Byz-y Mama: Small Children in Church

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It should be a movie:

Small Children in Church, an American Horror Story

By Weird_Tales_volume_36_number_01.djvu: Weird Tales, Inc.derivative work: AdamBMorgan (Weird_Tales_volume_36_number_01.djvu) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, maybe it’s not really that bad, but all of us with wee ones know there are certainly days when it feels this way.

I only have a one-year-old daughter to contend with, but she has presented me with enough moments of desperation to mother some serious invention when we go to church. I thought it might be fun to share some of my good not totally stupid ideas for well-behaved, happy children–and thus happy parents–here and for you to share yours as well.

Please know that I have no illusions about the fact that my parenting style will not work for everyone. That’s why your ideas are important to contribute in the comment section. While my ideas might end up being merely amusing for some parents out there (“Oh, that’s really cute that she thinks I haven’t tried that yet”), your idea could be the solution some desperate parent out there needs.

So without further ado…

6 Ideas to Keep Parents and Little Ones Happy in Church (or at least this is what works for me):

  1. Bring “toys” that are less likely to take your mind off of Liturgy.

    I am probably one of the most distractible people in the world, so even my daughter’s church toys are now required to remain in theme. Hopefully, it’s also helping her to better understand the idea of “church” and to take part in liturgies in her own, playful way.

    One of the more successful tactics I’ve tried has been ordering several laminated “icon cards” from Skete.com for my daughter. (Just select the icon you want, and then select a small-sized, laminated print). Usually there is some point during church where we discuss very quietly what and who is in the icon on a level that is easy for my daughter to understand. For example, in our Theotokos icon card, Mary is cheek-to-cheek with baby Jesus. I point that out to my daughter and then snuggle our cheeks together the same way. It’s a nice way to make that specific icon come to life for both of us.

    My daughter also has some plush nativity scene dolls that she brings, and I have some friends who got together with several other moms to make a set of peg doll saints. These are a great alternative/addition to the icon cards to help keep kiddo and parent in “church mode”.

    **On a side note, I don’t think there’s any inherent problem with bringing non-churchy toys to Divine Liturgy. It’s just a personal preference in that they distract an already very distractible me. If an a-religious toy is what keeps your kid quiet and happy at church and what keeps you happy at church, by all means, that is a beautiful thing.

  2. Take care of their basic kiddo comforts.

    This one is probably obvious to many parents out there, but there are those of us who forget. I find that my daughter and most other kiddos need three things: a clean bottom, a full belly, and personal space.

    We make the clean bottom thing a lot easier by bringing some diapers to keep in the church bathroom. Due to our church’s large volume of small children, they’ve installed quite the deluxe changing station, completely with a couple of shelves of diapers (where I keep my pack of size 3’s for sharing with everyone) and wipes, so that everyone’s butt is literally and figuratively covered. I highly recommend this in churches where it would be a reasonable addition.

    A full belly is pretty simple to ensure for breastfeeding kiddos, but squeezy packs and other snacks also help, especially for the non-nursers or acrobatic nursers out there. I try to keep extra snacks in the backpack for days when I forget about food.

    Personal space is usually the difficult one, especially when you’re in a crowded and/or small church. I think the key is being willing to move around a bit (which I find is generally easier in a Byzantine setting anyway). If I notice my daughter getting antsy in the space I’ve carved out for her, I’ll bring her to the back of the church for a few minutes so that she can still hear and experience liturgy while she gets out her wiggles. This might be unnerving for certain church-goers, but as a member of a congregation with kiddos going back and forth (tactfully) all the time, I can testify to the fact that we all get used to it after a while.

    Side note/soap box: As a dance teacher, I notice, perhaps more acutely, how a child’s need to move can be easily forgotten. Sometimes a fussy kid just needs space to wiggle. Of course, kids also need to learn how to be still in church. It’s a balance game, but don’t forget that it’s totally natural and good for kids to move around.

  3. Pray together outside of Sunday Divine Liturgy.

    If you can, it’s really helpful to do this both at home and at church. I noticed my daughter started seeming a lot more engaged in the Sunday Divine Liturgy after we made a point of attending at least one other Liturgy at church during the week. We usually choose Vespers because it’s less crowded and doesn’t run into bedtime. With a smaller crowd, there’s a lot more freedom to choose seats where your kiddo will be happiest. For us, this is generally closer to the front. There’s also a lot more room to move around within the church to look at the icons and to take care of those wiggles.

    At home, we have an icon corner where we pray the Trisagion prayers each night together. The icons are an important factor in this because they help set up that “church theme,” and they make going to the actual church more familiar for my daughter. (Icons are important for a lot of other reasons, but that’s a discussion for another day!)

    Not only does praying at home and at church during the week help accustom my daughter to the ideas of church and prayer, it’s probably good for my husband and me as well.

  4. Prepare yourself for Divine Liturgy the night before.

    Have you gotten to the end of the Gospel and thought, “What was that about? I don’t remember. I was too busy trying to keep my kid from climbing over the edge of the choir loft.” (True story. Also note, sometimes the church-y toys are not enough to keep the toddler entertained).

    I find that I need to read the readings, the troparia, and the kontakia for the Divine Liturgy the night before so that when I am inevitably distracted, it’s a lot easier to re-focus. This makes for a happier mommy which we all know makes for a happier everyone.

    You can find the readings for each Sunday on Byzcath.org, and you can find the troparia and kontakia (Ruthenian version) in the Metropolitan Cantor Institute’s Liturgical Calendar section. Just click on the day you need, and it’s all there in a happy PDF. (Would anyone like to put the information for the troparia and kontakia for the other Byzantine churches in the comment box? I would love you forever.)

  5. Discipline your child with the most peace possible.

    Nothing takes a person out of the spirit of Liturgy like having to yell at someone, especially her own child. At the same time, an insane, little brat isn’t really conducive to prayer either.

    While I am far from being a discipline expert, I have thoroughly enjoyed the peace (not to mention the effectiveness) that Love and Logic parenting has brought to our disciplinary process as a family. I bought Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood a few months ago when I realized that I had little to no clue how to discipline a child, especially a small one. This book has helped me come up with amazing and simple disciplinary tactics for my daughter when she misbehaves at church, tactics that are effective, appropriate for her young age and don’t ruin my mood.

    If you have the whole disciplining-small-children thing figured out, I tip my hat to you. If not, Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood might be a good read.

    Be warned, some of their tactics for handling tantrums may make you laugh and actually look forward to the next time your kid throws a fit so you can try them out.

  6. Have approximately one flip to give about what other people are thinking and no more.

    It’s important to be aware of how your family’s conduct is affecting other people at church. I’m not a huge fan of the whole “parents get a free pass to do anything they want, and you should accept my child no matter what” mentality.

    At the same time, let’s accept, like Pope Francis, the fact that kids are a little noisy and wiggly and that they still deserve a place in church like anyone else. We’re not doing our children any favors by excluding them from liturgies until they can behave perfectly and silently, and it’s a little rude to assume our need for a noiseless environment trumps their need for the Lord.

    In the words of another clergyman, Orthodox priest Father Stephen Freeman, “Noisy children should be no more distracting that the blue of the sky – for both are entirely normal and natural. It is my dark internal musings, fears, anxieties and never-ending obsessions that distract.”

    Parents, I say that last quote for us as well as for the non-parents. If we are continually anxious over what other people think about our kids at church, we’re already falling into a distraction worse than noisy, wiggly children.

    So be considerate about the people around you, but consider your child’s need and your need for the Liturgy as well.

Now remember how earlier I asked for your ideas on well-behaved children in church? Here’s your chance. Ready, go!

Copyright Brittany Balke, 2015

Image by Weird_Tales_volume_36_number_01.djvu: Weird Tales, Inc.derivative work: AdamBMorgan (Weird_Tales_volume_36_number_01.djvu) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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