NOTE: This is a shortened version of a piece I wrote when I was a parish priest in Toledo, OH.
There are different practices and viewpoints regarding the attendance of children at the Divine Liturgy. The trend has been moving more towards children being in church for all or most of the liturgy rather than half of it, as some may have been experienced when we were growing up. This idea may be hard to accept because one might believe that children can’t handle being in church for an hour and a half. Kids get antsy, bored, and restless. It is not uncommon to see parents remove kids from church because they have become too disruptive. Parents may come late to church so their children won’t have to be there as long. They often bring toys with them to church to keep them quiet. The problem with these approaches is that they do nothing to help children connect with worship and to pay attention to what is going on. I would like to address this issue and talk about some things parents can do to help their children in this area.
To begin, I believe it is in our created being to worship, regardless of age. It is in our “spiritual DNA” to give glory to the One Who made us. I often see this among children under five when I visit parishes. It is amazing to see two-year-old children approaching the icons or the crosses on the table and icon stand covers and kissing them with no prompting from their parents. We don’t need 20-minute “kid-friendly services,” nor do we need to turn the Liturgy into a Disney extravaganza to “get the kids interested.” So, what can be done to connect our kids to worship in the Orthodox Church?
The first thing that can be done is, once an infant is baptized in the Church, is to immediately begin to attend the Liturgy weekly. When we anoint an infant with Chrism at his or her Baptism, we anoint his or her eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, chest, hands and feet while saying “the Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” By anointing the senses, we call upon the Holy Spirit to empower the newly baptized to learn about the world in which we live and encounter the One Who made it. This learning process doesn’t begin at the so-called “age of reason.” It begins at birth, and it is an ongoing process. Young children take in what is around them. As we accommodate them, they learn to adapt to the world in which they live. I think there is a difference between a three-year old child who has been taken to church regularly since Baptism, and one who is brought to church only three or four times a year. The latter is more likely to have difficulty because he or she is reacting to a new environment about which they know and, consequently, do not fully trust. They are not being “bad” or misbehaving; rather, they are reacting to a strange situation, and their behavior is perfectly understandable.
Unfortunately regular attendance at services is still no guarantee that a child will embrace worship. We are reminded of the Pharisee and Publican and how the Pharisee was a great temple devotee who did all the right things but for the wrong reasons. He was prideful, arrogant, and had no love for his brother. If we are going to help young children to get in touch with their God-given desire to give Him glory, we, as adults, need to be attending Church with that same desire. Worship is to be an encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ. But when we come to church after the sermon, bring toys, and spend a lot of time in the narthex, this serves only to pacify the child while making others happy that they no longer hear the noise. These activities don’t help connect a child to worship. When I hear the “holy noise” of children in Church, it makes me very happy because it tells me the parish has a future. We should be worried when we no longer hear that noise!
Neither should we expect young children to sit quietly and act like adults because they are not adults! For a young child, waiting for one minute is like ten minutes. Most children six years old and under have short attention spans, and they do require more attention and support from their parents during the service to help them connect with what is going on. So what can a parent do as they come to church on a regular basis? Here are some suggestions.
Stand up front when you come to Church: When you position children in the front of the church, they are able to see more clearly what is going on in the service. There are plenty of age-appropriate books children of all ages can use to help them follow along in the Liturgy. Speak to your parish priest about this.
Feel free to move around in the Church: Instead of removing children from church because they are noisy, walk around with them in the nave and show them the church. This is a very good thing you can do with children between three to twelve months old. I have no problem with parents roaming the worship space and showing their children the icons on the analoys and on the church walls. Young children will drink this up and love it. This is not avoidance; this is encounter. Let them see, let them touch the icon, kiss the icon yourself, and eventually your child will kiss it. Tell them these are holy people in our Church who followed Jesus. Remind young children that, through baptism, Jesus lives in them.
Appropriate items to bring with you to Church: I have no problem with parents who bring coloring books with biblical or liturgical themes. Coloring quiets children’s souls and allows them to listen to what is happening on another level. Whatever items are brought to church, they should be relevant to worship and have a Christian theme. However, coloring or other diversions should not go on during the entire service. There are certain times during which children need to stop and focus on the service. Have them pay attention to the Little Entrance, the Scripture readings, the Sermon, the Great Entrance, the recitation of the Creed, the consecration of the Bread and Wine, and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Encourage your children to sing along with the choir’s responses to the service. Be an example and sing along with the choir as well! Remind them when they should be making the sign of the Cross during the service. As children get older, encourage them to get involved as greeters, in distributing the bulletin and passing the collection tray, or in singing with the choir. As the boys get older they may desire to serve in the altar. Finally as children do get older, the expectations for their attention to the service itself should be higher.
Is it appropriate for young children to have food? Our understanding of our preparation for the reception of Holy Communion on Sunday is that we fast from midnight on (except for health reasons). This rule applies to those who are developmentally capable of doing so. For children under a year old, I have no problem with parents having a small zip lock bag of cheerios to feed them during the course of the service and to still bring them to Communion. But as they do get older they do need to be weaned from this.
Is there a time when it is appropriate to remove a child from the service? This should always be a last resort, after all other attempts that I have suggested above don’t seem to be helping. The noise and the disruption of the child needs to be of such a magnitude that it is clearly rebellious in nature and mean spirited. Most parents will know when that point has arrived. When a child is removed, he or she needs to know that he or she is being disciplined for inappropriate behavior in church. I don’t think they need to be spanked, but neither should their time in the narthex be a time for fun and amusement. Put your child on “time out” (if he or she is developmentally able) and use the occurrence as a learning experience. Explain to your child that he or she must sit there until he or she can tell mom or dad that he or she will be good in church. You may need to define “good” by describing appropriate behavior. I would also encourage people in our church who don’t have to deal with children to be tolerant and merciful in their attitude when children become disruptive.
I would be glad to further discuss this topic with parents who have concerns in this area. I realize we are doing the best we can with what talents God has given us. So please send your comments.
The blessing of the Lord be upon you,
The unworthy +Paul