…they all walked sedately into the church. The first clang of the bell rang out when they were on the steps.
After that, there was nothing to do but sit still till the sermon was over. It was two hours long. Almanzo’s legs ached and his jaw wanted to yawn, but he dared not yawn or fidget. He must sit perfectly still and never take his eyes from the preacher’s solemn face and wagging beard. Almanzo couldn’t understand how Father knew that he wasn’t looking at the preacher, if Father was looking at the preacher himself. But Father always did know.From Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder¹
A hundred and fifty-ish years ago, this is how children were expected to behave in church. I love a good sermon, but I’m not sure even I could meet those behavioral expectations, and, these days, I certainly wouldn’t expect my children to. But fast forward from the 1800’s to 2000’s, and think about how you may have seen some children behave in church. It’s quite a bit different from Almanzo’s experience, wouldn’t you say?
I don’t think we need to dial things back a hundred and fifty years, though. A little fidgeting, a Bible dropped loudly on the floor, a few seconds of wailing while you frantically search for the lost pacifier, a bit of jabbering, none of these things are a big deal. But neither should a toddler be allowed to run up and down the aisles of the sanctuary for the bulk of the sermon. Eight year olds do not need to be crawling around on the floor between the pews playing with toys. Twelve year olds can reasonably be expected to stay awake, sit still, and pay attention during the service.
We expect our children to obey us (and other adults) and behave properly in a variety of places: school, the grocery store, restaurants, on their sports teams, at scout meetings. Why, when the worship service is far more important than any of these, would we not require them to act appropriately in church? And when we require them to behave themselves in all these other venues but not in church, what are we teaching them about the importance of church, reverence, God?
For the past several years, the message coming from many pastors and churches has been, “Your child is welcome in church! Don’t worry if he makes noise!”. Some pastors are known to say things like, “Never mind if your baby cries! I’ll just preach louder!”. It is absolutely true that children of all ages should be made to feel welcome and loved in church, and that the entire congregation should be patient, loving, and understanding with the occasional cry, babble, or fidget. But a few parents seem to hear this welcoming attitude toward children as, “It’s fine for your child to run wild during the sermon or scream his head off for the duration of the worship service.”. That’s not the case. Allowing your child to make noise or misbehave with no attempt to address the situation is unloving and unkind to your church family who, though patient and loving, are being distracted from worship by your child. A loving church is not license for you to shirk your responsibility to them, to God, and to your child to teach him to behave appropriately in church.
But, if you’ll determine in your heart to train your child, you might be surprised at all the blessings and benefits you encounter along the way.
What is appropriate church behavior?
That’s going to vary by age. Obviously, a three year old isn’t going to sit perfectly still for thirty minutes and take sermon notes. But, believe it or not, you can start (and I would strongly recommend) training your child from infancy that church is a place where we sit still, sit quietly, listen when it’s time to listen, and participate when it’s time to participate.
How do I train my child?
The first and best way to train your child is by modeling proper church behavior yourself. Does he see you singing enthusiastically during the worship time? Are you checking your makeup or Facebook during prayer? Are you visibly paying attention during the sermon? Constantly talking to your husband or a friend during the service? Your child will imitate what he sees and take his cues from you as to what is acceptable behavior.
Otherwise, you train your child in church the same way you would train him in any other situation. If you were at a restaurant, and your baby was crying incessantly, you would tend to his needs at the table, or, if you couldn’t, you would take him out to the lobby or outside until he calmed down. The simple act of doing so begins to plant the idea in his mind that a certain level of behavior is expected in that venue.
If your school aged child won’t sit quietly in his seat at school, the teacher administers the appropriate discipline, and, possibly, you do too, at home.
It’s the same way at church. You let your child know what is expected of him behavior-wise at church, praise him when he does well, and administer discipline when he disobeys.
A few helpful hints:
Infants and toddlers:
If your church offers a nursery, there’s no shame in making use of it. As a stay at home mom, I well remember the days when church was the only opportunity I had for a small breather from my children, for adult fellowship, and for hearing God’s word without interruption.
But if you want to have your infant or toddler in church with you, that’s great! Be sure your diaper bag is well stocked with anything you might need to keep a little one relatively still and quiet. Bottles, pacifiers, small snacks that won’t make too much of a mess, some small, soft toys (such as stuffed animals or board books- maybe even a special one that’s only for Sundays) that he can quietly play with in his lap.
Try to choose a seat on the aisle near a door in case you need to make a hasty exit. Also, try to sit somewhere where any noise your child might make won’t be picked up by the pastor’s (or other) microphone.
Sometimes well meaning Sunday school teachers serve sugary snacks or other foods/drinks that might make your child jittery. If so, it may be more difficult for him to sit quietly during church. Check out the snack situation in your child’s class, and serve him a breakfast that won’t give him the fidgets.
Make a bathroom/water fountain pit stop before the service a weekly habit. If your child would benefit from running a lap or two outside before the service to work off some energy, make that part of the weekly routine as well.
Dress your child appropriately, yet comfortably for church. I still remember scratchy lace on some of my childhood Sunday dresses. And sitting up against the back of a pew or chair wearing a dress that ties in the back? Absolute torture when that knot dug into my spine. It’s kind of hard to sit still when your entire outfit is conspiring against you.
Get them started on taking notes during the sermon. Give your preschooler some crayons and paper and help him listen for something in the sermon he can draw a picture of (a sheep, Jesus, an angel, a garden…).
Lower elementary aged children might enjoy taking “tally mark” notes. Make a brief list of words your child is likely to hear during the sermon (God, Jesus, Bible, Love…) and instruct him to make a tally mark next to the word any time he hears it during the sermon. Some pre-readers can even attempt this if you draw a couple of small pictures instead of words (a heart for “love,” a cross for “Jesus,” etc.) Before church starts, try to guess with your child which word will get the most marks. After church, count up the marks and see if you were right. You may even want to do your own tally mark sheet during the sermon to model for your child what you want him to do.
Some churches offer a fill in the blank sermon outline in the bulletin. This is a perfect note taking activity for older children and tweens. They can also be encouraged to turn in their Bibles to all the Scriptures the pastor mentions, copy down a verse from the text of the sermon, or write down any questions that occur to them as they listen.
And, speaking of questions, another fun activity is for each family member to write down a couple of questions, and their answers, from the sermon. Then, in the car on the way home, each person gets to ask his questions. Whoever gets the most correct answers gets to pick what’s for lunch (or bragging rights, or something else fun). It’ll keep EVERYONE paying attention, and it’s a great way to reinforce and discuss the sermon.
Attend church every Sunday. Not only is it biblical to attend faithfully, but children thrive on routine, and it will be easier for them to remember how to behave if they’re learning and practicing those behavior skills weekly instead of in a “hit and miss” fashion.
Children with Disabilities
Believe it or not, I actually do have some experience in this area. For several years, I taught at two different state schools for the deaf, working with deaf students and students with multiple disabilities. After that, I worked for a couple of years as an advisor, advocate, and service provider for disabled students at a large state university. I’m not unsympathetic to parents of children with disabilities and to the issues disabilities cause.
Since there is such a wide range of disabilities that may cause noise or behavior issues in church, I can’t offer specific suggestions that would apply to every child with a disability. So let me just offer a few general thoughts:
Like every other parent, you have to address your child’s noise and behavior in a way that’s appropriate to his age and abilities, whatever those may be. Your child’s disability does not relieve you of the responsibility to train him and address his issues as best you can. Ask and trust God to help and equip you to know and do what’s right for your child.
When it comes right down to it, in church, noise is noise, and distraction is distraction, whether it’s coming from an adult who can’t stop coughing, a baby who won’t stop crying, or your child’s particular issue. When it’s in our power to address a distraction – our own or our child’s – we should make every effort to do so.
Get some wise counsel. Ask your child’s doctor, teacher, therapist, social worker, etc. for some help. Do you have a clear picture of what your child is and isn’t capable of? Are you expecting too much or too little of him? Are there any helpful suggestions they can offer for managing his issues in church? Ask other parents of children with the same disability as your child for any tips or tricks they’ve learned. What has worked? What hasn’t worked? Ask your pastor if there’s any reasonable accommodation that could be made for your child that hasn’t been, such as adjustments to the light or sound, accessibility adjustments, piping the sermon audio into an adjacent room, etc.
Get some help. Could some of your brothers and sisters at church help out in some way? Some of the suggestions in my article Providentially Hindered: Is Your Church Taking Care of Caretakers? might help, or may be a springboard for other ideas.
Training your child to behave well in church isn’t easy at times. I know. I have six children and we have raised all of them in church. But if you and your husband will invest the time and effort, everyone benefits. Your pastor will be able to preach uninterrupted. Your fellow church members will be able to worship undistracted. Once your child begins to behave himself better, you will be able to focus more on the service and be less frazzled. But most importantly, your child will develop the skills necessary for hearing and paying attention to God’s word being proclaimed, and what a blessing that will be to him now, and for the rest of his life.