Parenting in the Pews

I love seeing little kids at church. As a mother of not-quite-so-little ones, the smiles, the giggles, the sights and sounds of children fills my heart with joy. But parenting in the pews can be anything but joyful at times. Nothing tests the limits of parents’ patience quite like Sundays. From getting everyone dressed and fed and out the door on time to handling disruptions during worship and off-schedule naps and meals, Sunday is a uniquely challenging day for most of us. With all the busyness and struggle, it can be easy to forget why we bring our children to church with us.

For those of us who are Presbyterians, we believe our children are part of the covenant community. We promise to raise them in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). But how do we do that practically? How do we parent in the pews?

There tends to be two extremes when it comes to discussing what to do about children in church. On one hand, there are churches that believe children don’t belong in the worship service. On the other, there are churches that believe children should never be separated from their parents for any reason (no nursery, Sunday School classes, or youth groups).

Most of us, however, fall in the middle. Our churches have nurseries for the littlest ones and age appropriate Sunday School classes, and our children are welcome in the worship service. So we have the challenge of helping them learn to worship.

There is lots of advice out there on how to get your kids to stay still/quiet/attentive in church. Some of it is helpful, some less so. It’s important to start by considering what our goals are. What are we trying to achieve?

As a parent, my number one goal for my children is that they grow up to love the Lord and be adults I’d enjoy being around. As far as church goes, I want my children to love the church and love worship. With that in mind, let’s consider some of the common concerns for parenting in the pews.

“Church is boring”

Without question, this is considered by many to be the biggest challenge for parents. How do we address the nature of church worship and our children’s response to it? There are a variety of possible answers.

Some try to make church entertaining and engaging even if it waters down the message. As we mentioned, some churches keep the children entertained in separate programs so that adults can worship without distractions. Going back to our goals and our commitments to raise our children within the covenant community, neither of these options really satisfy.

Some advice accepts the premise that church is “boring” and tells us it’s good for children to be bored on occasion. This approach has always bothered me. Yes, church isn’t “entertaining” in the same way a movie or basketball game would be. But worship isn’t boring once we understand what’s going on. Sunday worship isn’t “all fun and games, ” but it also isn’t “vegetables” or “liver and onions” that our children will eat “if they know what’s good for them!”

Along these lines are instructions on how to teach your children to sit still starting at a young age so that they can sit without fidgeting whenever you tell them to. While I agree that we do have to teach our children how to sit in church (or restaurants, doctor’s offices, school, whatever), the emphasis on outward obedience misses the point in the long run.

God calls us to worship and to rest in Him (Matthew 11:28-30) because He loves us. We go to church and worship because we love the Lord. Our obedience should never be done with a cold heart or from a sense of obligation alone. That’s not what God wants from us, and that’s not what we should want from our children.

Learning to Love Worship

Like all good things in life, we have to learn to love worship. It’s an acquired taste. And teaching our children to worship from the heart starts by example. Our attitudes about church and worship will tell our children more than anything we say to them. When we make going to church a priority for our family, they’ll notice. When we sing joyfully, they’ll hear. When we pray fervently, they’ll see. When we’re attentive, they will be too.

As we do these things, we can bring our children alongside us so that they will learn (Deuteronomy 6:7). Some of the practical ways we can do this is by encouraging them to participate in worship. We have to have age appropriate expectations though. As the saying goes, “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.”

When children are old enough, they can sit and stand when the congregation sits and stands. We can explain to them the various parts of the service so they understand what’s going on around them. Children can look on with the hymnal and learn to sing along. As they learn to read, they can follow along with the Scripture readings and participate with the responsive readings. And they can learn to listen to the sermon.

When my children were smaller, they carried little bags with colored pencils and small notebooks to church. During the sermon, they were allowed to color. It’s hard to sit completely still, and having something quiet to do with their hands helped them listen to what was being said. As my boys have gotten older, we’ve encouraged them to take notes during the sermon.

After church, we ask them what they remember from the service. Do they have any questions? What did they learn? What did the pastor preach about? These questions help us understand what they’re learning and reinforce that they are part of the worship service.

Discipline in the Pews

Disciplining our children during worship includes everything from gentle reminders to be still or quiet, giving “the look” or the “death whisper” (as we called it growing up), and carrying them out of the service when they have meltdown. No matter how sweet and precious our little ones are they will at one time or another throw a royal hissy fit in church. When that happens, we need to show them grace and protect their dignity as we discipline them.

What we should be careful not to do is discipline them for the benefit of those around us. It’s tempting to do. We’re embarrassed by their behavior. We don’t want other parents thinking we’re bad parents, etc., but maintaining our reputation shouldn’t be our focus. The goal is training and correcting our children, although we do want to be kind to those around us by limiting the distractions.

Going back to age appropriate expectations, there’s a difference between normal noises/wiggles and misbehavior. Babies coo and giggle. They wiggle and squirm. Older toddlers smile and wave and fidget. Children will want to ask questions or move to see what’s going on. As they get older, we can gently redirect their attention and encourage them to listen while not having unrealistic expectations.

Each child is different and will need encouragement and discipline suited to them. My oldest son was active and loud. I would have gladly kept him in church with us from the time he was newborn, but he needed space to move and be loud. Nursery was a blessing for him. My middle son hated nursery and was content and quiet as long as he sat with us. My youngest hated nursery and was active and loud. I listened to many sermons from the church’s cry room.

Encourage Each Other

Whether you’re a parent of little ones, your children are grown, or you don’t have children, you can still play an important role in parenting in the pews. No, the role isn’t giving disruptive children (or their parents) dirty looks. The role we can all fulfill is encouraging one another.

Parenting in the pews is hard work, and it’s easy to be discouraged. A smile and a kind word can go a long way. Serving in nursery or offering to walk a colicky baby are a couple of other ways you can help. We can also show  our love for each other by being patient and gracious with those around us, especially if we feel distracted. We’ve all been there, either as parents or as children ourselves.

As a parent, it helps me to remember that those interruptions aren’t keeping me from what I should be doing. They are what I should be doing right now. I’m not saying we should let our children do whatever they want and run wild during church. But helping them learn to love the Lord and love worship is what we’re supposed to do.

So, this Sunday as we get ready for worship, let’s think about how we can encourage and nurture the little ones in our churches (and their parents too). And let’s rejoice that God has filled our pews with so many blessings.

And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:2-4, NASB

Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19:14, NASB

Children Are People Too

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Eph. 6:4 ESV

In the last couple of days, I’ve read two articles on kids that rubbed me the wrong way. One was an attempt at humor about “The 14 Kids You Find in Every Youth Group“. The post was supposed to be descriptions of the types of kids in church youth groups:

Ahh, youth group. That sweet collection of terrible awkwardness and overpowering body odor. If you’ve spent any length of time in church, you’ve probably attended or sent your kids to youth group. If so, you know that it’s a perfect microcosm of both the church and society. Here are the 14 kids you find in EVERY youth group

The author outlines embarrassing sketches of various youth stereotypes:

The Homeschool Kid – The homeschool kid has the social skills of a highly trained manatee, but he/she manages to overcome this deficiency with stunning amounts of enthusiasm. No, they cannot sustain a conversation or eye contact for more than 4 seconds, but they go absolutely bonkers during youth group games. Their enthusiasm is primarily due to their ecstasy over getting to interact with other humans.

The Awkward Sullen Sound Guy – No one actually knows Awkward Sullen Sound Guy’s (ASSG) real name. Despite having never missed a meeting, he has said a grand total of 6 words over 4 years. He typically speaks in a series of grunts and clicks. ASSG is best friends with ASLG (Awkward Sullen Lyrics Guy) and will grow up to be Awkward Sullen Sound Grownup Guy.

The Too Spiritual For Youth Group Girl – Too Spiritual For Youth Group Girl (TSFYG) has never actually attended youth group because her family is fundamentally opposed to the idea. She, along with her 19 brothers and sisters, attends church functions with her parents. Often time TSFYG and Homeschool Girl are one and the same. She also only listens to The Gaither Vocal Band and wears her hair down to her ankles. She will graduate college by age 16.

It brought back every bad memory from junior and senior high. I’m thankful that if my youth leaders thought this about us they kept it to themselves. If I had known that they thought this about us, it would have confirmed my deepest, most humiliating fears.

The article was cruel in its execution. It did not show love and respect for our youth, nor did it protect the dignity of the kids in our churches. It wasn’t merely an attempt to laugh at ourselves. Despite the author’s attempts to identify himself with several of the caricatures, there is no way that he or the other two men who helped write the list were laughing at themselves in the description of “The Short Shorts Girl” among others.

Most of us had a rough time in our teen years. The best of what came from those years was empathy towards others going through such an awkward time. It helps to be able to tell them that their lives will not be defined by who they are in junior high or high school. But this article showed no empathy or compassion.

The other article I read was “When Quitting Soccer is a Moral Dilemma.” When I saw the title I guessed that it was going to be a piece on how soccer games and tournaments can put stress on families and can lead to tough decisions about attending church versus playing, etc. But that’s not even close. The topic of the post is on whether or not to re-enroll the author’s six-year-old son in soccer when he doesn’t like playing it.

My six-year-old son doesn’t like soccer, and it’s raised a surprisingly complex parenting dilemma. Should we sign up for the next session anyway, encouraging him to persevere and build mettle? Or should we let him quit and find his niche elsewhere? Perhaps gymnastics might be his thing. Or chess. I surveyed other parents for advice.

The author comes to the conclusion that they should continue to put their son in soccer, even though he doesn’t like it, to build his character and teach perseverance.

This brings me back to the soccer dilemma. For now, I think we’ll re-enroll him. A novice can’t find their niche. Honed skills, with their accompanying freedom and beauty, come with hours of sweat and discipline. Niches aren’t discovered so much as carved. So we’ll sign him up again, and let him carve his groove rather than hope he’ll find it. And if he complains, maybe I’ll resort to that line from parents older and wiser than me: “Stick with it, son. It builds character.”

The reasons I dislike this article may not be as apparent. I’m not sure it’s a wise or good thing to insist that a child continue with a completely optional activity when he doesn’t like it. Children are individuals with their own likes and dislikes. Certainly, they also are sinful with their own tendencies to particular faults and besetting sins. As parents, we must learn to address the sins without attempting to make our children fit into particular molds. Having preferences isn’t sin. Demanding our way can be.

I also find it unnecessary to manufacture hard things for our children to build their character. There are so many, many things in life that they are going to have to do when they don’t want to, crucial and important things, things they need to live productive lives. They are going to have to learn basic hygiene, even when they really, really, really don’t like to brush their teeth or wash their hands. They are going to have to learn to read, write, spell, and do math, even when they hate a particular subject or struggle to master it. They are going to have to fight every day against their indwelling sin, even when it’s so tempting not to. We don’t have to turn every choice into an object lesson. Nor do we need to make childhood as joyless as adulthood can be.

Ever had a job situation you hated? Certainly, we have to learn to persevere in such things. But, did you look for another job? Probably. As an adult, are there things you don’t like to do? Do you have preferences about the foods you like or the sports you enjoy? Do you have favorite clothes you like to wear? Our children do too. I’m not suggesting that we give way to their every whim, but life is full of enough difficult things that we do not need to make life more difficult on purpose. It seems arbitrary and unkind. Let’s not deny our children the opportunities we allow ourselves.

After reading these articles and the social media discussions around them, I had some thoughts about our children and how we should treat them. First, we need to remember that our children are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). They don’t become imago dei when they turn 18 or 21. They’re born deserving of the honor and dignity of men and women created in God’s image.

Secondly, the children of believers are covenant children and should be treated as our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Corinthians 7:14). This means that we should encourage them and interact with them with mercy, grace, and forgiveness. They may grow up and leave the church, but we hope and pray they will grow in faith and love.

Third, our relationships with them, as parents and church leaders, should not be antagonistic. They are not the enemy. We are to discipline them, but out of love and for their ultimate good. We teach them to obey God’s commands and not merely our preferences. They need to know that the standard we hold them to is the same one we are held to and that it is not arbitrary or capricious.

My husband and I have two main goals as parents. We want to see our children become believers responsible for their own relationship with God and serious about their faith in Him for their salvation. We also want them to grow up to be adults we would enjoy being around. We want to have a strong relationship with them.

To achieve those goals, there are some important aspects to how we treat our children. These are what I found lacking in the two articles mentioned above. Children (or youth) need to be treated with respect and dignity. As adults, we need to protect them and not expose their faults publicly. We cannot ridicule them or leave them open to ridicule.

We do have to address sin in their lives, and that is not pleasant. But in doing so, we must not be harsh or hard to please. Their sin is ultimately against God, and we should care more that than for being embarrassed or inconvenienced by their behavior. Only He can change their hearts (or ours). We need to be more concerned about their hearts than simply their outward behavior.

We also need to be careful not to impose our preferences on our children. They may not like the same foods or sports or music we do. These things are not important in the grand scheme of things. We shouldn’t confuse their preferences which differ from ours with sin.

For example, my oldest may never like potatoes. But his dislike for them, while inexplicable to me, is not a sin. I’ve taught him how to politely refuse or kindly say “no thanks” when offered food he doesn’t like. Out of kindness for him, I don’t force him to eat potatoes, and when I fix them for the rest of us, I include other foods that he does enjoy.

Back to the two articles above. If our youth are behaving in ways that are sinful, we should address it gently because we love them. If they are behaving in ways that are just embarrassing to us or inconvenient, we should show them the mercy and grace we’ve been shown by our Heavenly Father. He holds us close even when we’re a mess. If our youth have foibles and personality quirks that seem amusing to us now that we’re older and “more mature,” we should learn to enjoy them for who they are as individuals and remember we were once as they are now.

If our children are developing character traits that are sinful, we need to correct them lovingly. If they are simply developing their own character, we should give them the space and encouragement they need to do so.

Our children are born with inherent worth and individual traits. We should remember that in raising them. It’s amazing to watch our children grow up and become the men and women God has planned for them to be. Each one is unique and has unique challenges and unique gifts. They may not fit our “mold,” but they were made to fit the place God designed them for.

One of my favorite passages in Scripture is from Matthew 18. Jesus speaks about the worth of children. He uses them as an example of the faith we should have. He welcomes them to Him. And He warns about those who would cause them to sin. It’s a beautiful passage and a good reminder to us all:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:1-6 ESV)

Parents, our children are people too. Let’s not exasperate them through our actions.

“Remember, you are not managing an inconvenience; You are raising a human being”

Remember, you are not managing an inconvenience; You are raising a human being ~ Kittie Frantz

I saw the quote above recently, and it really made me think. How often do I treat my dear sweet children as “inconveniences?” Exactly when did they go from precious blessings entrusted to me by God to small, loud, challenging things sent by God to interrupt my day? (Probably when they started to talk, but that’s really beside the point.)

I remember being pregnant the first time. I remember the excitement and joy at the thought of a baby! MY baby! A sweet, beautiful, precious living creature. I remember holding Jonathan for the very first time. They placed him on my chest, and he was crying. Tears came to my eyes, and I remember thinking, “I wish you would never have to cry again in your life.” The instinct to protect him kicked in immediately.

Granted all of parenting is not sunshine and roses. My sweet, precious babies are little sinners. Just like me. And, sinners put together means arguments and discord. My children need me to teach them to behave, and that is not fun, for anyone. I am responsible for raising them and for teaching them about obedience. I am responsible for showing them and teaching them about God’s grace and mercy. I am also responsible for my own attitude.

When I start getting irritated at my children, I’m trying to ask myself a few questions. What exactly about their behavior is getting on my nerves? Are they sinning? If so, I should get off my tush and deal with it, and not just sit here and hope it stops. (or yell until it does) Am I expecting behavior that is not age appropriate? (for example, is a 6 year-old boy going to need to run off energy, or can he sit still all day?) Am I mad at them because they want my attention, and I want to do something else? Am I showing them the same grace and mercy that God shows me every day, even though I start sinning again immediately after I ask for forgiveness?

Parenting is hard. There are lots of rewards, but the day to day life of it is often not fun at all. It’s work to take care of others and put their needs first. It’s painful to watch my child struggle with sin, especially when it mirrors my own behavior. How can I change my attitude so that I am not constantly frustrated?

For me, I am trying hard to focus on God’s grace. It’s such a beautiful thing. “For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Rom. 5:8. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Rom. 6:23. We don’t get what we deserve. We get grace. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t deal with our sin, nor does it mean that we can just forget about discipline with our children. But it does mean that my attitude towards my children should be one of grace. The discipline I show them should be out of love and not anger. I should see my children as the blessings they are, and not as “inconveniences.”

Christian Biographies for Young Readers

It’s no secret that I love books, history, and theology. So imagine my delight at the opportunity to review a book from a great new series called, Christian Biographies for Young Readers. The series, by author, Simonetta Carr, was written to teach children about the lives of Christian men and women who had an impact on church history. The website for the series explains the goal:

The series of Christian Biographies for Young Readers was born in response to a need for simple but accurate and informative books on men and women of church history, emphasizing God’s preservation of His church and doctrines rather than moral samples to follow. Masterful illustrations capture the imagination of readers, and photos help them to realize that these stories are really true.

To get a feel for the series, you can watch the trailer:

The author, Simonetta Carr, is a member of Christ United Reformed Church. She lives in San Diego with her family, although she was born in Italy. A homeschooling mother of eight and an author of newspaper and magazine articles, Mrs. Carr has translated the works of many Christian authors into Italian.

The CBFYR series includes six volumes on the lives and contributions of John Calvin, Athanasius, John Owen, Augustine, Lady Jane Gray, and Anselm. Each of the volumes is available through a number of online book retailers. All of the books include beautifully exquisite illustrations that make reading a pleasure for all ages.

The biography I’ve had the opportunity to read is Anselm of Canterbury. As a student of Medieval history, I was pleased to review Anselm’s biography. While Anselm is best known as the Bishop of Canterbury, in England, he was actually born in Aosta, a little town on the border of France and Italy in 1033. As a child, he prayed that he could become a monk and join the church. His father, however, disagreed.

Anselm traveled to France and became a student of the well-known teacher, Lanfranc. After many years, Anselm became a teacher, eventually taking over for Lanfranc. Anselm loved to learn and to write about God, and he is considered to be one of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages. Anselm’s quiet life as a scholar changed when King William II of England named him Archbishop of Canterbury.

One of Anselm’s greatest contributions to the church was his book answering the question, “Why did God have to become man?” The book, Cur Deus Homo, or Why God-Man?, explained the necessity of a sacrifice that could save people from their sins. To pay the debt of sin, the sacrifice must live a perfect life and take the punishment for the sins of others. In other words, only one who was fully God could pay the penalty. But, because it was man who sinned, the sacrifice must also be a man. And that is why, Anselm reasoned, that Jesus, who is fully God, became fully man: to save us (43).

I highly recommend the Anselm biography, as well as the whole of the CBFYR series. Our children need to know about the lives and contributions of those who have gone before us. Mrs. Carr’s series does an excellent job of presenting accurate historical accounts in a very accessible way. The series would be an excellent addition to any home library.

My ten year-old son read the book on Anselm and thoroughly enjoyed it. He was excited to hear that there were other books in the series. I look forward to reading them all with my family.

You can find out more information about the series on the website: Christian Biographies for Young Readers.