Children in Church

With Great Lent just around the corner — along with its increase in church services — I’ve been thinking about this podcast episode from 2012 and thought I’d repost.

Just about every parent is at least sometimes frustrated with their child or children’s behavior in church. Some of us were less regular about church attendance before we had children, but becoming parents got our attention: we realized that if we want our children raised in the Church, we’re going to have to attend church. All the time. But it’s not easy. For most families I know, it’s literally a struggle to get TO the church. Whether it’s one child or five, getting them cleaned up and dressed and into that car is just harder on Sunday than it is on weekday mornings.

Many times, it’s a battle to get to church, and when we arrive, triumphant, in the parking lot, we take a deep breath and brace ourselves, because that was just the warm up. Now begins the battle inside the church: stop squirming, don’t kick that, stop hitting your sister, please stand up and (in my family) please stop dancing and hollering and sit down!

My five girls are a delight to me, but sometimes their free-spirited natures are a handful in church. I like to think that one of my ministries in our parish is making other people feel better about their children’s behavior, because none of them could possibly be worse than my girls.

There are really two needs here: We need to educate our children in how to behave in church, and we need to educate our adults in what is reasonable to expect from children and how to be loving and tolerant.

First, to the children, we must say: we want you here. We love you, and we’re glad you’re here. Now the littlest children may need some small distractions; in our parish, we do have little icon books — inexpensive photo albums we bought in bulk, and we tuck icon cards into the them, and the little ones can look at those icons and rearrange them and think about them. It gives their hands something to do, and encourages them to get up close and personal with the holy icons. But ultimately, distractions aren’t the answer. We need to focus on our goal: are we just trying to quiet them down, or are we hoping to raise saints? If our goal is to invite them into the worship and to make them a part of it, then we must do the opposite of distracting them! We must constantly be bringing their attention back to the services!

When we stand in church with a child, we should encourage them to join in with the singing. Even the youngest children can hum along to “Lord, have mercy” and sing “Amen!” One and two year olds can sing songs –especially if they hear those songs at home, sung by their parents. Add your church’s regular hymns to the lullabies you sing at home, and young children will know the songs.

Anyone old enough to read will greatly benefit from following along with the service. Let your children experience the service from inside it in this way, and help them to focus on the prayers by following along, and by singing.

Little ones, whose attention spans are so short, can be called to notice different parts of the service. Watch in your book and announce, “Here’s the doxology – we’re singing God’s glory! Here comes the Small Entrance, honey, get ready! Father’s coming – can you see him? Is he holding the Gospel? Can you see it?” If you communicate excitement to them about each part of the Divine Liturgy, they will learn to recognize them and watch for them. There is always something happening in the liturgy; point it out.

And of course, we are surrounded by icons. We can carry little ones around the church when they get fussy, and teach them to venerate the icons. We can whisper the stories of the saints to our children, and let them know that everyone in God’s Holy Kingdom is together in communion. Let’s make sure that our kids are aware of the company of the Saints in Church.

We can develop special rituals for our children too, little things we do at different parts of the service. For example, we’re all familiar with the gospel reading about the woman with the issue of blood who touched the hem of Christ’s garment and was healed. She hadn’t spoken or even touched Him directly — she had faith that His power was so great, that touching just the hem of His garment would heal her! In our family, once they’re old enough to be trusted, my girls rush to touch Father’s hem as he passes with the gifts at the Great Entrance, that they too might be healed. When they hear the Cherubic Hymn, they know that it’s time to take their places. They quietly move into prime positions to intersect Father’s route. As the acolytes pass, they’re crossing themselves and lowering their heads, but they’re also gearing up and getting ready. When Father passes by, they touch the hem of his garment, and then, only after he has returned inside the Royal Doors, do they come back to their usual positions. Beautiful little rituals like this involve them prayerfully in the service, and give them something to do. It’s a little milestone in the service — the ritual busies them for a few moments and the movement refreshes them. When we create these little rituals and make note of the various parts of the service, we make sure that the kids are part of this worshipping body of Christ.

Now this is not a prescription for a perfect experience with perfect children in Church. No matter how much we work at creating the ideal liturgical experience, it’s going to be a struggle. But we Christians aren’t afraid of struggle, are we? That’s what this life on earth is — it’s our opportunity to struggle.

While we’re teaching children how to behave in church, we must also teach the adults — the parents and godparents, and everyone else too — how to deal with children and with the commotion that they cause. We adults must not walk into church with unreasonable expectations. We must not demand perfection from children – perfect attentiveness, perfect obedience, perfect stillness. Indeed, we must be as aware of ourselves as we are aware of our children.

Here we are, standing in church, about to receive Holy Communion, and we are sorely tempted to get angry about a child’s behavior, although we know that anger is no frame of mind for Holy Communion! Our challenge is to firmly and lovingly guide children, without becoming angry or distracted from our own prayerful liturgical experience.

Pride rears up in anger when a child dares to disobey or distract us, but humility defeats pride. We should remind ourselves that we’re not perfect either. Our own minds wander, we lose focus, we forget to pray. We’re not perfect, and just as we ask God to forgive our iniquities and heal our infirmities, we need to be even more merciful with children.

It is helpful to remind ourselves, that just as we tire of teaching children the same lesson a hundred times, that God must get awfully tired of trying to teach us the same things again and again. If we can remember that we are weak, like the children placed in our care, then we can pass along the mercy and forgiveness that God has generously poured down upon us.

If we are to show them that they are beloved, welcome members of the Body of Christ, then we must behave in a loving manner. We must find a way to exude love even as we’re trying to get them to stop talking or hitting or throwing — whatever it is, we have to call to them lovingly, and engage them lovingly. That’s not easy. Paul tells us, Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. (1 Cor 13:1) When I’m standing there in church, angry with a child, if I have not love, they’re not going to be learning about the Faith from me. If we want them to know God, and if God is love, then we need to be showing them love, especially in Church!

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things — even the frustrating disobedience of children. Love endures it patiently. If we can endure disobedience while maintaining patience and love and even prayerfulness, then attending this liturgy with our children may be more fruitful for us than attending alone!

Our children will learn how to behave in church by watching how we behave in church; if we are fighting and angry and demanding, that’s what they’ll learn. But if we are prayerful and loving and eager to pray and sing and stand for hours, they’ll learn to be that way too.

Elissa Bjeletich

About Elissa Bjeletich

Elissa Bjeletich hosts three popular Ancient Faith Radio podcasts: Raising Saints, Everyday Orthodox, and together with Kristina Wenger, Tending the Garden of Our Hearts. She is the co-author of Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home and author of Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent, and In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. She serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. Elissa lives near Austin, Texas, with her husband, Marko, and their five daughters. You'll find more information on her website: elissabjeletich.com

10 comments:

      1. Talk to them the day before you go to church and the day of- while one the ride to church. I being a daughter of a priest that is what our family did with my brother and I. Hope this helps

        1. That’s good advice, Maria. Thank you! You’re absolutely right — we have to be clear with kids about our expectations. It’s one thing to say, “be good!” and entirely another to express what good behavior actually is. Talking about it before you’re in the situation is a great strategy.

  1. I enjoyed this. One other thing I tell parents is that it is easier to teach children to behave in Church if that is not the only place in which they are expected to behave reverently. Reverence and respect are virtues, and there are more than a few contexts for those virtues. Children probably won’t spend a lot of time in courthouses, symphony halls, or art museums, and the business of reverence and respect for nature comes later – at this age, play takes central stage. But one can and should have children pray with one in one’s family icon corner, and there they should be expected to behave as they would in Church – with respect, reverence, and with a minimum of kicking, pushing, talking, and so forth. LIttle girls who belong to parishes where head covering are expected should also wear them there. Little boys should tuck in their shirts, take off their caps, wash their hands first, and so forth. Gradually the idea kicks in – worship is special. It demands a different way of behaving, and with a little practice, this is a way of behaving that most children can succeed in emulating. But to expect a child, especially a young child, to be reverent, respectful, quiet, and relatively still in a context that is sui generis, and that happens only once a week, is a bit much. Worship is an art – like all arts, it is learned by emulation and repetition.

    Fortunately, God takes us as we are, and so must the parish, and Jesus made it pretty clear what he thought about people trying to keep the children away from him out of a sense or over-blown propriety. Speaking for myself, as a parish priest, I’d much rather have a service with a touch of bedlam to it, but many children, than a parish of perfect hushed reverence, where everyone is 50+ years of age.

    1. Thank you, Father! I agree — family prayer time should be treated as church is treated, and the same type of behavior required of both. It makes good sense to develop a kind of ‘worship demeanor’ and gives the children an opportunity to practice that demeanor. It’s a two-fold challenge: to teach the children how to behave, and to control ourselves so that we can teach them lovingly. Just as true at the end of a long day in the icon corner as it is when we’re attending services in the church!

  2. My son and I go through our list of living and dead together at the Great Entrance. He enjoys getting ready for it and remembering all of our family and friends.

    1. Oh, that is beautiful, Natalia! I love that. When the priest offers prayers for “those each of us calls prayerfully to mind, and all your people” I am always rushing to think of my lists of people, but somehow I’ve never thought to suggest it to my children! That is wonderful.

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