“I’ll go to church when the kids are older.”
“I’m too busy keeping them quiet to get anything out of it anyway.”
“People give us looks when we bring the kids.”
These are all things I’ve heard friends say, and are thoughts I’ve had myself. I like taking my kids to church, but this hasn’t always been the case. In fact there are still some Sunday mornings when I wish ours was a church that whisked the little ones off at the beginning of the service and returned them at the closing hymn. Usually, though, I love celebrating my faith with my children.
Going to church is one of those things that may seem like an obligation – getting dressed on a weekend morning when lying velcroed to the couch seems like a much better idea – and is even more of a chore when small children are involved. They need diaper bags and snacks and so many things. They always have to poop right when it’s time to leave the house, and when they are in preschool, they’ll either want to wear their favorite dinosaur pajamas or their very best Easter finery every Sunday.
Sometimes it just seems like too much work for a hour where the only conversation with God is your fervent prayer that your kids keep it down and don’t use their outside voices to wonder “why that guy up front is wearing a dress.”
I’m here to tell you it is worthwhile, and it can be done. That you may get some tsk, tsks from a few congregants, and you may be exhausted from an hour of wrangling little ones in slippery pews, but imagine how much God is loving all of that joyful noise. People who get annoyed with children at church are completely missing the point of worship. Ignore those people. You are building the foundation of your kids’ faith, and that, my friend, is important work.
Now that my kids are five and seven, and have several years of consistent church attendance under their belts, I am ready to share my tips for easing kids into one of my favorite hours of the week.
Tips for Taking Kids to Church
Sit near the front, on the choir side.
I know this sounds crazy. You are imagining yourself up front with your kids, while the entire church watches your toddler bite his sister, and sees you sneak out to take your five-year-old to the bathroom. Twice.
But sitting near the front allows kids to see what’s happening. How interested would you be in the service if all you could see was an ocean of adult butts in front of you? Let your kiddos see the action!
Sitting near the choir has the same effect, in that it keeps the kids attention, with the added bonus of being the loudest spot in the building to drown out any chattering children. Loudest after the cry room, of course.
Avoid the cry room if you can.
Cry rooms are great for babies who are crying. They are terrible for toddlers who are old enough to remember that there are other kids to play with in the cry room. The cry room can become wilder than a mosh pit, and that’s not the message I’m trying to teach my kids about the expectations of church.
For younger kids, bring a quiet toy and snack.
Church services are built for adults. While I’m not up for the chaos of the cry room, it’s unreasonable to ask a small child to pay attention to the grown-up words and themes of church, or to be quiet for an hour when they aren’t watching a cartoon. Quiet toys and non-sticky snacks are great distractions for little ones, as are crayons and coloring books.
When my kids turned four, I quit bringing a snack, and I expected them to begin participating more in the service. We are Catholic, which means lots of standing, sitting, kneeling, and responding, which are great things for the kids to do to stay engaged. Every once in a while, I let them draw quietly if the homily is above their heads, but if the topic is something they can understand, they try to follow along while I whisper explanations in their ears if necessary. This is a work in progress, and my five-year-old is still much more interested in her shoes (or really anything else), than in what the priest is saying.
Explain what is happening.
When I sing or pray aloud, I direct it into the ear of the closest child. They can hear the words more clearly coming from me than they can from the speakers, and it helps them follow the service. This is most frequently my youngest child, because my son can read and follows the mass in the hymnal. By reading and hearing it, he better comprehends, and is more engaged.
Attend the children’s or family service.
Our parish has a children’s program at one mass every other week. We try to attend that one if we can, and the kids love, love, love it. Oh, obviously I love it, too.
Separate the troublemakers.
Sometimes I have to keep my kids separated, otherwise they’ll get rowdy, and sometimes it’s my daughter and my husband who can’t sit together. This is advice you can use for years. My brother and I still can’t sit next to each other at church without acting out, and we’re in our thirties.
Don’t expect miracles.
Sure, Jesus turned water into wine (best miracle EVER), but your active child isn’t going to turn into a stoic churchgoer overnight. Be patient with them. Encourage participation, even if it means they are a beat or two behind everyone else. Take your time teaching the proper way to celebrate your faith, and give them time to practice it and become proficient. Talk about your religion outside of church, and get a few books about your faith. My kids have a book called Celebrating Sunday for Catholic Families that breaks down the weekly messages they’ll hear at church, so we can talk about it before and after in a way that kids will understand.
Here are a few tips from my Facebook friends and how they survive attending church with kids.
My cousin-in-law, Kelly says, “(My daughter) loves the music so I let her dance in our row as long as she’s not grabbing the people in front of us. I believe she’s expressing her worship by dancing, it gets her involved and interested in the service. As soon as the pastor starts the sermon I whisk her away to the kids’ programs. I do worry that her dancing distracts others. But then I remember that God must be delighted with her joy so I ignore any dirty looks.”
My friend Kara suggests making sure the church you join has a thriving youth department. She says her teenage children still love their youth group, and Kara can see the influence of having Godly adults in their lives and being around like-minded kids. She is sure she would have made different choices as a teen if she would have had the faith foundation her kids do.
Shelly says, “…my church gives the kids stuffed animals and paper and crayons. It works for a little while. But then bribery is hot chocolate at Penguin Coffee and pizza for the football game that might be on TV.”
From my mother-in-law, “Learn the ‘mommy stare’ that scares them into being quiet! I really did do this, but only after lots of little tablets with pencils, pipe cleaners, and suckers.”
Bridget has two college-aged daughters, and says that she bribed her kids with candy, but that didn’t always work. She promises though, “It was usually just a work out for an hour, but keep it up, it’s well worth the effort!”
Rebecca from Frugalista Blog remembers, “Stickers. I don’t know why, but I bought this giant collection of stickers from Costco when my daughter wasn’t even 2. It lasted for a year at least.”
My friend Jessica remembers her mom’s purse being full of pens, paper, gum, and candy. She was hyped up on tic-tacs, but she was quiet!
When Jeannette from Mommy Needs a Martini’s girls aren’t in their children’s service, she packs “…a busy bag for each: a notebook, two crayons, pencil, a sippy cup with water, pretzels or goldfish, and a special treat (usually Smarties or a Tootsie Roll) that they’re allowed to have at the end IF they’re behaved. They also love holding my hymnal and helping to follow along in the bulletin.”
My cousin, Lisa is a faithful member of her church, and her toddler is a testament to learning how to navigate services at a young age. Lisa says, “We have found consistency to be the most critical. James goes basically every Sunday and he usually makes it through the majority of the one and a half hour plus service, mostly because he is used to it. He is far from perfect but we try to direct his attention to quiet activities like picture books or looking at the icons around the church. I’ve also found snacks to be helpful in keeping him quiet. And when he does get antsy we let him run around the narthex/back of the church so he isn’t distracting everyone else.”
Teaching young children to sit quietly in church isn’t only a wonderful way for them to learn to celebrate with your faith community; the skill of sitting quietly will come in handy when you’re in waiting rooms and on airplane trips, too.
Life skills and praising God as a family? That’s an hour well spent!