| Oleh Zhakunets & Olga Zhakunets
Having a child sit through a worship service on Sunday mornings can provoke anxiety in the hearts of parents. Will my child be able to sit still that long? What will others think when my child is misbehaving? How do I discipline my child with all these people around me? The transition of sitting through an entire church worship service for children is difficult, but possible. The following is a list of practical suggestions to help parents prepare their children for this milestone.
Start at Home
Preparation for children adjusting to a church service starts at home. There are a variety of family activities where parents can set expectations for children to “sit through” for a prolonged period of time. These may include children sitting through dinner (including dinner conversations) until they are excused and children sitting through family devotions until they are over. In the home environment children can be redirected, disciplined, and rewarded instantaneously, which often times may not be possible in a worship service.
Setting Clear Expectations
Having a clear conversation with children prior to the worship service will help them understand exactly what is expected of them. Depending on the age of the child, this conversation should probably take place immediately before the worship service (e.g. on the car ride to church). During this conversation parents may tell children what kind of behavior is expected (e.g. no talking, no horseplay, etc.) and what kind of rewards/consequences will be given for following or not following these expectations (see below for suggestions). This may also be a good time to pray with your family for the child’s behavior and the worship service in general. Prayer will help the child understand that this is a special event for the family.
Provide Age Appropriate Tasks
The attention span of a kindergartener is generally 5 - 20 minutes, depending on what they are listening to. The attention span of younger children will be even shorter. Therefore, singing worship songs will be easier for children than listening to a 40 minute sermon. However, the attention span of most adults may not be much greater. Often times adults use various techniques to help them stay engaged (e.g. take notes). If the child is old enough to use this strategy parents may teach them how to take notes in church. However, if the child is younger and is not able to take notes there are other things parents can offer to help them stay focused (or at least pass the time while learning valuable skills for future use). These may include finding passages in the Bible, counting how many times the preacher says, “Jesus,” or sketching a drawing. Children should be discouraged from playing games or bringing toys to the worship service as these may be distracting to others around them and are not helping them cultivate a relevant skill for the future.
The skill of sitting through a worship service will take time and energy to cultivate. Initially, parents should plan ahead and arrive to church early to get seats closer to the aisles or towards the back. This way if a child needs to be removed from the worship service, you may do so quickly without bringing too much attention to yourself. Therefore, parents must be in the direct vicinity of a child when training them to sit through church services. It is unfair to expect other parents to redirect and train your child. Ideally, parents should sit their young children immediately next to them in order to model appropriate behavior and quietly redirect inappropriate behavior.
Reinforce Positive Behavior/Discipline Negative Behavior
Although certain forms of immediate reinforcement or deterrent may not be appropriate for the worship setting there are options for parents to take. During the service a glance, short note, or a gentle tap may help to remind a child of the expectations that were set. Also, a thumbs up or a pat on the shoulder may help reinforce positive behaviors. If the behavior becomes difficult to manage in a quiet setting remove the child to a private area in the church and deliver the appropriate discipline. Delayed reinforcement or discipline may also be used for older children. After the service praise the child for sitting well or remind the child of inappropriate behaviors and discipline accordingly.
Review the Service
After the service ensure that the family is talking about what happened during the worship service. This can potentially happen on the car ride home or at lunch around the table. Discuss the sermon and worship songs and ask what the child remembered from the sermon. As with prayer before the service, reviewing the service will help to reinforce that Sunday worship is a special time for the family. This can also be the time when delayed reinforcement or discipline can be applied regarding the child’s behavior during the worship service.
Parents remember, as much as you love your children and the congregation values families, Sunday worship is ultimately about Jesus, not our children. Implementing these practical steps will help in not only training your child to get the most out of church services but will also help others in attendance worship Jesus without distraction. If your child is singing in a quirky way to draw attention to themselves, remind them that this time is not about them but Jesus. If your child is squirming in their seat, remind them that this time is not about them but about Jesus. If you child is talking aloud, remind them that this time is not about them but about Jesus. The most important lesson that parents will communicate through having children sit through Sunday services is that worship and all of life is about Jesus.