Helping Children in Church

(In an effort to save some of the works that I’ve done that I really like, I’m reposting.  This was originally posted in 2010 at my old blog: The Rebellious Pastor’s Wife)

How children should behave in church (or whether they should be there) can be quite a contentious issue. I would rather hear children in church than not have them be there.  As a pastor’s wife and a La Leche League Leader, I’ve heard so many stories about mothers getting the evil eye when they walked 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 and the age and temperament of your child.

I am a firm believer in “faith comes by hearing,” and children belong in the presence of their Savior. They 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, and Sunday Schools during church give one of two (or both) messages to children

1. That they don’t belong in the presence of God,

2. That they should be involved in activities that are more fun than church.

Either message can be incredibly damaging to their faith.

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 every 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 put off the challenge of having children in church until they are older, because they will be easier to handle.

The truth is, there is not an age that is “easier to handle.”  Children behave best in church who are used to being there.  Babies and toddlers are a challenge, but so are 6 year olds who don’t know what they should do, and definitely so are middle school aged children.  There is no magic age where you can say “It’s time to go to church now,” and they will be excited, if it isn’t a regular part of their lives.

I know this isn’t easy. There were many days I stayed home from church 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). 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.  But my kids got older, and they are a joy to worship with.  In fact, they often go to church without me, of their own free will.

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 slump down in the pew to your child’s level or eyesight. 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). 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. Kids also 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.  This 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, there were times when I could tell that this was less true.  That my child COULD 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 hard-wired to challenge limits, some kids more than others. 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 quite normal, and it is part of their learning to think for themselves. Your job is to set good limits and make them stick!

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, I’d be inclined to give them one every five minutes that they were good instead of the method of taking one away every time they misbehaved. Some kids will do anything to keep from losing one.  Maggie probably would’ve screamed bloody murder, and Chris would’ve tried to engage me in a logical debate.

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. The method 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 well 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 ten minute time period, she got a time out. At first, I went out with her, but eventually, I could just have her stand in the hallway, in plain sight (remember, I mentioned we had an open door right next to my pew).  When time was up, I could just wave her back into the pew. I wasn’t missing church anymore because of her!!

After a couple of months, I never got to three anymore.  She had it down.

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

2 thoughts on “Helping Children in Church

  1. My 3-mo-old and I tried to sit up front this past Wednesday, and it just didn’t work for us since I spend most church services either nursing (and we haven’t figured out how to comfortably do this without a nursing pillow) or walking with the baby strapped to me. Perhaps we’ll try it again when she’s older. However, I did find my sweet spot to sit today–last pew on the lectern side. There’s enough room for me to walk around without being too distracting and it’s a quick exit to the cry room. 🙂

    1. Three months old is hard to nurse without some kind of support. In the end you find what works for you…it sounds like great spot.

      Have you ever tried a baby sling? Often, the baby is too small as a newborn, they get lost in all the cloth, but once past six or eight weeks, it was a lifesaver, and I could nurse in it using one arm under the head for support. I definitely would always recommend buying one from someone who can show you how to use it, or very least, YouTube…but they are wonderful for having a baby and even a toddler with you in church.

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