They come armed for a siege: a bag of toys between layers of diapers; coloring books and crayons; assorted plastic bags of cold cereal and crackers; bottles of water and bottles of formula; and a look of determination that might be worn by stalwart defenders in battle.
They are going to sacrament meeting. And the sometime struggle is with their little ones.
And yet for each couple who try every strategy in the book to get their children to be quiet in meeting, there is a couple whose children come in quietly, arms folded, and sit reverently throughout the meeting, with barely a whisper. Some parents of noisier broods suspect a secret weapon (dire threats? a miracle?), but the truth is that while a lot depends on the parents’ approach, quite a bit still depends on the child’s personality and disposition. And parents who are successful one week may not be as successful the next. Many changing factors have influence on a child’s behavior.
But there’s much that can be done to promote reverence in church. Ideally, children should be quiet in meetings—but that isn’t really enough. They should not only be quiet, but also be actively interested in the meeting. Of course, this is not possible with children too young to understand—if the child is not talking yet, chances are the speakers will not be able to communicate with him. But the older a child becomes, the more he understands; and a reverent attitude and real participation in sacrament meeting can come sooner than one might expect.
Infants and Toddlers. It is difficult for the littlest ones to stay quiet and motionless throughout an hour-and-a-half meeting, and few parents expect that. However, parents of children prone to random noises do have a responsibility to others in the congregation to try to keep those noises to a minimum.
With infants, this means having a bottle ready to put into a crying mouth, and sitting near an aisle so that the child can quickly be carried from the chapel. Some parents time feeding so it comes right before a meeting, encouraging the infant to sleep.
When parents give their small children toys to play with, they should be sure not to give them squeaking toys, or toys with bells. Anything that can be shaken to make a noise, will be shaken! And even if the noise doesn’t carry throughout the chapel, it will carry to the people sitting close around you, and can be very distracting. Soft plastic or foam toys are ideal, provided they don’t roll or bounce, sending the child in mad pursuit down the aisles. And wheeled toys should be avoided—when they are rolled on a bench they can drown out even the best sound system.
Even a child’s “happy noises”—cooing and chattering—can be distracting to others. And yet you can hardly rebuke a child for being cheerful! One solution is to try to teach even toddlers to talk in whispers, or avoid talking in meetings. This can even be linked to toys: “Try to be as quiet as this mouse,” the parents say to a little one who has a stuffed animal, or “Your little airplane has its muffler on, and so should you—shh.”
Little children often don’t understand the difference between quiet and noisy. This can be taught by pointing out the difference during the week. “Did you hear that truck go by? That was so noisy!” or “I can’t hear you talking because the radio is so loud! It’s noisy—let’s turn it down.” Another concept children can learn quite young is that of taking turns. “It’s Daddy’s turn to talk out loud right now, so if you need to say something, you have to whisper.” Then, in sacrament meeting, you can point out to the child that it’s the speaker’s turn to talk out loud, and everyone else must whisper—if they have to talk at all. But parents must be careful if they use this system that they themselves follow the rules: they must not interrupt their children, or they may be met with a stern, “Mommy, it’s my turn now, and you gotta whisper!”
Another idea is to have special “quiet times” during the week, so that children don’t come to think of Church meetings as the only time when they must be still. For instance, a child can be taught that family prayer is a quiet time, or the lesson in family home evening, or the early morning scripture reading. And you could take him to other places where quiet is appropriate, like libraries, hospitals, and plays.
When the child is quiet on his own accord, you might point out to him, “Right now you’re being quiet. That’s how we should be when we go to church tomorrow.” That way he begins to think of quiet as something that comes from inside him, not as something imposed on him from outside.
Preschool and School-age Children. Once a child is talking, he may be old enough to begin to understand more of the meetings. And though children’s attention-span is still short, parents can do a great deal to encourage their children to listen. Example is important—without the parents listening to the meeting, trying to teach the children to listen is hopeless. It may be ineffective to teach children to “listen” simply by making them sit absolutely still and not make a sound. They may only come to think of sacrament meeting as a virtual prison. Instead, parents may make listening to meetings something interesting.
After the meeting, remind the child of some of the things taught. The speaker may have used sophisticated words and phrases—you can translate them into language your child can understand. Then you might have your child draw pictures of something talked about in the meeting, and you could display them somewhere in your home, reminding him from time to time of what he learned in sacrament meeting.
Such drawings or other things could go into the child’s own sacrament meeting scrapbook. Perhaps the sacrament meeting talk was on the Word of Wisdom—you could help the child cut out pictures of good food and bad things, and put them in the book. Or suppose the talk was on doing things as a family—magazines are full of advertisements showing families having fun together. If the child can write or is just learning, you can give him key words to copy out, or he can write his own summary of the meeting.
Another activity that promotes listening is to play a “memory game” right after the meeting. Smaller children could be asked questions like, “What happened right after the opening song?” or “What song did we sing at the end of the meeting?” or “What did we do when the bishop asked us to sustain Sister Harmon as Young Women’s president and Laurel leader?” Older children who can understand the talks can be asked questions about the speakers’ remarks, or who was sustained, or whom the bishop thanked for the flowers. The older the child, the more specific the questions can be. And the “memory game” can go two ways—children might also listen to the meeting very carefully m order to ask questions to stump Mom and Dad! After all, do you remember who was sustained to ward offices last Sunday? Nothing keeps parents listening more than knowing their children will be quizzing them after the meeting!
It is important that parents never make critical or negative remarks about the speakers or other participants. Such attitudes are transmitted easily to children, and the last thing you want is for them to feel negatively toward meetings. Even if you feel that a speaker was incorrect or vague, the error should be explained or cleared up without implying any wrongdoing on the part of the speaker. “Brother Johnson was making another point, and so he didn’t explain that besides tithing, we also contribute fast offerings and budget and welfare and other things for specific projects of the Church.”
Reinforce Good Behavior. Even the most rambunctious child has moments, however brief, of quietness. Seize upon those moments and magnify them! “Janey, tonight in sacrament meeting, right after the sacrament prayer, you were so quiet and reverent, it made Mommy and me very proud of you. Someday soon you’ll be big enough to be quiet and reverent through the whole meeting.” And then the next week you might point out, “You were very good right after the sacrament was passed—you sat with your arms folded and your head bowed and didn’t make a sound. Let’s see if tonight you’re big enough now to stay that reverent all the way through the sacrament.”
In setting goals like this, though, make sure that you are staying within the child’s limits. Maybe your child can only handle being reverent during the four prayers in sacrament meeting; perhaps only through the passing of the bread; you need to provide him with positive, successful experiences in self-control.
And reinforcing positive behavior is effective in another way. A child who is praised after a meeting for the good behavior he did exhibit, however briefly, is going to feel much better about sacrament meeting than the child who is scolded sharply because he misbehaved 90 percent of the time. After all, even if the child is noisy and troublesome 75 minutes out of 90, there were still those 15 minutes of reverence!
When the Child Knows Better. Young children who haven’t learned self-control deserve patience. However, a child who has been reverent in the past but decides to make a play for attention or a bid to get out of the meeting is only encouraged when parents give in. Many a well-behaved child who decides to test his parents’ patience discovers that he can have a lot more fun outside the chapel, playing in the foyer. His negative behavior is reinforced—he misbehaves more frequently, and earlier in the meeting, until at last his parents find themselves spending the entire sacrament meeting taking turns playing with their child in the foyer!
One solution may be to make going out of the sacrament meeting less pleasant than the child expects. One mother took her child—who knew better—from the meeting when he misbehaved, to a deserted area of the meetinghouse, and scolded him. Then she took him immediately back to the meeting. She was doing three things right: she scolded him in private, so he wasn’t humiliated in front of others (yes, three-year-olds are often very conscious of the watchful eyes of their peers!); she made him face the challenge he was trying to avoid, that of behaving properly in church; and she was perfectly consistent in her treatment of him. When he misbehaved in meeting, he always knew what to expect.
When Do the Toys Stay Home? If the child hasn’t left them behind earlier, baptism is a good cutting-off point. But the child should be prepared for it. “And when you’re baptized, it means that Heavenly Father expects you to be reverent in church like all the other baptized members, without toys. Just like Daddy and Mommy, who don’t play with toys and just listen to the speakers, you’ll be old enough to listen like a grown-up.” However, if the child is ready before baptism, there is no reason to wait!
At this time the “memory game” and more adult conversations about the topics in the meeting can be used to spur reverence and listening. The toys cannot be taken away and the child left with nothing to encourage paying attention in the meeting!
And a great deal depends on the parents’ preparation before the meeting. If there has been a last-minute rush to get everyone ready for church, and the family has arrived just in the nick of time for the meeting to start, children are likely to get keyed up and excited—a perfect recipe for a noisy meeting. But if the preparation for church is deliberate and unhurried, and if the family arrives early and has time to sit and listen to the prelude music, the right setting for reverence is already established.
A sacrament meeting reverently spent, that is a spiritual learning experience for everyone in the family, does not begin with the opening prayer, or even with the prelude music. It begins on Saturday when the whole family makes preparations for the Sabbath; it begins with a mother who plans simple meals to avoid unnecessary housekeeping duties on the Sabbath; it begins with children who make school preparations on Saturday and do not expect any exceptions to the rule; it begins with a father who is the patriarch of his home, who teaches gospel principles with love, by example, and by the power of his priesthood.
When children know exactly what is expected of them; when reverence in Church meetings is made attractive and enjoyable; when they see their parents behaving as they are expected to behave; and when they learn that listening in church can be interesting, then the “siege” is over. And oddly enough, it’s the only siege that ends with everyone victorious!