by Keri Wolfmueller
Understanding Age Appropriate Behavior
Greetings! If you are just now joining us, please see Comfort for Those Tending to the Lord’s Littlest Sheep, Part 1.
Surprisingly, one of the most valid arguments against having children in church is sometimes brought to us from educators or pediatricians. These men and women have invested years into studying how children learn, how to best instruct them, how to care for them, and keep them healthy. (Please note the use of the word sometimes, this is not an absolute to these vocations.)
The argument goes something like this, “It is not appropriate to expect young children to sit through an hour long, or longer, church service. Developmentally they are not capable of this type of behavior. They do not have the attention span, nor the capability of keeping their bodies still. It is therefore unfair, maybe even inappropriate, to make them attend church.” Accordingly, the standard assessment is that a child’s attention span is 3-5 minutes in length per year of life. For example, a two year old has a 6-10 minute attention span, which includes the ability to sit still.
Hmmm…This is troubling. There is truth in those words. I have witnessed my own children’s abilities and, true enough, they cannot focus that long. Let’s face it, there is a reason Dora the Explorer only follows the map and arrives at her destination in fifteen short minutes!
What to do!? What to do? What to do?! Let’s say I buy into this argument, but yet I know the Lord’s Word, how do I fit these seemingly contradictory beliefs together?
To continue, here are many other behaviors we should expect to see from our kids, even at church:
Movement: wiggling, crawling, cruising, walking, running, more wiggling, hopping, jumping
Vocalizing: crying, cooing, babbling, echoing, my favorite- their screaming voice (5-9 months), speaking, singing, yelling, shrieking
Hand and Eye Coordination: reaching, touching, grasping, pointing, manipulating objects, throwing, stacking, coloring, helping
And the list goes on….
The developmental stages our kids move through are fascinating, and amazing, and a miracle! Every parent should delight to witness their child moving along this path.
Back to the question. Understanding age appropriate behavior, should we be taking our little ones to church?
YES, still yes!
We absolutely have the Lord’s Word which is very clear, and was discussed in the previous article. We should also have an understanding of what is appropriate to expect from children at their given age. We bring these two understandings together in our parenting, and specifically our discipline.
Here is what I propose and it’s a rather simple idea, although sometimes complicated to implement: We distinguish between positive age appropriate behavior and negative age appropriate behavior and apply the proper response.
When our children are displaying positive behavior, which still may be noisy or distracting, we use this opportunity for instruction. We may still need to take them out of the sanctuary, we may still miss half the service, but they are not “in trouble.” This is not the time for spankings, time outs, or other harsh consequences. This is the time for instruction, for training, for helping them. For example, if a 9-month-old is practicing their screaming voice, we take them out and work with them on being quiet. Or if your 18-month-old can’t help but calling out with great delight all the things they recognize – “light, dada, book, baby, etc…” we might practice whispering. Or, if you little one is up and down and all around, consider letting them move (just don’t them escape the pew…they will then want to play chase).
Please do not misunderstand. Some age appropriate behavior has consequences. For example, it is “age appropriate” for a two-year-old to lash out and hit someone when they do not get their way. This may be normal, but it certainly is not okay. For this kind of negative behavior, there should absolutely be consequences followed by instruction.
This distinction is vital. In fact, in some ways, it is how we apply Law and Gospel to parenting. Ask yourself this question, “If my child was displaying this behavior anywhere else besides the quietness of the sanctuary, would I be okay with it?” Then they are probably displaying a positive age appropriate behavior. Or, if you think to yourself “there is no way, any place, any time, they would get away with such behavior!” Then you are dealing with a negative behavior.
There are times, unfortunately, when it is not black and white. There are times when our frustration or embarrassment muddy the picture; the pressure of someone looking over our shoulder. Parenting is hard, so we pray constantly and ask for the Lord’s help and wisdom.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” James 1:5
One final thing, for your comfort. Thankfully, we are working through this in the Church. One of the greatest treasures we have in figuring out this parenting bit is our brothers and sisters in the faith. Those that sit beside us in the pew, that kneel with us before the Lord’s altar, that are raising their children day by day, struggle by struggle, joy by joy alongside us. I have learned some of the most amazing parenting tricks and strategies, and have witnessed great love, compassion, and forgiveness from watching and talking to other parents in the Lord’s Church. Let us then help each other, pray for each other, and encourage one another.
Respectfully and in Christian Joy,
Please return to read:
Part 3 – Tricks of the Trade and Quiet Activities for Young Children
Part 4 – Sometimes We Need Law, Sometimes We Need Gospel