Guidelines for parents with young children in the parish. Reprinted from a 1999 CrossRoads, written by Kh. Frederica.
Father Gregory and the Sisterhood, as well as individual parishioners and parents, have been chatting about what standards of behavior we want children to meet in church. In one way it’s harder having no pews; to a child, that expanse of carpet looks a lot like the space in front of the TV at home.
But this is a sacred place, a place at which we are constantly told to “Attend!”, and these are skills children need to learn. Every child is moving toward being able to stand throughout the service, behaving reverently and attentively. Let’s do our best to discourage any behavior that leads in another direction.
Father and I brainstormed some suggestions the other night to be used as guidelines according to your child’s age and capabilities:
1. Stand on the carpet, sit in a chair or sit quietly (perhaps at an adult’s feet) on the carpet. Do not lie on the carpet at any time (except for babies). Sleepy children can be held in the arms of a parent until they fall asleep. When they are asleep, they can be placed on the floor (preferably facing the altar).
2. Toes toward the altar. Teach the child to keep his or her toes pointed toward the altar at all times. Always face the altar, never turn your back on it (even when facing the procession during the Great Entrance, turn back counterclockwise rather than turn directly toward the back.) No large muscle motions — a child standing and facing the altar should not be waving arms, swiveling, etc.
3. Stay in one place. A child should “stake out” an area and stick to it, and not move around the church. Exception: there is an age during which wiggly babies demand to be put on the floor, and once there take off crawling rapidly. You pick them up and the cycle immediately begins again. This phase doesn’t last too long, so we should be patient with these little explorers. If a baby crawls by you, pick him up, maybe even hold him and help him focus on the service before returning him to his parents.
4. Help other out. In general, adults not caring for their own children should help our swamped young parents watch over their kids. In many cases, these parents are outnumbered by their kids! If you feel drawn to a particular child, ask her parents if you can help them mind her during church.
5. Noise, noise, noise. Each parent needs to determine at what point their child has become too noisy. Occasional noise is fine, but continual noise can be very distracting. Some parents have found that taking the child out for making noise results in more noise because the child wants a change of scenery, or wants to play with toys. Some children also view this time alone with Mom as a victory. If any of these scenarios become a problem, the child could be taken out by Dad or an adult “helper.”
6. Refrain from playing and talking. Children should not play with each other or talk to each other. Adults bending down to explain the service to children is fine, and may help them not be bored. The bookstore has a couple of good child- level guides to the church and the liturgy. Aim to convey to your children that church is a place you want to be because you find love and joy there, and you want them to share in these good things.
7. No food in church, though bottles and sippy-cups are OK when necessary for babies and toddlers. At some point children need to begin fasting before communion, like adults do.
8. Toys should be kept to an absolute minimum — a necessary favorite teddy bear is one thing, dressing up Barbies is another. If toys are brought into the service, they should be selected for their “quiet” qualities — i.e they don’t make noise when dropped and they don’t encourage the child to supply noises for them. Especially beware of provoking resentment in children whose parents don’t allow them to play in church, or undermining their discipline. “So and so does it, why can’t I?”
9. Think of those around you. Remember that behavior that doesn’t seem distracting to you could be distracting to the people behind you — particularly the choir, which has a birds-eye view of everything anyone does.
The key to success in all this is practice at home. Have an evening prayer time at your icon corner where children learn to stand and be quiet and reverent. Explain that your home icon corner is like a “branch” from the main altar at church, and that that altar deserves even more respect. There are relics embedded in the wooden cross under our altar, and it has been consecrated by our Bishop, who told us that an angel stands there constantly in worship. Adults, as well as children, need to treat the church and especially the altar area with great respect.
Children will object to these expectations, but they learn to do many things they don’t want to because parents insist on them: brushing teeth, having a regular bedtime, not eating cookies before dinner. When parents have a firm reverence for the church and insist on these standards, children will meet them.