Tuesday, January 09, 2007

In Praise of Quiet Children

I'm going to preface what I'm about to say by noting that I do not have children. Which may disqualify me from opining on this topic. But while I do not have children I was a child, long ago, and I think that may count for something.


These days we are very concerned about welcoming children into our church services, making them feel comfortable and affirmed. We may insert Wiggles-like "children's church" interludes into our worship services; we may let the little tykes run wild and free in the aisles. We may even develop a completely separate church experience for them elsewhere in the building, lest they become bored or inhibited in the service proper.

It was not so when I was young. When I was young we little kids, freshly bathed and dressed in their Sunday best, were expected to sit quietly with our parents in church. No chattering during worship; no whining; no playing with toys in the pew; no wandering the sanctuary. If we were bored we kept it to ourselves; if we had questions they had to wait until church was over.

Yes, I know; scarcely to be believed. And yet many of us survived this experience. And here is what I learned, during those Sundays in the church pew.

I learned all about our hymnal. I was a precocious child who could read before I went to school, and I devoured books. I loved the hymnal; I loved the odd Fraktur headings and Latin Psalm first lines in the old Lutheran Hymnal. I loved reading the liturgy and hymn lyrics. When the sermon got boring -- as it did, quite often -- I'd sit and read the hymnal. I suppose this made me seem like a very pious child, when actually if there'd been a Yellow Pages or an illustrated dictionary in the pew I would probably have read those instead. But I learned stuff, sitting there paging through the hymnal. These days I doubt that most of the adults, let alone children, in my church have even a dim awareness of the LBW contents other than whatever hymns we happen to be singing on a given Sunday.

The discipline of quietness also honed my powers of observation. Churches in the mid-Sixties were fascinating places, thanks in large part to women's fashions. This was the twilight of the mandatory ladies' hat; by this time they had shrunk to small pillboxes, or strange little hourglass-shaped objects that sat awkwardly on pincurled middle-aged heads. They'd be embellished with sequined mesh, or colorful seed beads, or paste jewels, or a jaunty feather. These hats provided me with untold hours of amusement. Handbags too. I recall when wicker handbags were all the rage -- bags that looked like fishing creels but were adorned with flowers or palm trees or seashells. Then there was the woman who brought to church a crocodile purse with an actual baby crocodile somehow worked into the leather; that was way cool, as cool as the mink stole with a glassy-eyed mink's head still on it that one of the ladies occasionally wore in the wintertime.

Men weren't quite as interesting, but I did enjoy looking at their ties. Sometimes I couldn't help but notice the condition of their collars -- if their shirts were clean or not. Occasionally I would find myself morbidly fascinated by some skin eruption or shaving nick or sunburn on the backs of their necks.

Church fauna could help a child get through a dull service. Ghostly crickets...pale spiders...the occasional wasp in summer. I never saw a bat during church, but we did have a neighborhood cat crash the worship service one Sunday, gliding nonchalantly around the perimeter of the sanctuary.

Sometimes I'd daydream during church. I'd pretend I was giving the sermon (which was rather odd at that age and time, especially since this was a Missouri Synod church where women were persona non grata on the working side of a pulpit unless it was Saturday afternoon and they were shining it up with Murphy's Oil Soap). Sometimes I'd pretend I was an architect and try to imagine a different use for the building -- a school, or a department store, or a private home. Sometimes I'd squint at the stained glass and create my own kaleidescope. Sometimes I'd imagine Jesus sitting down in a pew and checking the place out.

Is it so bad for children to sit down, and be quiet, and just watch and listen and think and imagine, in church, once in awhile?


gypsyalso said...

Yes, they can. But they have to have parents who are willing to be parents and make them.

We have some children in church who are very well behaved. And then we have some that are not.

Those that are not have parents who are up and down, down and up, run to the bathroom 3 times during the hour service (perhaps they should see a doctor regarding this problem???) and on and on. How can the children learn good etiquette in church when the parents don't know how to behave yet?

ooh, you touched on a sore spot for this Sunday school teacher!

zorra said...

I agree with you one hundred per cent--but I don't have children either.

(Side issue: I'm also struck by how similar our childhood church experiences sound, if you substitute old Southern Presbyterian (PCUS) references for the Lutheran references. I got to know and love our old hymnal (the "red book") as I sat-- and I can still see the fox stole with the little heads on it(!) in the pew in front of me and remember how emphatically I was shushed for saying, "Mama, that lady has dogs on!")

Bag Lady said...


For every one of you or me, there are many, many others like my brothers. Once confirmed, they have only darkened the church doors for weddings, funerals, baptisms.

In my previous parish, we had a wonderful program that addressed several needs simultaneously. First, how to meaningfully engage children in a way that kept them coming back. Second, how to integrate them into the profoundest part of the liturgy -- the Eucharist -- with the adults, without circuses or sideshows.

Given that all baptized persons could receive the Sacraments in my Episcopal parish, children were included in the latter part of the service, not the earlier, incredibly more boring part (to them). But at the beginning of the service, they attended the Atrium of the Good Shepherd, which utilizes Montessori principles in engaging children in worship -- and when they come in to the service at the Offertory to join their parents, they already know what they're looking for, as they've practiced in ways that make sense to them and don't annoy their elders.

Following the final hymn, they returned to the Atrium for the equivalent of Sunday School, which allowed them to process and build on everything preceding.

It really is possible to help children grow in worship without annoying either them or the adults.

Anonymous said...

A few thoughts . . .

With all respect, you grew up in the church at the height of American church attendance (the 1960's were not Godless, as many conservatives would like to tell us), when cultural expectations still valued discipline, worship, civic participation, pressed clothes that didn't hang off your ass, etc. etc.. Good ol' Ozzie and Harriet values, if you will. Your parents were likely life-long churchgoers, as were their parents and grandparents.

Today's world is different. Today's young adult/parent churchgoers likely haven't been to church in 10+ years, and don't have a significant cultural push/pull to go to worship. The average age of worshipers is likely higher (and their mood is likely crankier) then when you grew up in the church pews. It's not the kids who need the grace and guidance as much as it is the young parents who need it.

I brought my three year old to worship nearly every Sunday of her life, until her baby sister was born in July. Since then, I haven't been able to balance both girls in the pew, particularly in the traditional, no-child-noise kind of place we attend (and where my wife has been associate pastor for a year and a half). It breaks my heart that my fear of violating the pious silence of our traditional worship keeps me from bringing my girls to worship.

I, too, resent those parents who do not know how to teach their children about worship, how to keep them appropriately muted, and how to teach them the practice of worshiping God in faithful, intergenerational community. But I'd prefer a mild din of child-produced noise any day than the silence of childless worship.

If they don't worship as children, when and where will they learn?

Jody said...

Growing up, attended an ALC suburban church in MN where children were expected to be in the pews from the time they were four. The nursery was off-limits to children over that age, and the idea of a separate worship space for children was anathema to the worship leaders responsible for children's ministery. For better or worse, I was profoundly influenced by their teaching -- that worship is not segregated, that children should participate (not be separately entertained, in the pews or elsewhere), that the family of God should all worship together.

That having been said, from the time I was in second grade, I was in the choir loft with the children's choir at least once a month (by the time I was in fifth grade, I was in the choir almost every week), and there's nothing like a stern-but-loving choir director (with the power to bar you from sleep-over choir camp at the end of the year if you didn't follow all the rules) to keep people in line.

And that points to a sea-change in all church attitudes, not just regarding children, which is too extensive to get into.

All that having been said, I have three almost-six year olds who do not yet read. They do not, as I did, live in perpetual fear of their parents. They respect us, they know our family rules, but they do not have the fear of God when we look at them, because that's not how we choose to parent. And by the end of, say, an hour of songs, prayers, sermons, and eucharist, they are often wiggly, and not scared (as I was) to let some of that out.

The wiggliness is certainly not acceptable, but it presents a parenting challenge when you're not willing to whack your kid. How do I calm, quiet, and re-direct this child in a way that doesn't disrupt the prayers of the people? How do I remind my child, for the gazillionth Sunday morning in a row, not to ask that same question about what the minister is going with that loaf of bread that she asks every week? (A problem when she was three, by the way, not six.)

A wise parenting guru compared parenting to tuning a violin -- the same adjustments have to be done day in, day out. And if you believe that children need to be in the pews worshiping, that they should be guided to follow along in the LBW (a habit, by the way, that plenty of their fellow adult worshipers no longer maintain), that they should be kept quiet during the sermon -- well, you're going to be making a lot of whispered, potentially disruptive corrections during the service.

And that's before you begin to address the parents who bring their kids late, wearing cut-offs and T-shirts, and proceed to let the kids run up and down the aisle.

What do we do? Attend the early service, so our children are not already strung-out on an hour of Sunday school before they enter the sanctuary. Attend every week. Teach prayers and hymns at home. Participate in the life of the church so the kids respect those adults in strange clothes at the front of the church. Sit up front so they can see what's going on (which maximizes the potential for embarrassment when they lose it, by the way, but minimizes the chances that they will lose it).

I'm sure worship would be less disruptive if we stopped going, though. Or if we left our six-year olds to play in the nursery until communion. I personally don't find either of those alternatives acceptable, nor would I find a children's church acceptable -- nor a women's church, men's church, or any other sort of segregated Teaching of the Word intermission from group worship. (So it's good that there are lots of different congregational choices out there.)

I do understand that the question of children in the pews is a parenting problem, but it's also a worship-leader problem. The church, as I've experienced it, has lost the confidence that it can demand anything -- in behavior, in manners, in beliefs -- from anyone. Children are hardly the only disruptive people in the pews.

We don't want to erect barriers to participation -- that makes sense. But in the name of "inclusiveness" (something of a misnomer considering recent church decisions in areas where Grace-full inclusivness was on the line), the minister and the youth director relax their stanards. After all, we wouldn't want parents to stop coming.

I'm always fascinated by the way that soccer coaches and music teachers and after-school tutors don't worry about whether their rules and expectations will drive people away. They believe that people want to partake in their activities, and will accept the rules in order to do so. Not the church, not anymore.

Beth said...

Oh, boy. First of all, Lutheranchik, I like you, but I don't know what to say to all this. I have the combination of a one and half year old and a husband who shows absolutely know interest in worshipping with me, even though i occasionally worship with him. This means that baby-juggling at my church all falls on me. I do my best, but one person can't fence in a child all the time. When I can't do anymore i take him to the nursery. Our church does have a Kid Talk, but it happens before (not during) the regular sermon and children are expected to either rejoin their parents or be taken to nursery afterwards. Most services are more than I can handle. If you have any advice, I'd love to hear it.

PS about lady's fashions in church. When I was from say, eight to ten,
i usually sat on the aisle end of the pew so my parents could separate me from my brothe and him from my sister. While people were going up for Eucharist, I used to watch all the shoes to see if I could predict the age and degree of makeup on the face.

LutheranChik said...

I honestly don't mind the one-and-a-half-year-olds. It's the post-tot, elementary age kids who drive me crazy.

Someone once told me that Native American grandparents, taking care of the little kiddos, would set them out in a field or under a tree and challenge them to be as still as they could be and to observe, through all their senses, as much as they could...a task which did double duty training them for a hunting-gathering lifestyle and keeping them quiet for at least a while.;-)

Tom in Ontario said...

It bugs me when parents or grandparents don't keep some control of the kids. I don't like the hooligans who scream and generally just disturb everything. But I don't mind a bit of disruption and I don't expect a 4 year old to sit quietly for, in our case, over an hour.

I'd direct you, and you might recommend this to your pastor and worship committee, to a website that has some great stuff about kids in worship. http://www.worship.ca/children.html

My own experience growing up was of being segregated from the grown-ups on Sunday morning. Adults went to church. Children went to the nursery or to Sunday School at the same time. You often didn't see a worship service until after Confirmation.

In our church the kids begin the service with us and after the Prayer of the Day, before the scripture readings, I sit down with them on the chancel steps and have a "children's chat" that usually deals with the focus scripture of their Sunday School lesson, then they leave for the rest of the service and go to Sunday School.

Verdugo said...

This is a wonderful discussion, full of the stuff of life.

For some reason, I feel compelled to make a rather obvious observation, one you're already alluded to: for those of us parents in the trenches, hearing your criticism is really, really hard. Not saying you aren't rigt to say it, just saying it's very hard to listen to.

Remember that coming to worship is a learning process-- with the emphasis on process. That means that before children will be able to sit quietly, observe, and listen, they have to learn how to sit quietly, observe, and listen. And, like all learning processes, that will entail a long period of trial-and-error. Before they successfully sit quietly, observe and listen, they will have many, many incidents of NOT sitting quietly, observing and listening. As parents, it is our challenge to respond to those incidents-- but our response is usually by necessity kept for later, lest we turn a small disruption into a huge one.

so bear with us. We're working on it. And for those surrogate grannies and aunties who give us a sympathetic grin, or offer to help a wiggly toddler while we're juggling the infant, THANK YOU.

Verdugo said...

And if a may suggest a small digression in topic: What's the feeling on breast feeding in worship?

My personal position was, if you provide an appropriate space (i.e. private but where I can still at least hear, ideally see, and be a part of the worship service)-- fine, I'm there. But if no space is provided, I will discretely nurse in the pew. But that doesn't always sit well with some.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Jody - my sentiments exactly.

Everything we do in worship teaches. If we spend all of our time shushing and glaring at kids because they don't conform to what WE think it means to be the people of God, this only teaches kids that they are not welcome or that they are somehow unacceptable. Or it teaches them that church makes you a sour crabcake when you grow up. If we model appropriate worship behavior (including the behaviors surrounding how people of God treat each other), kids are more apt to learn what is appropriate. They'll eventually catch on.

Jesus said to let the little children come to him. He didn't say to bring them on only if they remained quiet and only if they exhibited model behavior.

The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

(I'm glad for your parents that you were always a good little girl in church when you were a kid, LC. But I'd also venture to say it's fairly easy for an only child to be good at church.)


Beth said...

I breast fed in church a lot. My theory has always been that i should be able to breastfeed anywhere I can bottle feed. Actually, anywhere anyone else can bottle feed, because part of the reason I started breastfeeding in the first place was a lack of confidence in my ability to hold a baby with one hand and the bottle with the other. Boobs are self-supporting. Anyway, verd, don't worrry asbout what anyone thinks. Next time somebody complains, point out how much noise tyhe baby would make if you didn't feed it.

Bag Lady said...


You are so dead on! I've lived through the process with my son -- happy to say that at age 21, he's still attending church (somewhat sporadically, but always engaged in the spiritual life).

A parent I knew when my son was early elementary age (and a strong developer of the Atrium I mentioned earlier) noticed that if we parents swapped children for worship, they behaved a lot better, while still being with the community. She said this because some of us had watched each others' children during the portion of worship they attended, and danged if their behavior wasn't angelic! Echoes of Hilary Clinton: it takes a village--a community--to raise a child.

In the Friends' Meeting (Quaker) I attended before my son was born, we had a mother who breast-fed her son during Meeting for Worship. It wasn't distracting, and I never knew of anyone who complained.

Verdugo said...

Hey, great suggestion, bag lady. Yes, I too have noticed kids are often much better behaved with other kid's parents.