How to Get Kids to Behave in Church

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By the time my first child was born, I’d been attending a small, liberal Episcopal church in my neighborhood for eight years.  Church is very meaningful to me, so I wanted to continue going, but how would I manage with a needy little baby who would become a wiggly toddler and then a child with his own ideas? Nicholas is ten years old now and has a baby sister, Lydia, and I’m able to manage both of them pretty well while still soaking up church myself.  I’ve learned a lot along the way!

I’m saying “church” but many of these tips would apply to other religions’ worship, and many of these strategies for church behavior also apply to any situation where we need to sit still and listen, like performances and meetings.  I’ve put them approximately in the order that you can start using them, beginning with things that work from birth–so if you have an older child and you’re just now trying to get back to church, skim along until you see something that seems feasible for your child now. 

(This article is written as if I’m a single parent. I’m not–but Daniel does not practice any organized religion, so church is usually something I do on my own with the kids.  If you’re a family where both parents attend the same church, that opens up more options: You can take turns, with one of you being the POD so the other parent can focus on worship.  If it’s necessary for the child to be taken out of the service, one parent can do that while the other stays.)

Begin from the beginning.

Get yourself to church regularly while pregnant.  I know, it can be difficult if you feel sick in the morning, but do your best.  It helps you set up the habit so you’ll be more motivated after the baby is born.  It builds anticipation among your church friends so that your baby will get a loving reception (and you might get some casseroles brought to your home!) and you’ll feel some social pressure to bring the baby for folks to admire.

In the last trimester, the baby can hear sounds from the outside world, so you’re familiarizing him with the church music.  It was thrilling to see three-week-old Nicholas react to “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” with a look of startled joy that clearly meant, “Oh! It’s that song!”–one he’d last heard five days before he was born.  (I think his favorite line was, “Feed me now and evermore.”)

Don’t take your newborn to church until you feel ready to leave the house–but once you’re getting out and about, make church one of the first places you go.  Nicholas and Lydia attended church for the first time at 13 days and 8 days old, respectively.

Stick together.

Special programs for children’s worship can be really wonderful, but sometimes they’re just babysitting.  I’ve always preferred to keep my baby with me, mainly because it’s easier to nurse than to pump before church and bring a bottle–but also because I don’t want my kids to get the idea that church is just for grown-ups and that only separate childish experiences are suitable for them; I want them to feel comfortable with the full, elaborate service and with the idea of listening quietly and taking worship seriously.

For most of my childhood, my family attended a church so large that it had a class of 20+ kids for every grade level.  Thirty minutes of Sunday morning was spent in Children’s Chapel, where a few grades together attended a service whose structure was based on the adult service, shortened, with children’s stories in place of the readings and sermon.  The rest of the time, we were in our classes by grade.  We were not welcome in the hour-long adult service.  My problem with this is not that Children’s Chapel or any of the classes were poorly done, but that the age groups were so segregated.  I didn’t see any other member of my family for the two and a half hours we were at church!  The larger sanctuary where the adult service was held seemed very big and forbidden.  I want my children’s experience at church to be an experience we have together in our small family, joining with the bigger family of the church, which includes all ages.

Our current church offers church school during part of our main service.  The kids sit in the congregation for the opening hymn and prayers, come to the front for a little talk with the priest, and then go to their classrooms for 30-40 minutes, missing the readings and sermon and returning in time for the prayers that lead up to Communion.

After Nicholas weaned at two years old, I offered him the option of attending church school if he wanted to go.  No, he wanted to be with Mama!  That was fine.  When he was four or five, our friend Susan was going to play the guitar and sing with the church school kids one Sunday, so Nicholas chose to go to church school that time.  Since then he’s gone occasionally, and this school year it may have been as much as half of the Sundays.  He also sometimes likes to sit in church with his friends, instead of with Lydia and me.  It’s fine with me either way.  I feel that now he’s got a very good understanding of what we do in church and why, and he participates and behaves properly even when he’s in a group of kids.

We Do This.

Most of the words and actions in a worship service are incomprehensible to a young child.  That’s okay!  You are teaching your new little person the customs of your people.  Participate as fully as you can while meeting the needs of your child: Stand, sit, and kneel at the appropriate times–except if you need to stay seated while nursing.  Make the appropriate gestures, or even guide your child’s hands to do them–except if your hands are full holding your baby.  Sing the hymns and say the prayers–except if you don’t know the words and can’t reach the book.  (Often I’m able to turn to the next hymn in advance, with the baby propped in my lap, and then balance the hymnal on the back of the pew ahead of me so that I can see it without holding it while I’m standing and holding the baby with both hands.)

Babies are born wanting to join in community.  They want to do what the people do.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly they catch on!  Both my kids understood by eight months that when it is a singing time, you can bounce up and down yelling, “La! La! La!” but when the room is quiet, your joyful noises should be quieter.  (By “understood” I don’t mean “always kept quiet at quiet times”–Lydia still makes loud comments on the sermon!  But she now recognizes that she’s going to be noticed, and looks around for the reaction.  Based on my experience with Nicholas, it will be at least another year before she controls her noise level as well as I’d like.)

Arrive a little early.

It’s easier said than done!  But if you can get settled in your seats a few minutes before the service begins, you’ll have time to get comfortable without disturbing others.  Kids old enough to talk can whisper to you about whatever gets their attention as they’re first looking around the room, without interrupting your worship.

Allowing time between arriving at church and actually going into the service is helpful, too, in case a diaper change or bathroom visit is needed!  Just getting everybody out of their coats can take a surprising amount of time.

Nursing, bottle, or water.  No other snacks.

An infant may need to eat before the service is over–even if it’s only 30 minutes–and everyone will feel more peaceful if that infant can be fed!  Be prepared with whatever you need: If you’re shy about breastfeeding in public, bring a nursing cover or a baby blanket to drape over yourself.  If your baby is bottle-fed, make sure you have a bottle with you, ready to use.

For an older child, especially in hot weather, being able to have a drink of water can calm restlessness.  Bring a sippy cup or spill-proof water bottle.

Eating during church should not be necessary for a healthy, weaned child.  I decided against church snacks before Nicholas was born because I saw that kids who had them tended to be distracted from church by asking for, eating, and playing with food, and they often made a mess.

Plan a two-level exit strategy.

For a mild disruption–fussy sounds and movements that persist despite everything you can do while sitting still, the kind of thing that would get you up and walking around if you were at home–look for an open space at the side or back of the church, where you can bounce around a bit without blocking anyone’s view and where baby’s sounds won’t prevent people from hearing the service.  My church doesn’t have a “cry room” where families can hear the service over a speaker while their own noise is contained; if it did, I would still start every service sitting in the congregation (because We Do This) and go to the “cry room” only if necessary.

For a major disruption–really loud noise, or an older child crawling all over the place or banging hymnals or being very defiant–grab the child firmly and whisk him out the nearest exit.  If this means literally going outdoors, it might be uncomfortable for you, but that sudden change of conditions can help to calm a child.  Hold your child by the shoulders, look into his eyes, and speak calmly but firmly about the right way to behave in church.  If you feel he might not understand what he did wrong, explain it in one sentence, and after that keep your focus on what to do, not on what not to do.  Then say, “Are you ready to go back into church?”

Sometimes some additional breathing time is needed to regain peace.  If you have to wait a while, make this a boring time in which you sit quietly–don’t entertain your child, because you want her to be motivated to go back in where all the action is.

Sit near the aisle so you can get up quickly if necessary.  But leave your stuff when you get up, because you’ll be back. Don’t give up and go home before the service is over, unless someone is injured or ill or disastrously messy.  When it’s just a matter of disruptive behavior, stick to the assumption that you have come to attend church and you’re going to get right back to it as soon as you can.

One quiet toy.

By default, don’t bring anything for your child to play with during church.  We’re not there to play; we’re there to worship.  Over time, though, you may see that your child is the type who’s easily soothed by holding and manipulating an object.  In that case, you may want to tuck something into your bag to offer when your child becomes restless–don’t pull it out right away, demonstrating that you expect her to be unable to manage without it. Don’t bring a whole bag of toys.  The kid will scatter them, which can be hazardous to people who step on them, and keeping track of all the stuff will be distracting for you and your child.

Toys that are unsuitable for church: Anything with wheels (too noisy when rolled on a hard pew).  Anything that makes electronic sounds, even if you think you have them turned off.  Anything with a screen or blinking lights that will visually distract other people.  Anything with small parts that could fall off and get lost.  Explosives, live animals, sharp blades, and musical instruments.

Nicholas at about 3-8 years old sometimes asked to bring a stuffed animal to church.  He would carry it as we walked to church, talking to it and “making it talk” or having me do so, so that the animal was experiencing the morning along with us.  Upon arriving at church, I’d ask Nicholas to teach his animal how to behave; this was, of course, reinforcing proper behavior for Nicholas as well.  If I had been voicing the animal, sometimes I’d make it act up a bit while we were waiting for church to start; Nicholas was very amused by this and would quickly correct his animal’s behavior and even redirect its attention by whispering explanations of interesting objects like the baptismal font.

Set the mood on the way there.

Try to use the time between leaving home and arriving at church to direct your child’s and your own thoughts toward church–it’s good for both of you!  Talk about the meaning of the current season and what you do to observe it.  (Here’s my explanation of Palm Sunday and Easter.)  Practice singing the songs that are the same from week to week, or sing to the Lord a new song about the things you’re appreciating today.

Our church is less than a mile from home, so we often walk there.  Our neighborhood has a large Jewish population and many non-religious people.  I’m not very musical and used to be embarrassed about singing in public.  But I’ve gotten more comfortable with it over the years of singing to and with my children–and in the months when Nicholas wanted us to sing “the Holy Ghost song” (the Doxology) as we walked up the main street every Sunday morning, I found that passersby either smiled at us or ignored us; nobody was offended!

Teach them to sing along.

My earliest memory of a spiritual experience is of standing next to my father in church when I was about four years old (before we started going to that church with Children’s Chapel) and singing along as he pointed to the words and suddenly understanding what people mean when they say God is like your father: even bigger, even more loving, patiently helping you to understand and welcoming you to add your voice to a big song!

I could read when I was four.  Nicholas couldn’t.  Still, I held the hymnal where he could see it and pointed to the words, showing the expectation that he would learn to follow along.  He liked this.  It didn’t take long for him to point out to me that the notes go higher up on the lines when we sing the higher notes, and that multiple lines of text under a line of notes mean, “Sing the same tune again with different words.”  Around four years old, he started to notice when a line is repeated at the end of every verse (or a similar predictable pattern) and work hard to memorize the refrain and hear when it was time to sing it again.  By the time he actually could read the words, he was very familiar with how to read the hymnal, and he told me to quit pointing!  I’m sure this experience with group singing and with written music has been helpful in his music classes at school, and it also helps to control his church behavior by giving him a way to participate.

Drawing is okay; reading is not.

P1010667Nicholas says this is the most important tip in this article!  When he feels like drawing during church, he finds that drawing helps him listen and that he draws things that are related to what he’s hearing or to his spiritual experience.  I don’t always see that in the drawings, but often I see themes of love, crosses, and/or community.  When he’s been drawing during church, and afterward I make reference to something we heard, he usually remembers hearing it.  We never bring a whole box of crayons or markers (which could roll away and make a mess!), just one or a few writing implements and some scrap paper–or, if we didn’t bring paper, he can draw on pages of the service leaflet that I don’t need.  (Here’s a drawing he did when he was 6 or 7 that I later found in my purse and impulsively taped up on my office wall; it’s still there.)

Reading, on the other hand–by which I mean reading whatever book you’re into right now, not the Bible, prayer book, or hymnal–fills your mind with words that distract you from the words you’re hearing.  Yes, a child who’s reading is being quiet and still, not bothering others…but she might as well not be there!  It really bothers me when I see a preteen reading a vampire novel or something, not only through the sermon but through the entire service, ignoring all the prayers, not standing up for the Gospel or hymns…and then going up for Communion.  Which brings me to my next point:

Communion is for people who have prepared to receive it.

The specifics on this vary between denominations, but I think every faith that practices Communion has this basic concept: We share in the Body and Blood of Christ after a time of meditating on what that means.  In the Episcopal Church, we say a prayer confessing our sins, repenting for them, and asking for forgiveness; then the priest blesses the congregation and assures us of forgiveness; then we share the Peace (clasp hands with other people and say, “Peace be with you.”); then we hear the story of the Last Supper and say the Lord’s Prayer.  Strictly speaking, if we have skipped any part of this, we’re not supposed to receive the bread and wine.  I have bent the rules when Nicholas really had to go to the bathroom or something–but I’ve told him that repenting for our sins is the most important part: We must tell God we’re sorry and ask God to help us do better, before we take the bread and wine.  If we come back into church after a disruption and find that we missed Confession, we kneel down and whisper that prayer right away.  I’m not certain if this actually is required in Episcopal theology, but it’s important to me: I want to teach my children that they can turn back to doing right, they can tap into an amazing power that will help them, but they must be responsible for consciously choosing to do it.

In the Episcopal Church, any baptized Christian may receive Communion, regardless of age.  Because Daniel is not an Episcopalian, we agreed that our children would not be baptized as infants but if/when they made their own decision to be baptized.  Nicholas chose to be baptized just after turning three years old, primarily because he learned about Communion and wanted to participate.  Some people told me they thought he was “too young to understand,” but our priest at the time said Communion is a great mystery, and all of us are always coming to understand it better.  Jesus said not to forbid little children from coming to Him.  Just from seeing the wonder on Nick’s face after his first Communion, I feel certain that we made the right decision. A side benefit is that being entrusted with this solemn privilege inspires him to behave well.

Find ways to serve.

I was a lector and chalice-bearer before Nicholas was born, but I couldn’t do those ministries while caring for an unpredictable little baby.  I eased back into them after a few years.  Now I have a baby again.  I’m still able to serve the church by making food and setting up coffee hour, and Nicholas has been helping with that since he was a toddler!  Around that time, I began pointing out how different people do different things to make church happen, and all of them are serving God by serving others, and you can do that too.  It’s like the Mister Rogers song “There Are Many Ways to Say I Love You”.  I’ve also brought Nicholas to church clean-up events since he was very small.  When he was six, he and I began to serve together as element bearers. Now he helps set up tables and chairs for our Bible study breakfast every Sunday.  Soon he’ll be big enough to carry the cross in the procession, read the Prayers of the People, ring the bell, or any of the other roles teenagers and adults take in the service.  Being actively involved in the church means he’s not looking restlessly for something to do.

Give everyone some grace.

It can be really infuriating when your child acts up in church just as you were beginning to feel such wonderful spiritual insights!  Read about how the story of Jonah taught me to talk myself down, and read Anne’s story of crackers-and-milk Communion with a three-year-old in the park, and try to remember them when things get crazy.  Take deep breaths and look for what God is showing you this day in whatever strange context it may come your way.  See that your child is really only very small, and remember that you are even smaller to God, yet every hair of your head is known and loved.  Breathe.  God loves you even if you didn’t bow at the right time.  Even if you hissed meanly at your child and hurt her elbow when you dragged her out, you can be truly sorry and humbly repent, and you can forgive her trespasses against you.  Peace be with you!


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21 thoughts on “How to Get Kids to Behave in Church

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  4. We had so much trouble bringing the kids to church that we stopped going! Clearly we could have used these tips. I remember one service in particular where Mikko walked right up onto the stage and sat down. I was flummoxed. I couldn’t figure out whether retrieving him bodily or hissing at him from my seat was less disruptive. 😉

    These are wonderful tips, though. I’ll keep them in mind for our next attempt…

    • I once saw a mother retrieve her child from the stage and then murmur explanation: “You wanted to go closer to God? But God is not up at the front. God is always with us. We can sit here and still feel God.” It was sweet…but the child did not look entirely convinced! 🙂

  5. These are good tips for families with young children. I think they’re even useful for other quiet-type settings/events! Thanks! 🙂

  6. I’m like Lauren – we gave up when my oldest was a toddler. It was too much hassle to stay in the service, he wouldn’t go to childcare without a parent, and we didn’t want to go to church just to hang out with 2 year olds. I keep saying I’d like to try again, perhaps we’ll give it a try 🙂

  7. I have never been a regular church goer, although I have attended Unitarian Universalist services off and on in the past. I’ve gone all of twice since I had my son (3 years ago…). I was always uncomfortable with the idea of leaving him in either childcare or the church school (both because I’m extra picky about who I trust to watch him, and because of the reason you mentioned: if we’re doing this, I want him to experience it too!), but he’s got a lot of energy and was not able to sit still during either time I tried. But perhaps it’s time to give it another try. These are some great tips you’ve got here!

    • Good luck! I hope the tips work for you. I feel that it’s good advice in theory, but I may have had more success with it than other families would using the exact same strategies, because Nicholas is not a physically super-active kind of kid or the type to strike out on his own. (He’s become more independent in the last few years, but when he was little he stayed nearby no matter what we were doing.) He doesn’t have the kind of restless energy that makes some kids hop up and run around. It’s hard to tell if Lydia is also like that, since she’s only 9 months old….

  8. For those who have not attended church because of their small children – please keep going even through the hard times. When my 8yo was 3, there were about 6 months when I didn’t hear the sermon at all – I was in the hall with my naughty little punk. I asked myself every week, “What’s the point of even coming,” and the point was – she was learning to go to church and participate in our worship services. She eventually got through it but it took awhile. I have yet to meet a single family that hasn’t had this happen with at least one child.

    • That’s the spirit! It didn’t go on that long for me, but I had times with baby Nicholas when I missed some part of every service several weeks in a row–because he’d either cry loudly or need a diaper change–and when we’d get through one it was usually because he was asleep! But yes, the point is, We Do This, and we are going to keep doing this. I don’t mean that in a forceful way at all (like, “We’re going to church whether you like it or not, so sit down and shut up!”) but just that it pays off to be persistent.

  9. Whatever draws our little ones to Jesus … sitting with Mama or enjoying time with friends at Children’s Church, whatever. I never wanted church to be a drag or a discipline, rather an encounter with the Lover of their little souls …

  10. GREAT tips! My little one is still fairly content to be baby worn and just hang out during the service.. but I dread the day she gets more impatient and – dare I say it? – kid-like! haha! Great post!

    Anyhoo, I found your blog through a fellow blogger, and just thought I’d drop by and say hi! It would totally make my day if you did the same – or better yet! – keep in touch! ❤ –

  11. I love these! Me made a decision before Hudson was born that we were going to live life with him, in that we were going to continue on doing what we had done before he was born (within reason, of course), because, like you said “we do this”. That included church, church camp, other church events, family trips, etc. Sunday nights and Wednesday nights can be challenging since it’s bedtime or close to it and Hudson is extra fussy, but we do it anyway and I know it will get easier.

    My best friend is a missionary in Africa. She had to quit taking her “church bag” to church because it was a distraction for all the other kids who didn’t have toys at church (they wanted to come play with her boys’ toys during service). So her 2 year old and 3 year old no longer get toys and such at church…and they have a 4 hour service! She says it’s super hard and exhausting every week to keep them still and quiet-ish for that long. But, hearing her story makes me reevaluate our use of toys (teethers, quiet toys, and books are what we take to church), that maybe they aren’t so necessary.

    Something else that I think is so important is Bible class for the little ones! So many people I’ve observed quit staying for Bible class once they have babies because they think it’s pointless for a baby to go to class and since they don’t want to take them to an adult class, they just leave. As a teacher in the nursery class I can say it is definitely not pointless! They are little sponges and to see how much they learn about the Bible from the time they come to me as teeny babies to the time they move to the toddler class at 2 years is amazing! It also allows mom/dad/both to go participate in a Bible study without distraction.

    We would go to service and then when it was time for Sunday school it would also be time to nurse him so I’d go to the nursery class and sit and feed him and we’d listen to the songs and lesson the “older” babies were doing. Then as he got older, around 3 months, and could sit with assistance (and nursed a lot faster!) I would feed him at the beginning of class and then put him in the seat at the table. Once he got even older and no longer needed to eat during our time at church then I started leaving him in the nursery and was able to go to my own class (assuming I wasn’t teaching the nursery that quarter). And now he just loves class – pats his Bible and smiles so big at the familiar songs. I just love seeing him learn!

    • I think a well-planned class for little ones can be a great learning experience. Most of my own church school classes when I was growing up were haphazard, either just keeping the kids busy or pushing some political agenda like nuclear disarmament or organ donation–but Unitarians come from all sorts of perspectives; it’s easier to teach consistent messages when your church has an agreed-upon doctrine! At our current church, the teachers are fine people, but the curriculum seems kind of thin compared to what Nicholas is capable of understanding, so it’s okay if he goes but I don’t feel that it adds a lot.

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