So a few years ago, I finally succumbed to the gentle nagging in my heart to attend church regularly and make God a priority in my life. I’m lying. God forgive me. While that sounds really nice, it was actually a nagging in my heart to make God and religion a priority in the lives of my kids, not necessarily mine. But, as it often goes, what starts out as something to help someone else actually ends up having a profound effect on everyone involved.
I knew I wanted my boys to receive their first communion at the “regular” time (about 8-years-old or when they’re in 2nd grade), so I signed them up for the required religious education classes in order to experience this traditional rite of passage. When filling out the registration forms for the classes, there is a place for parents to sign saying they will bring their children, not just to CCE classes, but to mass each week. Having the overactive conscience that I do, I signed it knowing that I would actually have to take them each week or else my mind would eat me alive with guilt. And so our weekly church attendance began with all five of us when the kids were 6-, 4-, and 3- years-old.
It was a terrible experience at first. So each week we’d try something different to see if it would get any easier or more enjoyable. And while I can’t say the kids are ever excited to go to church or even get a whole lot out of mass at this point, they have learned proper behavior and how to be respectful of others during mass. I’m even very proud to say we get compliments from strangers on a regular basis about how well all three of our boys behave in church.
So here’s what I’ve found works to produce the most enjoyable church experience with kids: go against all of your natural instincts! (For the most part, anyway)
1. Get there early. When we first started going, we’d arrive as close to the start time as possible to avoid sitting around forever and waiting for church to start. We’d rush in, sweaty and frazzled, and barely get squeezed in our seats before the bells rang and the service began. This frantic start to church would set the tone each week for the rest of our time in the pew and it was never good. Get there 10 minutes before the service begins to find a seat and settle in. If a kid gets antsy, take him outside for a few minutes or walk him to the water fountain or bathroom for a pit stop.
2. Sit up front. Along with arriving right before the opening procession, we’d sit as far back as possible so we could duck out the doors if one of the kids was getting too rowdy. I thought this was a smart move, but it wasn’t. Being a whopping 5-foot 1-inch myself, I can’t belive it took me so long to figure this one out. The closer you sit, the better the view of the action at the altar and the less likely everyone will be to lose interest and start screaming from boredom. Sit in the first few pews, letting your child sit on the end if possible, and everyone’s perspective will change–for the better.
3. Leave the toys at home. No coloring books with crayons, no story books (even about Jesus), not even one tiny Matchbox car or cute Imaginext Batman. All this will do is cause distraction to you, your kids, and everyone around you, not to mention increase your frustration level by 10 times every time they drop something on the floor. And they will drop whatever you bring on the floor or on the old lady in the pew in front of you at least 10 times. Let them quietly thumb through the hymnal or stack them in their laps to release some fidgety energy.
4. Ditto for food. For the same reason as you should leave the toys at home, don’t bring food to church since it will only cause frustration. Of course, that is unless you have a baby who may need a bottle. If you have a toddler and goldfish are the security blanket you must absolutely take everywhere, be sure you hold the container and dole out each fish one at a time.
5. Make it fun. As fun as church can be for a young kid, that is. To kill time before the service starts, I’ll have races with my boys to see who can find the hymns or readings the quickest. We take turns calling out numbers and then flip the pages quickly–it’s a quiet little game that they love and they’re always bummed when we stop as the procession begins. If my youngest gets antsy, I take his hand in mine and start comparing the size difference or playing little finger games. I let him unlatch and latch my watch or spin the bracelets I’m wearing that day. Simple little things can be entertaining.
6. Be a good example. Some days are easier than others but really try to pay attention during the service, or at least look like you are. Pray the prayers and sing the songs. Take the time to find the readings and songs in the books provided and use your finger to follow along with your child, even if they are not yet reading. Show your kids how to find the readings and prayers in the books, even if you don’t know what you are doing. Ask the person next to you if you need to, they’ll be glad to help. You’ll be teaching your children more than how to find a reading, but that it’s okay to ask for help even if you are an adult. What you do, your kids will be more likely to do.
7. Have realistic expectations. Kids can only sit still for so long so cut them a little slack. As long as they are quiet and not causing a huge disruption, let a few things slide. My oldest has gotten very good at shadow puppets, thanks to practicing them as we all stand during the Gospel reading and my middle son loves to sit on the end of the pew and trace the cross that’s carved on the outside of it with his fingers. I know trips to the water fountain are contagious, as well as bathroom breaks, so we take care of all of this right as we enter the church before we grab our seats to avoid disruption during the service.
8. Rewards work. The kids know if they sit relatively still, are quiet, pay attention and participate as much as they can during church that they will get a doughnut afterwards. Sometimes our church will have them immediately following mass, but if they don’t and the kids have behaved respectfully we make a special trip to the doughnut shop. And it isn’t an all or nothing kind of a deal, there have been times when 2 have received a reward doughnut and the 3rd hasn’t. That has only happened once that I can recall.
9. Keep going back. Once you start, make a commitment to stick with it each week. Try different service times to see which best suits your family, but go consistently each week. Like any habit, the more you do it the more familiar it becomes and the easier it will be for everyone each time you go.
10. Bottom line: Be sure the behavior you expect out of your kids during church is age-appropriate and it will save you a lot of undue anxiety and stress. And remember, God is love so be sure you aren’t nullifying your church-going activity by having resentful thoughts, making empty threats, or saying hurtful words to your kids in response to their, sometimes frustrating, age-appropriate behavior.