In a blog post last week I talked about families staying together during worship. It generated a lot of views and many an email conversation mostly centered around the question of how you train your children to be in worship.
Well, first let me tell you it isn't easy. Like all discipline, it is work and consistency is key. So first you must determine what behaviors will and will not be acceptable. Will your child be allowed to sit in your lap or will you want them to learn to sit in their own spot? Are they allowed to color or do other quiet activities? If they have to be taken out of the service who is going to do that - Dad or Mom?
As you are making those determinations I encourage you to remember your child's frame. You can't really expect the same level of stillness and attentiveness from your three year old that you require of your eight year old. Think through what is appropriate and acceptable for each child where they are developmentally so that you know what you want to expect of them. That way you can clearly communicate those expectations to your child. I expect my son who is eleven to participate when appropriate and to sit quietly and listen the rest of the time. I expect my youngest who just turned six to also participate when it's called for but I also allow her to write on her bulletin/worship guide. I have also made it very clear to her that any reading of the Scriptures or prayers require her full attention and stillness, and she may not write during this time.
The actual training begins before you ever even come into the church building. As one friend mentioned, if you wouldn't throw your child onto a big kid bike having skipped the training wheel stage, you shouldn't throw them into the service without training wheels either. Basically there is plenty you can do at home to prepare your child for being in a worship service. Something as simple as practicing daily blanket time - requiring your little one to sit on a blanket with a book or quiet toy for a few minutes each day - gets them used to the idea of staying in one spot. With toddler age and young children it can be helpful to listen to stories on CD or online at home so that they are used to the idea of listening to someone talk. In our house we also practiced being quiet. When she was around three, I'd have Claire go sit on the couch by herself and sit still and quiet for stretches of time. With all three of these methods you can start with small increments of time, 2 minutes or so, and work your way up to 5 minutes, 10 minutes and so on. The biggest benefit is going to be from actually doing it on a regular basis so that it is a familiar routine to them.
It is important to keep in mind that there is a difference between "training for" and "training through". By this I mean that you can be doing these things at home (the training for part) and then getting into a worship service the whole thing falls apart and everybody is squirmy and dropping stuff and suddenly you are trying to wipe a nose, deal with a fidgety toddler, hold onto your Bible, and deal with the five year old who is elbowing the three year old. (That would be the training through part.)
Again, it is helpful if you have already decided ahead of time what will and will not be acceptable. Here is a simple rule of thumb that I used especially when my children were younger. If I wouldn't allow it during a movie at a theater then I will not allow it during a worship service. For instance, if we are at the movies I am not going to let them get up and down going to the rest room. Therefore, we will go to the rest room right before our service begins. There are the occasional emergencies but, by and large, they learned pretty quickly that I was serious about this. The onus is also upon me to be the one to enforce this rule so even as they've gotten older I never ask my two that will be prone to needing to go...I tell them to go before the service starts.
Another good idea is to mark your hymnal pages and even the Scripture passages before the service begins. This can seriously cut down on the amount of juggling a parent feels like they're doing during a service. Our church will post the music and reading selections on the website sometime during the week prior to that Sunday, but even if yours doesn't you can grab your worship guide or bulletin and mark pages when you get there.
I try to keep things like tissues handy because invariably some body's nose is going to start running. And I don't mean I just keep them in a bag at my feet. I put them on a seat so that I won't be disruptive by bending up and down to get them out. That same thought should carry over into how you dole out books or quiet toys. At the very least keep whatever you might need within easy, discreet reach. You don't want to become a distraction trying to keep your kids from being a distraction. At the same time it is completely acceptable, indeed expected, that at some point a child may need to be removed from a service to be further disciplined before returning to the service. We had one sweet mother that just about every week would have to get up with her two year old, spanking spoon in hand, step out in to the restroom and then come back in a few minutes later, a much quieter youngster in tow. It was a blessing to see her consistently following through.
Grace from the church family is needed for parents to have the freedom to work through the process of training their children. There is a big difference between saying that your church is family integrated and actually cultivating an atmosphere that is encouraging, helpful and welcoming to parents who are in the trenches of child training. Commenting on progress can be very encouraging to a parent who may feel like they just spent 45 minutes in hand to hand combat. Remind them to not grow weary in doing good, and teaching your child you to be part of the congregation of the righteous is a good work. There are other practical ways to help young families who are in the midst of the work. My children have reached various ages where the fruit of our labor is beginning to blossom. Not that we don't have days but the grunt work, so to speak, is paying off. This means that my two oldest are free to step in and offer their help to families with younger children. Children can sense a shift in the balance of power pretty quickly so if Mom has stepped out to change a diaper leaving Dad on the front lines alone with three young ones, the three young ones can turn from settled and quiet angels to Tasmanian devils in the blink of an eye. A teenager who is able can move into a seat alongside said young ones and add at least another pair of eyes and hands to help maintain the calm until mom returns.
While grace towards parents should be offered, parents should be aware of the affect their family is having on the people around them. Not out of embarrassment, but if your child is being particularly distracting and won't be still move to the back where it will have less impact on others. As mentioned earlier make sure things you need will be close at hand so you aren't creating a ruckus by getting to them. Learn the art of quietly but firmly speaking to your children. Finding ways to discretely correct behavior is important. I have a friend that gives a sturdy thump to little hands and another that gives a wide solid pinch. Neither causes lasting discomfort but they do let the offender know that they need to cease and desist.
Our church highly encourages the children to not only be in our worship service but to also participate. We do not however expect or demand total silence from them. We know that this may be a new concept for some families or that some days a little one may just be out of sorts and will not settle. So we also provide a nursery if it's needed and we gladly receive anyone who needs to use it. I am so appreciative of one particular mother in our congregation who upon occasion needs her son to be in the nursery. She always makes certain to come get him right before communion so that the nursery worker may come to the table with the rest of the body.
Sharing with the Heart and Home.