Last Sunday my husband and I sat near the front of the church right behind a couple with their two boys. The children appeared to be around 8 and 10 years old, although you could hardly tell by their behavior. The pair of them acted more like two year olds! In fact, it does a disservice to two-year-olds everywhere to even make that comparison.
The younger boy lay down on the pew and kicked his brother whenever his parents were standing. He reached around his mom and pinched the older one, sniggered, laughed, coughed, and picked his nose.
The older brother slid up and down the length of the pew, banging against my husband’s hands as we were kneeling. He punched his brother back. He slammed the hymnal and dropped it repeatedly, but when it was time to sing, he was not holding one.
None of them participated in the songs – not even the parents. The boys were loud, disruptive, inattentive, and disrespectful to each other, their parents, and the parish as a whole. And all I could think was, when those boys are young teenagers, they’ll be the ones to say, “I’m not going to church any more because I don’t get anything out of it. It’s just a waste of time”. Actually, I had two thoughts. The other one was, “I bet they behave like that in school, too.”
If you do not already take your children to church, then this article is not for you. I do not mean to proselytize, only to assist those who do practice a formal religion and wish to bring their young children with them. This type of behavior is just unacceptable. Anywhere, any time. I’m sure that your children are not as bad as the two boys I described, because you are reading this! That shows that you already take an active part in your role of parenting. Congratulations! Maybe you won’t win the Parent-of-the-Year award on earth, but you are laying up your treasures in Heaven.
Getting young children to behave well in church is challenging. It’s the ultimate test. Children can get away with more at home, and even in the grocery store. They may squeal inside a few times, as you patiently remind them to use an inside voice. They may pitch a fit in the grocery store, at which you have the choice to either take them straight home and finish your shopping later – alone, or ignore them and all the glares of the other shoppers. But in church it is not acceptable to let them squeal or scream or kick their feet. They need to be quiet and obedient for a full hour – sometimes more, depending on the church where you worship. Ultimately, your goal is to raise a good heart, a cheerful spirit, and a young adult with deep faith, but if that child is too unruly to even come to church, then it may prove difficult to achieve your goal. So here, then, are a few steps to help your child behave better in public.
- Dress for success: We all tend to behave according to how we are dressed. If we are wearing comfortable play clothes, we are more likely to feel comfortable. When we are dressed up in our best, we tend to be more aware of our behavior. Teach children to respect Sunday and Church and the tenets of your faith by dressing them respectfully. Pretty Sunday dresses, special socks and shoes, even a small patent leather purse and gloves for little girls. Dress slacks, dark socks, dress shoes – not athletic shoes with blinking lights – clean dress shirts with or without a tie, a sweater vest in cooler weather, for boys. Young children enjoy dressing up! Let them! Also – dress clothes are much easier to find in thrift stores than play clothes, if money is an issue.
- Advance preparation: Good behavior on Sunday morning begins Saturday night. Do not let little children “stay up late”. They need those precious hours of sleep. Make sure they have a bath before bed, even if this is not part of your normal bedtime routine. Tell them as you help them wash their hair that it is so they can be very clean for church. Let them know they are getting ready for something special. Help them lay out the special clothes they will wear in the morning. Get them a soft, damp rag and let them “polish” their shoes, wiping off any dirt or scuff marks.
- Pack a church bag: They need to be quiet, but most little children will not be still. It just isn’t in their nature, and God doesn’t really mind the wiggles. A church bag should have quiet toys or activities (not all parents approve of toys in church. That’s okay, if you feel that way, just skip this step and read on) like coloring books and a few crayons. You don’t need a box of 64 that will get dropped and spilled weekly. Just a couple – three, maybe. If the coloring book is on a religious theme, that’s even better. For Catholics, you can pack large, wooden rosary beads. Add a picture Bible storybook or prayer book. Maybe a small Noah’s ark toy, or just a few animals from the set. Only let them have the church bag while they are in church! These toys are special, not to take to grandma’s, or the grocery store, or the doctor’s office.
- Snacks? Church is just not that long. Some parents do not like to bring food, because of the mess it makes, and if the child had breakfast before, then he can certainly go for an hour without eating. If your child is very noisy though, snacks are a way of getting him to be quiet. Raisins are quieter and less messy than Cheerios. Forget the chocolate – they’re in church clothes.
- Correct use of the Cry Room: Always start the service in church. Let your child see this as an opportunity. When he gets disruptive, take him, and only him – not the entire family – into the cry room. Do not allow him to run around in the cry room. The cry room is JUST LIKE CHURCH. You still expect him to sit still and be quiet, but here he won’t disrupt others. Only when he is ready to be quiet can he return to church and sit with the rest of the family.
- Be a role-model: if you want him to be quiet, so should you be. Do not whisper unduly to your spouse or the people next to you. Kneel when others kneel, stand when they stand, and sing when it is time to sing! Don’t keep your voice to yourself, even if you think you sound like a frog. If you aren’t happy with the voice God gave you, then here is the place to give it back to Him. Be active in church. Let your child see how happy you are to be here. If there is something you don’t understand about your faith, learn it, so you can share it.
- Baby steps. Try a behavior chart, like the one below. Pick one inappropriate behavior to concentrate on first, and list the priviledges your child will lose for misbehavior. Do reward positive results. Ignore what you can. Also, try sitting in the same pew every Sunday, at least for a while. If other church members are irritated by your youngster, they will know where not to sit. Most people realize that young children will wiggle and occasionally be disruptive.
Sunday behavior chart
*Rule of the week: ________________________________________________________________
Good job last Sunday on: ________________________________________________________________
This chart is taken from Dr. Koenig’s book, “Smart Discipline” which you can order from here.
Some possible behaviors to work on:
- Sits quietly for _______ minutes
(begin with ten, then fifteen, etc.)
- folds hands to pray
- sings along
- shakes hands with neighbors
- whispers to mommy to go potty
- picks up toys
- add your own
One final word: You should always feel welcome in your church, regardless of how your children behave! Jesus welcomed the little children, and admonished the adults for wanting to push them away. There may be one or two grumpy members who scowl at you when your kids are acting like kids, but if you feel that you truly are not welcome, then it’s time to find a new place to worship. Your children cannot possibly learn how to behave in church if they never go. How can they learn that God loves them, if they don’t know who God is? Some churches now have one service that is geared more towards children, with a youth choir, or a special children’s church with stories and activities based on the Scripture readings. Find out what is available in your neighborhood.
May God bless you and yours!