“Latter-day Saints should be the most reverent people in all the earth,” President Spencer W. Kimball has said. “Where, then, does reverence begin, and how can we develop it? The home is the key to reverence, as it is to every other godlike virtue.
“… Behavior learned at home determines behavior in Church meetings. A child who has learned to pray at home soon understands that he must be quiet and still during prayers in worship service.
“Likewise, when family home evenings are part of home life, children know that there are special times, not only at church but at home, when we learn about our Heavenly Father and when everyone needs to be on his best behavior. …
“Parents with small children sometimes have a difficult time helping their youngsters appreciate meetings and keeping them from creating disturbances. Perseverance, firmness, and preparation in the home are essential ingredients for success.” (We Should Be a Reverent People, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1976, pp. 2–3.)
Following are some ideas from parents on how to help make church meetings with children a productive and reverent time.
Sleepers and Weepers: Helping Infants and Preschoolers Be Happy in Church
“Suffer little children,” the Savior said, “and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:14.)
In more recent times, Latter-day Saints have similarly been instructed that children of all ages are to attend sacrament meeting with their parents and that families should sit together. This practice poses certain challenges to the reverence of our meetings—problems which are magnified when children cry out or fuss, when one adult is responsible for more than one young child, when there are other young children close by, or when parents may not have prepared themselves or their children.
Certainly, consideration for others and the need to contribute to the purpose of our meetings often suggest that fussy children be taken to the foyer or to a room set aside for the care of children until they settle down. But there is much parents can do to keep children quiet and even help them enjoy the meeting. For infants and young preschoolers, the foyer is often the only answer, but for older children the answer may lie in the preparations and interactions of empathic parents.
Imagine sitting on a hard seat with your legs stretched out straight or dangling over the edge, unable to touch the floor. Seated next to you are the people you love most, but they won’t talk to you and scarcely look at you except if you wiggle or talk. Sitting nearby are some of your best friends, but you can’t talk or play with them because you are told that Heavenly Father wants you to be reverent—a vague concept that you may not really understand for several years to come. If you do sit still and listen, what you hear is not interesting to you—except maybe some of the songs. You can’t even see over the seats in front of you to know who is talking. The hands on the clock move ever so slowly, and you are tired but not really sleepy. You really wish you could run home.
Tiny Latter-day Saints are normal children. The things they do during church are typical of their growth and development. Research at Yale University has produced a host of characteristics which children exhibit at various ages. (See Arnold Gesell and Frances Ilg, Infant and Child in the Culture of Today, New York: Harper and Brothers.) At age one children like activity—moving around, pulling up, creeping on the floor, throwing things on the floor to have them retrieved. By fifteen months they like to explore, to turn pages, to observe action around them. By eighteen months climbing is their favorite activity. They like to tear pages out of books, including hymn books. This is the busybody, into-every-thing age. Their temper tantrums are a result of discovering their own will and its effect on others. By age two, children like to practice their newly acquired vocabulary, not always in soft tones. They are particularly fond of father and want to be with him (even if he is speaking in church). Almost all of their play is accompanied by constant talking. By age three children are becoming more responsive to parental requests and can entertain themselves up to an hour if provided with appropriate materials. By age four they are even more self-entertaining but still ask up to four hundred questions daily. They may stay occupied but still not be interested in the proceedings of an entire sacrament meeting.
These developmental facts combine to produce a picture of very powerful, active, inquisitive little Saints. But the normality of our children should be a comfort, not a concern. During the preschool years, children learn more than they will ever again learn in mortality: vital life skills of locomotion, communication, relationships. They form feelings, attitudes, and opinions that will remain with them the rest of life—about God, about church, about family and friends. We must, therefore, not overlook their developmental needs nor contribute to negative attitudes during church. We must capitalize on children’s stages of development and be creatively persistent in helping them cope with the challenges of church activity.
Babies—infants—are oblivious to the proceedings of meetings. Their parents’ main concern should be to keep them comfortable and happy—by using bottles, baby blankets, and quiet toys. But if babies become uncomfortable and begin to make a disturbance, it doesn’t build their character at their age—or help them form correct habits—to let them scream in the chapel. The best thing to do is quiet them in the foyer or in a classroom designated for that purpose.
Toddlers and preschoolers are more conscious of their surroundings. Being comfortable usually isn’t enough for them—they want more interaction and activity. But since they are still too young to understand what the meeting is all about, a preschool child is helped with the following:
1. An adult to interact reverently with on a one-to-one basis. Fathers, mothers, older siblings, other teens, or older or single persons in the congregation can be called upon for this assistance, especially if the child is familiar and comfortable with them. Parents who need help should feel free to request help. Ward members without preschoolers could offer assistance to those who obviously need more helping hands.
2. Necessary interaction during the meeting. Children need to learn to whisper since they cannot remain incommunicado for seventy minutes. They need to receive a lot of winks, hugs, smiles, and pats during the meeting.
3. Quiet things to keep him or her occupied, such as cloth books, sponge blocks, etc., rather than wooden or metal toys. A toy reserved for church can be more appealing.
4. Appropriate sleep-inducing items such as a small blanket, pillow, soft toy, or bottle if these will help him or her relax. Sleepers are infinitely easier to manage than are creepers, leapers, or weepers!
5. A seat where he or she can observe the proceedings of the meeting. Laps provide such vantage points. Seating away from young friends reduces distraction. Sitting near the end of the row or in the back of the room promotes easy exits when necessary.
6. Praise for even the smallest improvement at self-direction and quiet interaction. This is probably best done at home after church; but if the praise can be given in a way that will not detract from the reverence you’ve tried to instill, it could be given during the meeting. Working for quiet during the sacrament, parents will be able to extend the periods of quiet as the child grows older. It is vital not to expect too much too soon. Not until about age three can self-direction begin to occur for the majority of the seventy-minute meeting. Even then there will be some days when interaction is needed.
7. A speedy exit when necessary. Clearly, a disturbing child can best be dealt with outside the chapel. But as you exit with an unhappy child, consider how he is feeling instead of how embarrassed or frustrated you are. Fear or harm-producing measures are not nearly as helpful as expressions of empathy, support, and encouragement. The promise of better interaction upon returning to the chapel will shape behavior more effectively than threats or a spanking.
Even very small children can be happy in church. They can learn while quite young to love to go to church, and, in the process, learn to be reverent.
In the Foyer Again!
I had only two small children, but my struggles in meetings were as great as those of a mother with a family of twelve.
Sunday after Sunday as I attended my meetings without my nonmember husband, I had to leave sacrament meeting at least once and sometimes more often. Each time as I maneuvered down the aisle with a loud, wiggling bundle in each arm, I always had the same thoughts: “Why do I have to leave like this! How can you kids do this to me? I don’t want to be disturbed! I have so much to learn!”
In the foyer, mad at them and feeling embarrassed and cheated, I’d force them to be quiet. I wasn’t happy, and they weren’t either.
Then I started pondering: I wouldn’t act this way if the Savior were sitting next to me. How would he handle the situation? Perhaps he’d let them play quietly at his feet and draw their attention to things they’d be interested in. Perhaps he’d explain in whispers what was happening. He’d not let them be noisy, but in his loving and gentle voice he’d quiet them. He’d see to it they were comfortable and happy, and he’d let them sleep if they were tired. But he wouldn’t allow them to take advantage of his loving guidance.
This insight helped me overcome some of my negative thoughts toward the children, and I was grateful for it. But my personal desire to hear the meetings still existed, and it ate at me each time I missed something.
It came to a head one Sunday. Five minutes into the meeting, my two-year-old started whining. Before long it was unbearable. My anxiety grew, and as it did, my baby grew uncomfortable. Soon I was dealing with two unhappy children. People were turning and looking, some disturbed, some with understanding. Humiliated, I packed up and relocated in the foyer with thoughts of failure in my mind, humiliation in my heart, and an upset stomach.
When we got out of the chapel I told my two-year-old how upset I was and how I needed to learn what was being said in church. Lovingly yet sternly I made her be quiet and control her actions but even when she started settling down, I still couldn’t hear the words of the speaker. I was gaining nothing, and wondering “What’s the use!”
Then a seed of wisdom was given me. As I sat there with my children, listening to the sounds of the meeting without being able to understand what was said, the Spirit taught me a lesson that I could never have heard in the meeting:
Your efforts are not going unnoticed: they are appreciated. Because you must give up some of the learning you might have received in the meetings in order to teach your children the proper attitudes and actions, you are given far greater learning capacity in the few quiet moments you have to yourself. Through pondering, you are given the knowledge you may miss—and more.
And more … ! I realized then that the discipline and learning I received through raising small children is well worth the sacrificing. My burden lifted, my heart floating in glorious understanding, I rejoiced with a thankful heart.
Helping Children Listen
When our children were very young, we always chose to sit at church in a place that offered a speedy retreat. The diaper bag was always filled with books, crayons, and quiet toys—equipment to pacify our very active and vivacious crew. Our goal was to keep them quiet during the meeting.
But when they got older—elementary school-age—we decided they were ready for a new phase. We theorized that with a little more effort on our part we could help our children receive a new perspective of church meetings and gain more from the messages presented there. Our new goal was to help them listen and learn during church meetings.
First we discussed it as a family, talking about what we were going to do and why. Then we experienced a “withdrawal period,” that time during which we no longer brought quiet distracting items to church for them but encouraged the three older children to listen.
During this time, we did a lot of soul-searching. We realized that more than ever before our home had to become a spiritual learning center. The gospel concepts taught at church were to become more of a springboard for our home discussions; the principles taught at home were to be reinforced and enriched by church attendance. Thus, our children, we hoped, would find sacrament meeting more relevant.
We found that we needed to focus on helping our children develop listening skills. Following are some ideas on how to do this, based on our experience:
1. Have family home evening lessons on the importance of listening and on how to listen. Begin by discussing how to listen to each other in one-to-one conversations. Role-play listening situations. Then during the week, be a good listener yourself with your children. Show them how important it is for the speaker to have eye-contact with the listener and for the listener to give his full attention.
2. Create other special listening situations at home. We have taped home evenings with our children telling scripture stories and teaching gospel principles. They love to listen to their own voices, and they play these tapes again and again. Reading aloud to children is also a marvelous way to teach them to listen. And taping these favorite reading selections for later use has become popular in our home. The tapes not only entertain, but they also teach correct principles.
3. As a family, discuss how these good listening techniques apply to group listening situations—especially sacrament meeting. Explain that eye-contact, taught in all in-service lessons for teachers, also applies to the audience. In sacrament meeting, model good listening habits for your children by looking at the speaker and not letting your eyes and thoughts wander.
4. At home, work to deepen and broaden your children’s knowledge of gospel vocabulary so that when they hear these terms in church talks, they can relate more effectively to them. Much of the spoken language of church meetings is within the comprehension range of even young children. Start with words like baptism, covenant, and sacrament, for example.
5. Help your children understand the purposes and happenings of church meetings. During home evenings, discuss specific events such as blessings, confirmations, and the sacrament. Then these parts of the meeting will be more familiar and interesting to them.
6. Assign each child a specific talk to retell at home. Have them write down a one- or two-sentence summary during the meeting. When talks are too complex for younger children, parents or older brothers and sisters can assist in explaining and conceptualizing. This way the whole family is involved, and everyone profits by the experience.
7. Start a family file or scrapbook of interesting stories or concepts heard in church meetings. Keep the headings simple—make it a project for even the youngest. Allow them to add their own ideas or handouts they bring home. When a home-evening lesson is centered on one of these topics or a talk is assigned to one of the children, review the file for resource material.
8. Sing hymns at home to help children be more interested in the music at sacrament meeting. Ask the music director for a list of the hymns scheduled for sacrament meeting; then practice them together in family home evening. Teach children to pay particular attention to the words. Discuss the messages of the hymns.
If we parents make the effort and take the time, we can help our children appreciate church meetings to a greater extent. And the effort that we invest now in helping them acquire listening skills will pay eternal dividends.
We Tried the Front Row
A little black and white neatly engraved sign hung on the back row of a chapel I once visited: “RESERVED FOR MOTHERS WITH SMALL CHILDREN.”
I smiled as I passed the sign. I have sat through many meetings alone with our four children, but not on the back row. Our family sits on the first rows in the chapel.
Certainly, a traditional place for parents with small children has been the back of the chapel or the end of a row. Many find such a seating arrangement helpful: it enables them to keep to a minimum the distraction of taking an unhappy child out of a meeting. But with our children and their ages we have found that, for us, sitting on the front rows has some important benefits. Here are some of them.
1. So children can see. Sitting on the back row of the chapel, all they can see are the slats where the hymnbooks are stored, or, at best, the back of somebody’s head. Inquisitive as children are, they’ll look for something else to do with their time instead of watching and listening to the meeting.
How much more pleasant it is for our children to see who is singing the special musical number or who is speaking. On one occasion, our four-year-old son looked up at me and said, “Mother, she’s pretty.”
“Oh, really?” I said. “Why do you think so?”
“Because she smiled at me.”
I think he gave me a wonderful insight that day. Would that sweet moment have occurred on the back row?
2. So children can become involved. As our children have grown, they have learned the importance of bearing testimony and of giving talks. They find that the walk to the podium to bear their testimony is much shorter from the front rows and doesn’t take quite as much courage. And it is much more reassuring for them to look down in front and see parental love and support and eager admiration of brothers and sisters. It’s also much easier to impress on our sons the privilege of blessing and passing the sacrament when they are close enough to see it being prepared.
3. So children can learn reverence. On the front rows, we miss things seen from the back of the chapel. Since our children don’t see others going in and out to get drinks and use the rest room, they’re not as apt to request the same privileges.
4. So parents can teach children properly. We feel that by sitting in the front, our children feel more a part of the meeting and don’t consider it boring or uninteresting. We want our children to feel that sacrament meeting is a time to concentrate on the counsel the Lord would have us receive. Children can appreciate many parts of the meeting: the music, the announcements and sustainings, the prayers. They can be taught to bow their heads and fold their arms at a very young age. And if they’re near the front, they can watch the good example of the bishop and his counselors during the prayers when they choose not to close their eyes.
Of course, in order for the front rows to be a realistic option for children, they must be old enough to be aware of what’s going on in the meeting and to communicate with parents about the proceedings. We’ve found that kindergarten-age children can start learning to be more involved during sacrament meeting.
Preparation for the front rows is essential. In family home evening, try role-playing proper reverence. Talk about what reverence is and why it is important. Explain what the sacrament is and why they should be thinking of Jesus especially during that time.
On Sunday, make getting ready for Church a happy experience. Avoid the last-minute rush to get everyone ready, into the car, and to the meetinghouse on time. The confusion and harsh words that can result from being late can upset children and destroy all feelings of cooperation and reverence.
Arrive at church early enough to help them settle down. Allow enough time for last-minute trips to the drinking fountain and the rest room before the meeting starts. If sacrament meeting comes after your other meetings, give your children a chance to get a breath of fresh air, to walk around a little, to eat a small snack, or to get a drink between meetings. Everyone should be as comfortable as possible before sacrament meeting starts.
Take care of Church duties in other areas of the meetinghouse. Once inside the chapel, avoid visiting with others. Be a good example of reverence.
Does sitting on the front rows eliminate all of the challenges? No. There are always those times when I must take the baby out or when the most joyously active of our children cannot seem to keep his wiggles under control. Still, the challenges are lessened, and we feel our children have learned some fine habits. Our nine-year-old takes meaningful notes and often records them in her journal. Our second daughter and our boys have learned to listen to the speakers. We are hopeful they will follow in the same habit-forming steps of their older sister.
And with a little help from the first row, they just might succeed.