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Monday, May 13, 2019

Children in Church

We have seven progeny, and 2 godsons who often went to church with us.  The progeny are all adults.  We have 14 grandchildren.  The godsons are now middle school and high school and we haven't seen them in about 2 1/2 years, because we were overseas for 2 years and they moved away while we were gone (they are, God willing, coming to stay for the summer!).
So... we've done kids in church.  In fact, I grew up going to church- my mother has a certificate for perfect VBS attendance for me when I was 6 weeks old!  We have a lot of experience.  What we dn't have is a lot of perfect.
In one congregation where we lived, my husband was asked to teach a class on parenting.  Naturally, during the course of that class our youngest child, our then one year old son, escaped from me and raced up the aisle to his father in the middle of class. My husband just picked the boy up and kept on teaching that parenting class.  

It was about that same time when our daughter with multiple disabilitieswho had been given physical therapy to help her master the skill of *letting go* of objects in order to toss them lightly- well.  You see where this is going, don’t you?  After months of failures at the task of opening her hand and releasing a tossed object, one Sunday morning she picked up her brother’s matchbox car and tossed it in a perfectly beautiful arc several pews up, and I watched helplessly, breathlessly, as that little toy sailed out of her hand, over a few pews (and the people in them) and then dropped, beaning somebody on the noggin with it.  I was torn between cheering, apologizing, and curling up in the fetal position on the floor under our pew.  We are so very far from perfect.
In one congregation we attended there was a children’s service on Sunday nights.  I never sent my children, and I say "I" because my husband worked Sunday nights so it was just me and the kids.  I worried that my two year old was distracting to others.  I was sure I was getting ‘looks’ from people who wondered why I didn’t send her off.  My children were the only children in Sunday evening services in a large congregation with lots and lots of children.  Then we adopted two new children.  When this was announced, people came up to congratulate us- and most of them, including every single person I thought was giving me ‘looks,  assumed my 2 year old was one of the newly adopted children.  They not only were not thinking hard thoughts of me for not sending my noisy toddler downstairs with the other noisy kids, they did not even know I had a noisy toddler.
So there you are- lesson 1.  Your own children are seldom as disturbing to others as you worry that they are- assuming you are the right sort of parent and do have at least some of these concerns about not distracting others during worship. All those times I thought they were thinking mean things about me?  They were not thinking about me at all.  They were probably staring distractedly in my general direction, wondering if they’d remembered to turn off the oven, put the milk away, or squinting at the back clock to check and see if we would get out of services in time to beat the rival congregants to Dairy Queen.
So, for beginning, worry less.

Just cheerfully work at some... whatever you want to call it.  Training.  Teaching.  Sharing standards of behaviour.  Helping your kids learn to consider others in a group session.  Muddle through while doing your best, and it's okay of many times your best is somebody else's barely tolerable. 

Whatever.  Just to offer some ideas, here are some things we did:
I did permit toys, and they didn’t have to have religious connections, but I didn’t permit many- one or two small toys seemed to be best for us. I didn’t permit toys that a child could only play with using sound effects (this depended on the child). We did bring a couple of books for the children to look at, and I did prefer that these be religious in nature.  I don’t know why the difference. Just inconsistent, I guess. 
We also allowed the kids to draw, and for the younger kids or our godsons, one of my middle girls or I would fold a paper boat for them out of the bulletin or a piece of scratch paper.  Occasionally I have entertained a child with a simple handkerchief doll
We found the children behaved better the closer we sat to the front. Yes, I have nursed my babies in church, too.
We have a rhythm of when we do things, following our church services, and those services usually went something like this:
opening prayer
scripture reading
more songs
communion and prayers
closing prayer
Sometimes communion follows the sermon rather than the other way around.
I did not allow any toys until the sermon started.
Hymns: our singing is congregational and acapella, and my kids mostly sang along except our youngest. I did not force singing- I do not want young pharisees. But I didn’t really need to- the kids knew most of the songs because we sang at home. Because our children couldn’t play with toys or look at books during singing, usually they joined in because that was more interesting.
During communion (which our church does from the pews, and every week, and is not paedocommunion) with our godsons and our kids when younger, I would give them a mint or a piece of gum- if they were not used to church at all, or were too young and couldn’t understand why we were allowed to put something in our mouths but they weren’t, that helped. Drawing or writing on paper or looking quietly at a small book was permitted during communion.
I gave/give the small people money for the collection.
During prayers, we held the youngest children and whispered quietly that we were praying, and they could ask God to help (insert somebody they knew) or thank Him for …. and we’d make a suggestion. Some children are better able to be quiet if they fold their hands, but if you go to a more exuberant church service, maybe quiet and not distracting others is not as important.
Once the sermon starts, small toys may come out- again, we didn’t bring many- one or two is plenty. With my own older girls I got to the point where we brought no toys at all, and this worked well for them. This did not work quite so well with my son or the godsons, who never had to sit still before.
We did practice ‘church’ at home with our little ones- or rather, I did, while my husband worked or traveled. This gave them practice sitting still and quiet on a daily basis (more or less).
Our children were never allowed to sit with anybody but their parents until they were around 13- a later exception was our youngest could go sit with his brothers in law and nephew if he liked, and he did like. Even in their teens, we preferred that wherever they sat, it needed to be in front of us, not behind us.
Sometimes I had to remove a noisy child and go to the church quiet room or nursery (we never went to a church with an attended nursery and I would not have left my babies if we did. Among other reasons, I have major trust issues and I don’t see that as a problem). One rule we did consistently enforce (and one reason for bringing a couple of quiet toys)- if I had to take a child to the nursery or anywhere else, there was no playing with toys or anything else. If we weren’t changing a diaper or breastfeeding a baby, the child sat quietly in my lap in the nursery- the toys stayed in the pew. I wanted them to know that NOTHING was going to be more boring than being in the nursery during services. Allowing a couple small toys to be held in the pew, but not in the nursery helped reinforce that. I was also more boring in the nursery. In the pews, I would entertain a small child with quiet finger plays, pointing out things in her books, rubbing a back, stroking hair, holding hands, playing ‘hide ‘n’ seek’ with my fingers (a popular game w/small fry is folding your hands w/fingers locked *in* and child pulls up fingers one by one). In the nursery, I held my children but I was more absent, less engaging, and mainly whispered to ask, “are you ready to back in and be quieter now?” I got a lot of odd stares and even challenges from other moms in the nursery, but my children learned pretty quickly that there was a lot less freedom and fun in the ‘cry room’ than out of it.
We were not always as consistent as I wish we’d been- see my note about not being perfect. But we believed our children could be quiet and not distract others, and so we acted accordingly. They lived up to our expectations.  They are all basically neurologically typical except one, and she's nonverbal.  She's 31 and she still sometimes kicks the pews or tries to hit people if she gets bored.
We wanted consideration for others who are trying to worship, but we wanted more than merely civil behavior. We wanted engagement, too.  A very useful book to use if you have children about three and up is Parenting in the Pew.   It’s not helpful for younger children because she doesn’t think children four and under can benefit from being in the worship service with their parents.  I couldn’t possibly disagree more strongly with that point, but her tips, philosophy, and ideas for children around 3 and up are excellent.
As soon as a child can read, write a short list of words that he will probably be hearing in the sermon. He should make a tally mark every time he hears that word. My mother did this with us when we were small, and I did it with all my children. My son asked me to do this for him many times when he was small.
If your child cannot read, listen carefully to the sermon. AS soon as you have a feel for where the preacher is going, whisper two or three words in your child’s ear that you expect will be used with some frequency. Ask your child to squeeze your hand every time he hears those words. Make it a contest if that suits your child’s
nature- tell him you are both going to be listening carefully, and every time the preacher says, say, “Temple” (or whatever), you will see who can squeeze the other person’s hand first.
Some children will be too excitable for the competition, of course. Change the words periodically, to keep the child’s interest as well as keeping the game interesting.  You don't have to compete. You can just ask for a handsqueeze when they hear the word you designate.
When singing, whisper the next line to your child, or give him a short phrase to sing (I did not care if my 3 year old was singing ‘God is love’ while everybody else is singing ‘Come, Thou Fount.’ During prayers, suggest somebody for your child to specifically pray for.
Keep notes yourself to quiz the children on later. ON one Sunday, my questions were something like this:
Who are some people we need to pray for?
What were some of the songs we sang?
What is that song about?
Who served communion?
What was the sermon about?
Who can tell me a scripture that was used? Another one? Another one?
The preacher told a story. Can anybody tell me what it was about?
What can we learn from that?
What Bible characters did the preacher mention?
What did he say about fences?
Who heard one of our memory verses today? Which verse was it?
Who prayed the closing prayer? What did he say in his prayer?
Did we hear of any answered prayers this week? What were they?
Who was there today? Who was missing? Is there anybody we should
send a card to this week?
If your children know you’re going to ask who we prayed for today and what Bible passages we read, and what the sermon was about, it helps them listen more attentively.
I have quizzed the family on the drive home from church. I have also written my questions on different pieces of paper and put them in a paper cup. We drew questions out to answer while at a picnic lunch after church.
Pick a hymn or three to sing with your children at home throughout the week. Ask for one of those hymns to be sung at church. Hold your very small child in your arms during a song and whisper the words to him just a few seconds ahead of singing them so he knows what’s coming and can join in.
Sing one of the hymns on the way home from church. Hymns with some repetition are popular with small children. Trust and Obey; Anywhere with Jesus; Low in the Grave; Power in the Blood are all popular with very young children. Hymns do not have to be childish to be loved by children. Please do not dismiss them by thinking they cannot appreciate actual hymns.
During the prayers, whisper quietly and reverently to your child “We’re talking to God together.” Help him fold his hands. Whisper something for him to pray for “Mrs. Jones is sick, ask God to make her better… Mrs. Garcia had a new baby, let’s tell God thank-you…”
My older children kept their own notebook of notes taken from sermons, and began somewhere between 10 and 13.
A friend of mine does her notebooks this way:
Fill out a piece of paper with the following titles followed by blanks:
Title of sermon:
Related texts:
Main point:
2nd point:
3rd point:
What God wants me to do in my life:
A verse I would like to memorize:
I would add: ‘What did I hear about God today?’ Keeping such a notebook is not just useful for church. It gives you children good practice for notetaking for school when they are older.

You don't have to do all of this.  Actually, you don't have to do any of it, and you'll still be a good parent.  These are just suggestions and ideas.  God bless you for the effort of bringing children to church, however, you go about it, whatever it looks like for you.

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