Sunday, March 27, 2011

a toddler CAN get something out of church

I don’t usually give parenting advice on this blog.  I think the main reason for this is that parenting has taught me a profound sense of humility.  For, as we moms and dads know, whenever we think we’ve “got it” in some area of parenting, our little one flips our world upside down again and shows us just how little we know.  So if I give advice, I try to do it cautiously and without judgment toward others, because being a mom is hard enough without everybody in the world judging why you’re doing it wrong and they’re doing it right.

But I want to give just a little cautious parenting advice.  I only have one kid, and what has worked (so far) with her may not work with everybody.  But I’d like to ask you to at least consider what I have to say about kids and church.

As an aside though, let me say without equivocation that I hope all of my readers are serious about passing their faith on to their kids.  Nothing—nothing in the world—could be more important than that.  And nobody in the world is more influential in terms of forming their faith and values than you are.  This is the part of my advice that I’m not going to hedge on.

I have heard parents say, “We’re not going to teach our kids any religion.  When they grow up, they can choose a religion for themselves.” This is such a nonsense statement because in every other area of life, we freely recognize that kids don’t know what is good for them. You can give them the choice between broccoli and candy and most every kid in the world will choose candy.  You can tell kids they have the choice between lying or not lying when they did wrong and they’ll probably choose lying so they don’t get caught.  You have to teach kids values…they don’t come by values naturally.  We parents get just 18 years of life to help kids become responsible adults with character and strong values and beliefs.  If you have any inkling of faith in your life, it makes sense to get serious about that and do your best to practice it personally and pass it along to your kids.  What in life could be more significant than that?

Ok, so that’s the part of my advice that I just can’t agree to disagree on.  We parents have simply got to pass on our faith to our kids.

But when it comes to how we apply that part of the advice, that's the part where I feel strongly but can agree to disagree as I do understand every kid is different. 

I believe with all my heart that a toddler can get something out of church, if you prepare them for what they will experience there.  It’s gonna take some hard work on Mom and Dad’s part.  And it’s unrealistic, of course, to expect them to spend the whole service sitting there with their hands folded.  But it’s entirely possible that they can begin to develop their own faith life while worming around in the pew with Mom and Dad.

Here are some things I have found helpful in terms of helping Burrito to appreciate and get something out of the church service:

1)      Every time we go to church, I try to remind Burrito beforehand that we need to be quiet in church.  I have taught her the reason for this, as it’s a lot to expect of a toddler to be quiet when they aren’t in on the “why” of church.  When I ask her why we have to be quiet at church, now she can answer, “People listen God’s Word!”  I explain to her that if we are super noisy at church, other people won’t be able to hear God’s Word and won’t be able to hear how much He loves them.  Besides teaching faith, I hope to teach her empathy (one of the most important virtues we as parents can pass on to our kids).  I want her to be able to think of others and how they feel and not just her own feelings.

2)      Most churches (ours included) have busy bags that usually include a few toys and books, as well as something Bible-related to color (or perhaps an activity page).  It makes a lot of sense to bring a few favorite toys and books from home too, and also to emphasize to your child that they may have toys but they need to play quietly.

3)      Prepare your child for anything unusual that might happen at church.  I remember when I was serving as a pastor, there was one family who always sat near the front of the church.  It was wonderful to see the whole family together on Sunday morning and I deeply admired the parents for their commitment to this.  But the toddlers in this family were going through a stage for a while where they would be extremely noisy during the service and I could not hear myself think when I was trying to preach a sermon.  On Good Friday that year, I saw the family coming in and thought, “Yikes!  Imagine how noisy those kids are going to be!”  I didn’t want to make the mom feel bad; it’s tough enough to be the mom when your kids are acting up without somebody making you feel bad about it, and after all, she was bringing her kids.  Suddenly it occurred to me that what I really needed to do was to talk directly to the kids about the service.  So I got down on their level and explained to them how the service was a very serious one, and how it was about Jesus dying for us, and we needed to be quiet during this service.  I asked them if they thought they could do that, and they said yes.  That day, I saw a noticeable improvement in their behavior.  I was really proud of them.  I don’t know why I didn’t think of this approach before.  I think it’s because often children are invisible to us in church unless they are misbehaving.  But, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

4)      I feel strongly that our children should be beside us in the pew on Sunday morning, rather than relegated to a children’s church service.  I believe nothing makes a bigger impact on kids’ faith than seeing their parents’ faith in action.  You may think Junior is paying zero attention to you or the church service, but it is not lost on him that you are regularly taking time to go and worship God.  My husband talks about the impact going to church with his dad had on him.  His dad would stand beside him and sing out of tune but at the top of his lungs.  His dad modeled that faith didn’t have to be perfect or neat or tidy, but it did need to be a regular part of life.

5)      One of the biggest barriers to kids getting something out of the church service is that everybody tells them to just sit there during a service that is often hard for even adults to understand, and nobody explains to them what is going on.  I try to take every opportunity I can to invite Burrito into the action, into being a part of what is going on.  No, she can’t read yet, so she can’t participate in everything but there is a definitely a real benefit to her in being part of a traditional church that uses liturgy.  Because many of the words of the service are the same every Sunday, the worship service becomes something that she (and other non-readers) can memorize and participate in.  Sometimes she forgets that she can do this, so during certain parts of the liturgy (such as the Kyrie, Apostle’s Creed, Prayers, and Lord’s Prayer), I pick her up and say, “You sing too!” or “You pray too!”  I let her play and color and just pick things up by osmosis during the other parts of the service but if there is something she can participate in, I do all I can to help her join in.  During the other parts of the service, I try to whisper in her ear what is going on too.  For example, during the Readings, I whisper, “He’s reading us God’s Word, so we gotta listen.”  She often whispers questions to me about the service or decorations in the sanctuary and I do my best to whisper a reply to her.  Nothing’s worse than sitting in a service having no idea what’s going on.  You and I would be bored too!  I want the service to be accessible to her.

6)      Don’t hesitate to lovingly discipline bad behavior.  When I was a little girl, my mom also had my brother and I sit with the family at church.  She never took us to the nursery when we acted up because she said, “Once a kid figures out how they got to the nursery, they never forget!”  So, she would take me out and make me face a white wall till I calmed down.  I use a similar approach with Burrito.  If she is making a loud ruckus at church (such as stomping her feet or talking loudly), she gets a warning and if she keeps it up, she gets taken out for a “time out.”  Before a time-out, I look her in the eye and explain to her why she is getting the punishment.  I then sit cross-legged with her on my lap, facing a wall (in a place where people can’t hear her being noisy).  I hold her gently but firmly for about 90 seconds and I try not to interact with her.  After the time is up, I gently turn her around and look her in the eye again.  I ask her why she got a time out (she usually can tell me why).  I explain why that was a problem (when she’s noisy, people can’t hear God’s Word) and ask her not to do it again.  I then give her a hug and tell her I love her.  She usually behaves better after that.

As I said above, parenthood has given me an extra measure of humility so I will say it’s entirely possible that I might wake up tomorrow and none of this will work anymore.  But these are some things that have helped me so far.  It does take some extra effort to train our kids how to behave in church, but I believe our efforts are more than worth it.  Nothing is more important than helping our kids to know God and His love for them and for the whole world.  I hope some of these tips will be helpful to some of you.


  1. Great words. Some things I have been trying to do with Ian, but you gave me some great other options as well. Thank you for that.
    If it makes you feel better, I don't see this as advice. I see this as sharing what works for you and you might as well share the wealth.
    Ian always knows there will be books, toy animals, a toy tractor or two and his magnet writer in his bag from home. I forgot a book a few weeks ago, all the other stuff was there. It went horrible. This week, had the book! I never realize how much he looked at pictures during the service. I also had a wonderful woman offer to take Ella during worship so I could deal with a very busy Ian yesterday. Ella was a doll for her and has sat with her before (Dustin was organist yesterday, and Grandma and Grandpa weren't in church, so I was drowning on my own!)
    So, thanks for what works for you!

  2. I am so with you on EVERYTHING you said! I recently went to Youth & Family Ministry Certification School and we discussed in depth the parents role in faith formation. In the most ideal world possible churches have 52-104 hours a year to minister to children. Parents have 3000 hours a year. It's a total no brainer!

    In addition to the areas that you discussed including your daughter, I always include my children is the sharing of the peace. It allows them to get up and move around a little bit. My 4-year-old daughter runs around the entire sanctuary and shakes hands with as many people as possible. I just let her go, because she loves it, and people love seeing her do it. I had an older member tell me that it was amazing to him that the most welcoming and hospitable member of our church is a 4-year-old. Really makes you think!!!

  3. Great post, Rebecca! Excellent points. Ones we're trying to work on with our two-soon-to-be-three. ;)

  4. I'm with ya on including kids in services. I also think that God loves to have the WHOLE body together worshipping him, and it's not a complete body without the kiddos! They have a part in the ministry, too. I know a church who has a sign-up sheet for "baby-holders." They consider it a ministry the babies give to adults! I love that you actually talked to those kids yourself. Way to show you care. :)

  5. Thanks, Lucinda! I like that...sharing the wealth...good way to look at it...

  6. Ariel, thanks for the feedback...I hear ya loud and clear! Good idea about sharing the peace too...

  7. Kati, I LOVE that about the WHOLE Body being in worship, including the kids! Otherwise, maybe we're limping around footless or something...

    I agree that kids provide a ministry to the adults too...their child-like, simple faith...their exuberance! I let Burrito dance around in the pew when we're singing a praise song or the Gloria or something. She's an example to us all!

  8. Wonderful words Rebecca!
    I too have good memories of going to church with my parents, and when I misbehaved my parents had no problem taking me out to the fellowship hall for a gentle swat on the tuckis.

    When I went to my old church, as a non-mom it was frustrating to have a small child shrieking behind you or kicking your seat repeatedly and there is no action by the parents. and I mean constant behavior, not a one time incident.

    At my new church, I've found that I get more out of the sermon and service because the wonderful pastors are very techie and do powerpoint presentations on the big screen. I've also noticed that this seems to engage the kids too. It is always fun to sit behind one of the pastors' kids, they are always busy coloring or dancing.

  9. Audrey, I hear you...I am not bothered by a mom who is trying her hardest but unsuccessfully to calm a noisy or disruptive kid down. What I AM bothered by is when a mom or dad do nothing to bring junior back into better behavior. I think we do have a responsibility to help kids understand other people have feelings too...I'm working on this with Burrito. It's not something she'll learn overnight but I'm working on it.

  10. BTW, what kind of church do you go to?

  11. I missed this blog in March, but I completely agree. Kids, even toddlers get more out of a service than we realize. Our oldest daughter began answering our pastor's retorical questions when she was 3! If parents explain and are firm about what will be happening and what is expected of them, children will (eventually) learn.

  12. Kara, that's awesome! It's amazing how engaged kids are sometimes...sometimes even more than adults!:-)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...