Teaching Little Ones to Sit Quietly in Church

Teaching Little Ones to Sit Quietly in Church

Written By Reverend Brian Abshire in SALT Magazine from October 2009

The time to start teaching your children to worship is when they are babies. Children are NEVER too young to learn but teaching them is often difficult, because we are often not willing to do what is necessary. Look, we all realize that babies make “happy noises” and no one in my experience has ever been frustrated with a baby cooing during a church service. It is the child who screams and throws a tantrum that drives us to distraction, not to mention the parent who refuses to correct them. It is the bored children swinging their feet, ruffling through hymn books, crawling under the seats, etc., that disturbs people.

Therefore, we begin by teaching our children how to sit quietly without fidgeting. And you can do that by practicing holding little your children on your lap at home for fifteen minutes at a time. During the “lap-time” the child is not allowed to fuss, squirm, ask questions, fumble in your purse, play with toys, etc. Start by listening to a news program or something that is NOT of interest to the child.

If the child fusses, squirms, or in any way makes a disturbance, then discipline him. Teach them from a young age that you are the boss, and you are in control.

Not only will this help your children sit reverently in worship, but also facilitate their schooling as they learn how to focus their attention and as well establish a habit pattern that their parents are in control. Trust me, you’re going to need that control one day and the sooner you ingrain it into your baby, the better off you will be ten years later. For most children, once they understand that this is a battle you are determined to win, they will eventually settle down.

Many will simply close their eyes and go to sleep. Some, depending upon temperament, may laugh and coo at you. Toddlers will usually just snuggle into your body.

Once a child has learned how to sit quietly on your lap, start singing to them. We publish the next week’s hymns in our bulletin so parents can begin to practice the songs with their children at home. All children love to sing, if given the encouragement to do so. This way they will associate your singing, with the need to be quiet and still. At the same time, as they get older, and the hymns become familiar, they will try to sing along with you (all of my children, from almost the we time they could talk, have learned how to sing. And trust me, musical talent pretty much skipped my family altogether).

As the children get old enough to understand more abstract ideas, you can then use your “quiet time” with them to go through a Bible story picture book or the like. They will then learn to associate being still with singing and learning something. You can also use that “quiet time” to teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and other parts of a normal worship service.

All of the above can be done EVERY day in Family Worship.

Admittedly, it does get easier as the children grow older, as well as a lot more fun. Having theological discussions with your own kids has got to be one of the finest times in life: you AND your children sharing in common your love for God!

Meanwhile as you work with your kids DAILY in teaching them how to be quiet, you are in effect teaching them how to be reverent. And once this occurs, they will find Sunday Services no great inconvenience. I dare say, simply practicing the above for just one WEEK will teach most children how to sit through and ENJOY the worship service. In our church, we allow the children who cannot yet read to have a piece of paper and crayon. This is NOT to draw pictures of butterflies and puppy dogs (or in some cases, tanks and airplanes). Instead, the children are encouraged to draw a picture of something the pastor has said. Often I have found the children looking at me intently as I begin an anecdote to see if I am going to tell a really gruesome story they can use as their artistic muse (and being a kid at heart, I try as often as possible to give them one particularly graphic illustration).

However, even the best kids, on occasion, will test and try you to see if the rules are still in force. My oldest daughter Elizabeth, when she was three, was especially squirmy during worship. It did not help that Dad was still learning some of the above principles.

She HATED not playing in the nursery with the other children and resented having to sit in the service. My wife, Elaine, was pregnant with Matthew at the time, and Jonnie was just 18 months older than Liz. And when Daddy was in the pulpit preaching, he couldn’t help Mummy in the pew. Elizabeth therefore started developing some very bad habits. She discovered quickly that nature’s call was a sure-fire way to get out of ten or fifteen minutes of the sermon. She also liked to talk during the service, “Mummy, I just want to tell you one thing…” loud enough that I could hear it from the podium.

Well, by God’s grace, I was in transition for a bit, leaving the pastorate for six months while taking some graduate courses.

This meant I could sit with my family in the congregation and help Elaine with the kids while we attended various churches. And just like any other father, I HATED to discipline my children, especially Elizabeth. She was SO cute, SO charming, and yet SO ANNOYING.

She sat on Mummy’s lap, then went to Daddy’s and then insisted she have a seat of her own. Even though we took her to the bathroom immediately before the service, she still insisted she had to go again during the sermon. She rattled papers, dropped hymnbooks, and generally made a nuisance of herself. Meanwhile, the very principles we are discussing here were brand new concepts for us. Nobody had told us what to do EXCEPT stick the kids in the nursery where they wouldn’t bother anybody; the LAST think I wanted to do.

So, we started by telling Elizabeth that Sunday was the day to worship God and that meant being quiet and respectful. No talking, no potty breaks, no squirming. I then began holding her during our family worship, and she was not allowed to get down for ANY reason whatsoever. She would get a spanking if she tried to do so. Yes, there were a few difficult nights when it was a contest of wills. And though I dare say my lovely daughter Elizabeth (now taller than her mother) just MIGHT have a stronger will than her Daddy, I do have a stronger hand and applied it judiciously. But Sabbath worship was still a bit of a trial.

I still remember the Sunday when we went to church and Elizabeth tested all that we had taught her. She would not sit still, and she would not remain quiet. I remember having to pick her up, take her to the car outside and canalize her cerebral cortex by way of her gluteus maximus through the vigorous application of negative reinforcement. She cried, and I cried and I held her until the tears dried. Then I marched her right back into the sanctuary where she sat out the rest of the service respectfully and quietly. And we have never had a problem with her since. She was and is a bright, intelligent child and once she realized that disrespect for God in the worship service brought her NOTHING but pain, immediate, distressful and without relenting, then had to go RIGHT back to the very thing she found so boring and difficult, she wised up.

Now I KNOW some people who are reading this are going to say, “Sure the big brute spanked a three-year-old and won, but won’t that just make the kids grow up to hate church?” Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost every area of life requires us to learn self-control and self-discipline. Initially, EVERYTHING is hard, but we have to do some things anyway. Children have to learn to go to bed at a reasonable time, and get up at a reasonable time. They have to learn how to eat vegetables and meat when they would rather eat ice cream and cookies. In other words, we have to learn HOW to enjoy some things that go against our “nature.” Worship is not very different because we have to restrain our corrupt nature and grow in grace. Even the Apostle Peter had to encourage Christians,

“Like new-born babes, crave the pure milk of the word …” (1 Peter 2:2). Why would Peter have to COMMAND Christians to “crave” for something if it came “naturally”? But even adult Christians need to learn how to hunger for the things of God.

Because my children were taught from a young age how to sit quietly respectfully, they consider that to be the norm. They have learned self-control. They sing loudly and with enthusiasm. They listen intently to the sermons and as far as their own maturity and understanding allow, they follow the message, remember important points, and ALL of them can give a concise summary of the Scriptures used during Sabbath worship as well as the application. Occasionally, when we can find one that is appropriate, I take the kids to see a film at the local theater. Since these are usually “kids” movies, the auditorium is full of children about my children’s age. Again and again, my children will turn to me and ask, “Dad, why are these children so loud and obnoxious? Didn’t their parents love them enough to teach them how to act in a public place?”

Some Do’s and Don’ts

First, sit near the back of the sanctuary and near the end of the aisle.

This makes it a lot easier to discipline, if necessary, than having to lug a screaming child down from the front of the church while everyone is watching you (and if your kids are now all safely grown up and out of the nest, please leave the back rows empty for families).

Have a “quiet” room available. Do not take your child to the nursery (if your church has one) because it is a lot more interesting in there with all the other children and toys than it is in the sanctuary.

You want to be careful that you do not teach your child that if they scream and make enough of a nuisance of themselves that the reward is going someplace nice where they can play. Instead, take them to a quiet place, sit them on your lap, and discipline them if necessary (if a child is just being “noisy” rather than disruptive, a spanking may not always be in order). The child will soon learn that the “quiet” place is even MORE boring than the pastor’s interminable sermon!

If you have to take a child OUT of the service, the alternative should always be worse than staying in. Even very young children learn this quite quickly. At Faith, we have a room just down the hall from the sanctuary where parents can take fussy little ones. It has a direct feed from the pastor’s mike so that the parent can continue to listen to the sermon. The room is private, quiet, and not nearly so interesting as the main hall. And ladies, if you have a quiet room available, PLEASE do not disturb other mothers in there trying to teach their children how to worship. Don’t talk and visit during the service. Keep the “quiet” room QUIET!

Thirdly, be respectful of others. If your child is causing a distraction, PLEASE deal with him quickly. The rest of the congregation does have a right to worship in peace. And while, hopefully, they will be understanding of your need to train your child, they will be even MORE understanding if they see you take prompt action. Never let your children play with bulletins, hymnbooks, or make any distracting noises.

Do NOT bring toys into the sanctuary. This is NOT playtime, it is worship time and the first thing they need to learn is how to be quiet (i.e. “Be STILL and know that I am God…”). Allow them to draw on a pad or piece of paper (but please, NO tearing pages out of notebooks) ONLY if the picture has SOME relevance to what they are hearing.

Make it a rule that once in the sanctuary, NO TALKING under ANY circumstances (illness excepted). If a child is about to throw up, then obviously, he needs to leave. They must learn that the church service is about worshiping God and that means silence, reverence, and an open heart. You cannot listen if you are talking.

Also, make sure that all the little ones have a potty break BEFORE the service begins. Recently friends of ours were attending a new church. Wanting to make a good impression, they sat up front with their six children all bright and sparkling. Mom had to leave to take the baby out (to a “quiet place which left Dad with their other five). Right during the middle of the Pastoral Prayer the five-year-old shouts out (in obvious distress), “I’ve got to go POTTY, now!” Dad was embarrassed of course and thinking, “Why didn’t he go BEFORE we left home.” But the problem could have been avoided by a mandatory visit to the rest room BEFORE the service began.

Do encourage the pastor to arrange the worship service so that the children can participate. That means hymns and songs they can sing, things they can recite (such as the Lord’s Prayer, Confessions and Creeds and Responsive Readings). The more “entertainment-oriented” the worship service, the more likely that children will become bored and disinterested. It helps if you can practice hymns during the week.

Finally, give the children incentives to listen to the service. In our house, we make it a game, especially on the way home from church, for the children to find three things they can remember about the sermon. For the little ones, it can be stories or anecdotes. For the older ones, it can be more profound concepts and ideas. But we ty to make it FUN to talk about God’s Word, and make a contest out of it. As a result, the kids often try to outdo each other in remembering arcane points of theology.

And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
Ephesians 6:4

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