to parents who were in the DCS system. IT takes the emotion out of it, which is nice, and sets clear warnings. I was going out of my mind with my daughter who bounces off the walls, and when I started using it, it helped SO much. It worked great in the home, but it worked MARVELOUSLY in church. Maggie was three, and very active. She’d forget to whisper if she had to tell me something, I could just hold up one finger. Three minutes later, she might start trying to walk out of the pew. I’d gently grab her wrist (my reflexes were getting pretty good by this point) and bring her back and hold up two fingers. If something else happened that was not right, within that fifteen minute time period, she got a time out. At first, I went out with her, but eventually, I could just have her stand right in the hallway, in view through the doorway, and then just wave her back when I wanted to. I wasn’t missing church anymore because of her!!

It also wasn’t long before we rarely ever got to three.

So, what worked or works for you? I’d be eager to hear, and I’m sure it would help other parents as well.


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10 comments:

Sue said...

This is interesting to me to read, since my children are now grown(and a grandchild is about to arrive!. I did sit up front with my children, because my parents did that with us. My older son told me about a year ago that he hated that! Not sure why - I always liked it. I was a single parent from the time my boys were 4 and 7, so it was always just me. #2 son was stubborn (like his mother!) and did get taken out a few times. I noticed families in the back NOT removing their children who were much worse behaved than mine. We went through periods in church where parents seemed to use no discipline whatsoever. Now we are in a period of very few families with children, but that's starting to change. As a person who is now a bit older, I'm facing new challenges. I have what's called "moderate" hearing loss, enough that I need hearing aids. Figuring out where to sit in church and not get feedback in my hearing aids has been a challenge. My mother had severe hearing loss, so even children talking in low voices in the pew behind us drove her nuts. There is a family with a 2 year old who worship in the same service as I do. He gets rather noisy and is seldom taken out (unless he's screaming at the top of his lungs). While I appreciate the need for children to be IN church and a part of it, I already have difficulties, not just with hearing, but with understanding what is said. Sometimes I wish they'd take him out but they don't. So it seems a pretty fine line to me. What bothers some doesn't bother others. I don't give anyone the evil eye, but make sure I sit far away from young children. I've never heard this topic discussed from the point of view of the hard of hearing. I would be interested to hear comments from people who may or may not have considered that issue before. I have particularly wondered why people allow their children to make noise during the sermon (realizing you don't have much control over that) without removing them so people can understand the pastor.

Untamed Shrew said...

I am a Lutheran pastor's wife also, which means single-motherhood on Sunday mornings. We have a mostly over-50 congregation with many hard-of-hearing members. I do my best to juggle the 3 ex-utero kids (soon to be 4) and keep them quiet, but kids under 3 have a hard time understanding why they should be still or quiet, even if they've never missed a Sunday in their life. I often have to make a judgment call as to which is more distracting: my 21-month-old acting age appropriate, or me packing the diaper bag and removing everyone, taking the walk of shame from the very front pew of the church? Thankfully, no one has said anything but positive about my kids, nor given me the evil eye (not that I'd see it). They know that a silent church is a dying church.

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

Yeah. That "walk of shame" is a lot easier in our congregation because there is a door to a hallway where the vestry is that is to the right of the first couple of rows of pews.

It helps that most churches have aisles on the outside of the pews as well as the nave that goes up the center.

Jennifer said...

Thank you so much for....everything!! I am also a Pastor's wife. I "love" that I'm not the only one crying after church on Sunday mornings that is if we make it at all. We attend 90% of the time and I always feel so guilty when I can't find the energy to get out of bed and start getting all four of them ready.

I definitely agree that if you can stick with it through the really tough parts, it does pay off in the end!! My oldest is 11 and it is wonderful to hear him telling the little ones to copy him and then watch all of them during church. He has unknowingly turned it into a game for them.

Carrie said...

Love it! Our first call was to a church, where the senior pastor's wife, asked me why I didn't drop our boys off in the nursery every Sunday. She told me that they didn't learn anything sitting in church at such a young age, so they should go to the nursery because that is what it is for. My boys, now 7 yrs old, sit so nicely in church with nothing to entertain them, and they do listen!

Jamie said...

I am also a Lutheran pastors wife and play the single mom role on Sundays, I have a 3yrold daughter and 2 yr old son and one on the way...my son just recently started going to church with my daughter and I and some mornings he's quieter than she is...but she LOVES to talk. They LOVE stickers and I make sure to pack lots of stickers and plain lined notebooks. They just stick the stickers wherever they want (on the book or themselves) and it seems to occupy them pretty well. I've been working on the idea of a church quiet book made from felt. This one would be different from regular quiet books as it would have church related quiet activities...they love to color also and our moms group has made church quiet bags for the little ones and that seems to help as well. Thanks for your post, it's great to read and I am encouraged to keep on keepin on with the kiddos in church even though its hard!

Anonymous said...

This is a constant dilemma for me as an Elder in our local congregation. We have periodic suggestions for "Childrens' Church" or other such things. BUT, while I sympathize with the parents putting up with the little hell-raisers (and I use that term advisedly); I still love to know those kids are in Divine Service seeing and hearing the gifts of Grace being delivered. Tough call...

Gunfighter said...

With our daughter, who will be twelve in two weeks, we talked to the pastor of our church about how she (we're ELCA) would prefer us to handle a baby during worship. She immediately replied: "better in church than at home! If she cries, don't worry about it... if you think you need to step out, go ahead, but don't do it unless you think you ought to". It was good advice. In no time, Olivia was growing, listening, and learning... soon enough she was following the order of the service in the bulletin, knew the prayers, responses and songs. She is an active member of our church community, and I credit her active participation from the very beginning.

Molitor said...

Great post! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

my pastor told me that my kids are distracting people from the sermon. this makes me sooooooooooo sick. One isn't even two yet and the other just turned four and I'm a single mom so when one starts to act up, the other one sees it as an "opportune time" to do the same. the four year old does fine until my younger one starts to get loud or "mobile/ wiggly". i take stuff for them to do, but especially on weekends after they see there dad, when we go to church during the week then they are really "overactive". It's hard for them to go from these "fun" weekends with their dad without discipline back to more structure so they act out. I feel so horrible that other people are so distracted by them they don't listen to the sermon. i love church,and even get frustrated myself when I miss part of it, so I read the readings before church so that I can try to juggle them and still pay attention, but I didn't realize they are this much of a distraction to other people. People are so fake. Everyone always tells me how much they love them there, but then they must tell the Pastor something different.