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.