Comfort for Those Tending to the Lord’s Littlest Sheep, Part 3
By Keri Wolfmueller
Tricks of the Trade and Quiet Activities for Young Children
Thanks for joining the conversation about having children in church! Please see Part 1 and Part 2.
I’m just as normal as you. However, I’m going to boldly assert a “Top Ten” list of helpful things to know and practice when you have little ones with you in church. This is not the Ten Commandments. This list holds no value regarding your salvation. You therefore are free.
Every parent is unique and sets their own standards of what is acceptable for their child. Every child is unique. Some respond to discipline. Some respond to rewards. Some naturally aim to please. Some are fiercely independent and curious. What is suggested here will hopefully be helpful, but if it doesn’t work for your child, don’t give up. Keep trying. Our goal is to help our children succeed at being in church, to sit quietly, and when able – to participate. Remember, it is in church that their Savior comes to bring them His gifts.
That being said, this list has been created with years of personal experience and education, tested over time, and with the help of many others along the way. I pray that it is a blessing for you and not a new burden. May you find comfort and hope with perhaps some new ideas. May you be encouraged finding that you do not walk this road alone.
Top 10 Things to Know When Taking Little Ones To Church:
- Come Prepared.
A famous president once said “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” Make sure your diaper war bag is ready to go: extra clothes, plenty of diapers and wipes, a snack, a few quiet toys, lift-the-flap books, pacifier, blanket, lovie, and anything you think might be helpful. It is a rare infant/toddler who can sit through an entire service without some assistance. And, if you’re ready, you are more likely to not have to leave church all together because you’ve gone through your last set of clean clothes and can’t bring yourself to walk back into the service with your baby only wearing a diaper.
2. When you leave…don’t put them down.
This is my most exhausting suggestion. But, when you take your child out of the sanctuary because they are making too much noise, and all your efforts to distract them have been unsuccessful, you cannot put them down to walk around or play. A child will learn extremely quickly to connect their screaming to being allowed to go play or wander. We don’t want them to make this connection. We leave out of respect for the others trying to hear the sermon. When you leave, hold them or sit with them in the back of the sanctuary or narthex area and continue to participate in the service, and continue to work with them on being quiet. Some churches have cry rooms which are extremely helpful when working on correcting this behavior. I remember the tired arms and sore back after standing for long periods of time with my toddlers doing this, but the sooner they realize that there is no benefit in leaving the sanctuary, the sooner they will stop the behavior that causes you to take them out.
3. Teach them what “ssshhh” means.
I’m being serious. Have you ever stopped to think that your infant does not yet have any context for the sound “ssshhh?” We have to teach our children what it means when we hush them. So when you need your child’s mouth to be quiet, simply combined your “sshh” with a gentle one or two finger pressure on their lips at the same time. This will help your child learn more quickly that when they hear that sound, it means their mouth is doing something it shouldn’t.
4. Be intentional about where you sit.
Some parents really advocate sitting in the front row with their little ones because when a child can see what is going on, they usually behave better and participate more. This is especially helpful once your child is about 3 or 4. I, however, was doing the church parenting bit alone. My husband is the Pastor. So, I found it easiest to sit in the very back with our four children. If I needed to stand with a fussy toddler, I still could remain close to the children I was leaving in the pew. I also felt it was less distracting to others when I had to get up to leave.
Another thing to consider is sitting near friends in the congregation that you know would be helpful if you needed an extra arm during the service.
5. Learn the Art of Distraction.
There are thousands of quiet ways you can try and distract your child. Here are a few of my favorite. When they are super little, just changing positions can be effective. If they are sitting, stand them up, if they are over your shoulder, spin them around to face the front. It may sound too simple, but give it a try. When they are young and very oral, I would keep a steady supply of things for them to put in their mouth. Small rubber tipped kitchen utensils work well for this. When they are starting to recognize objects, play a sort of “I Spy” game with them. I would whisper in their ear “Can you find the cross? Can you find the candles? Can you find Jesus?” Things that they only needed to point to. This also helps them start to become aware of their surroundings, that they are in church, and that it is here that they are quiet. When they get a little older I would bring colored pencils, lift-the-flap books, and lacing boards.
Yes, I’ve resorted to bribery. Some children respond especially well to rewards. It could be as simple as getting a doughnut after church if they sat quietly. Or, if they make it through the sermon, getting a small piece of candy that you’ve reserved especially for this occasion. Or, taking them to the park after church on especially good Sundays. Figure out what makes your kiddo “tick” and reward their good behavior.
7. Occupy their mouth.
Keeping their mouths busy chewing on something can often keep them from making noise. Of course, if your child uses a pacifier you already know how helpful they can be. Two of our children never took to a pacifier and so for them I used snacks. Be wise, however about your snack selection. It’s no fun picking up a thousand pieces of a crumbly cracker after the service. Some of my favorite snacks included dried cranberries or raisins, goldfish, mini cheese cubes, small pieces of a peanut butter sandwich, and dry cereal. When they get a little older, and have a little bit more control, they are super cute trying to concentrate on chewing a piece of gum. It takes up all their little brain power.
8. Practice whispering.
During the week, and after your child begins talking, practice using your whispering voice. Mimic it for them. Play “echo” games in a whispering voice. Make it a fun little game that you play. Sing songs in a whisper. Snuggle and whisper “I love you” in their little ears. It’s actually a very difficult concept for them to learn, but once they figure it out, it can be very helpful during church to simply ask them to whisper.
9. Let them shake their sillies out.
I always seem to run late first thing in the morning. But, if you can manage to get to church a little early, find a place where they can run around for ten minutes. Chase them even! I don’t suggest running in the church narthex where older members might get bumped into, or determine your children have no manners. Instead, find a grassy spot outside, perhaps an empty fellowship hall or Sunday school room and really let them move.
10. Find a helper.
Sometimes we are working so hard with our children during a church service that we are hardly able to pay attention to what is going on ourselves. Week after week of not hearing the sermon can become frustrating to even the most dedicated parent. If your spouse is with you, consider taking turns working with your little one. Rotate Sundays, that way you both have a chance to try and listen. However, for those of you who are going it alone for whatever reason, try and find someone you can sit close to that can lend a helping hand when needed. Often the young teenage girls in the congregation love this responsibility. Other times, you might be lucky to have an “adopted” grandma who is willing to give you a hand. And sometimes, our help will come in the form of an answered prayer for patience.
I pray this was helpful. Keep up the good work, I promise it gets easier!
In Christian Joy,
Photo Credit to ThomasLife. Creative Commons license.
One Lenten service, I sat behind a mother and her 2 1/2 year old. Before service began, the mother was quietly asking her child questions like you suggest in No. 5. “Where is the Bible?” Little girl pointed to the lectern, “Where does Pastor go?” Little girl pointed to the pulpit. “Where is Jesus?” Little girl pointed to the Crucifix that hangs over the altar. Then, the little girl said,”Look at those big owies Jesus has.” Can’t remember what the sermon was that night but I will never forget the reminder that little Christian gave me.
A few distractions that have worked well for us are crayons and paper AND stickers. Anything sticky. Some of my children have sat through the entire church service engrossed in putting stickers on the bulletin. Sure, sometimes I go up to communion with interesting accessories adorning my clothes, but it works.
Recently my fussy toddler spent half of church with a small pad of sticky notes. . . tearing one page off at a time. Big brother simply stacked them up again, and the game began again.