As a mother of seven, I was in the trenches of sacrament meeting for years, eons it seemed. I know my oldest son would win the prize for the loudest disruption of sacrament meeting of all times. It was the Sunday he got his head stuck in the rails under a folding metal chair in the days before we had a chapel and screamed at the top of his lungs for forever. A brother down the aisle pulled at my son’s legs, thinking he was helping but instead he was practically pulling my son’s head off. Not my best moment in sacrament meeting.
But through the years I learned a few things and have observed many more about how parents teach, or don’t, their children to behave reverently in sacrament meeting and other church settings. Recently I became certified as a parenting coach with the John Rosemond Leadership Parenting Institute, which taught me a few more methods of moving children along the path of discipline and obedience.
Before your child is two to two-and-a-half years old, you just do the best you can and granted it’s a struggle we all go through. (That too shall pass.) That is the time you set good practices, examples, and consequences, so that by the time the child is three and certainly by four, he/she should be able to sit quietly and reverently through a sacrament meeting.
So if you are struggling with your children’s behavior during sacrament meeting, gird up your loins, fresh courage take, and try a few of these suggestions:
- Set clear expectations. Before your children step a foot inside the chapel, they should know clearly what is expected of them. In age-appropriate language, they should know that this is a place where they are quiet and do not speak unless absolutely necessary and then only in whispers. They sit still on the pews or chairs and fold their arms during the prayers. There should be no question in their minds what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in church. Perhaps that means that as parents you need to decide beforehand what is acceptable and unacceptable to you: Do they play on the floor? Do they put their feet on the pew in front of them? Do they take their shoes off? Do they eat snacks before the sacrament is passed, after, or not at all? Do they take a whole toy box with them or have a few special Sunday toys?
Remember also to speak with authority and clarity. Don’t make requests, deals, or in any way hint the child has a choice in the matter. Instead of “Do you think you can sit quietly and then when we get home we can have a special treat? That’s what Mommy/Daddy want you to do, okay?” try “We’re going to go into sacrament meeting and be quiet and reverent because that’s how we are in church. You can color and look at your books after the sacrament is passed, but you have to be quiet and still.”
- Visit the bathroom and water fountain before going into the chapel. (And doesn’t one lead to the other, I’ve always wondered . . . ) Admit it, most children over the age of three or four can go 70 minutes without a trip to the bathroom. But those same children who have to be forced to visit the bathroom before leaving in the car for the store or taking a break from playing suddenly on Sundays develop bladders that have shrunk to the size of tablespoons. If they must, however, go out, make sure they leave with arms folded, take care of business quickly and quietly, and return to the chapel. A watchful (scowling) adult escort helps. Cutting down on the sippie cups full of juice and water on Sundays might help this problem too.
- Make your pre-church time as peaceful and organized as possible. Saturday is still a special day to get ready for Sunday. Get clothes ready. Pack diaper bags. Prepare talks and lessons. Set alarm clocks and get up early enough to get out the door on time. What kind of message about reverence and holiness does it send a child to be consistently dragging into church late? If your Sunday mornings send you out the door in a bad mood before you even get to church, figure out what the problem is and correct it. Yes, it can be that simple.
- Practice during the week. This can be especially useful for children who are taking longer than usual to learn sacrament meeting reverence. If that is the case, line up chairs during the week and practice sitting quietly for a period of time while listening to a talk or story, practice holding a hymnbook and humming along, practice how to fold their arms and bow their heads, and practice how to pass a sacrament tray (a small plate) or the cup tray (a small cup of water). Depending upon the age of the children and the level of irreverence that is usual for the child/children, these practice sessions can either be more of a learning experience or a discipline tool. Your goal is to make a lasting impression, either of a teaching moment or of a weekday session they don’t want to repeat! If you really need to make a permanent memory, changing into Sunday clothes before one of these practice sessions could probably get most any defiant 7-year-old boy to rethink his Sunday behavior!
- Don’t forget Family Home Evenings. These times together can be excellent tools for teaching and reinforcing sacrament meeting behavior and expectations. And the good thing about them is that they occur every week, so the subject can be reviewed as long and as many times as it is needed.
- Make hallways the miserable place to be. If the chapel is the place of quiet and being still and the hallway and foyer is the place of running and laughing and playing with friends, which child is naturally going to choose the chapel? The hallway cannot become the Disneyland of church. Flummox the wiggly child’s plan by insisting he/she sit just as reverently on the couch as on the chapel pew or, worse than that, be held tightly in a serious-looking parent’s arms. Return as soon as the child has quieted down and try again.
- Be courteous. Always be conscious of whose sacrament meeting meditation and reverence your child is affecting. Take your noisy or crying child out as soon as it becomes apparent to others sitting close to you, discipline the child, and return as soon as possible. During especially difficult periods in a child’s (or parent’s!) life, consider sitting in the back where it is easy to get in or out. If your ward is like the ward was when I was raising my children, there is one older lady who lets you know it’s time to go by turning around and staring at the offending child. Trust her judgment!
- Model good behavior in church. If you respond to a child who is talking in church or are displaying irreverent behavior yourself (not singing, finishing up lesson preparations, whispering, passing notes), then you are not being an example of the behavior you want your child to choose. Enough said.
- Apply discipline when needed. To nip bad church behavior in the bud, as Barney Fife advised in an old Andy Griffith show, don’t forget to follow up when you get home. How many Sundays would it take for your children to understand how serious you are about their church behavior if, when lunch or dinner was over, you said, “Now take your dishes to the sink and go upstairs to your bedroom for the rest of the day, except for meals or if we do something as a family. And you can go to bed an hour early every night this week.”
That child might say, “Why? What have I done?” And you could answer, “You need to remember to be good in church. This will help you remember.” He/she might then say, “That’s not fair.” And, as my friend and child behavior expert John Rosemond suggests saying, you could answer, “I would feel the same way if I were you. Now go to your room.” Then walk away.
The problem of misbehaving in church now belongs to the child and you have left a lasting impression that the child may be reminded of before church the next Sunday. Oh, and make sure that the room is not so full of electronics and toys that spending an afternoon there is really a reward.
- Never give up. You have a vision of your child and how you want him/her to behave in church: a priest kneeling to bless the sacrament, a beautiful young woman giving a testimony, parents themselves bringing their first baby to be blessed, a missionary returning home to report. Keep that vision in mind and always work towards that. Teaching children to be reverent in church is like anything else in life—hard! But keep plugging away, don’t give up, hold to the iron rod, be lovingly firm, and one day that dream can be yours.
A friend of mine recently had two of her grown sons visit with, between them, their 11 children. With one exception when the three-year-old daughter wandered into the aisle and was quickly and firmly led back into the fold, the 11 children sat reverently and quietly and not a single one of them left during the entire meeting. It is possible.
Susan Elzey also writes a humor column in the Danville (Va.) Register & Bee newspaper. To read her columns, go to www.godanriver.com, scroll to the bottom of the homepage, and do a site search for “Elzey 7XMOM.”