When I was a boy, I was convinced that my dad had the longest arms in the world. Anytime one of us boys whispered, whined, winked, or did anything else Dad considered irreverent during mass, we were jolted back into reverence with a rap on the back of the head. No matter where we sat in our family group at church, Dad could reach us.
Knowing there was no escaping Dad’s long arm, we usually sat like reluctant angels through the service, but being quiet didn’t make us like church.
Years later, I attended my first Latter-day Saint sacrament meeting and was shocked by the unruly behavior of most of the children. Had my dad been there, he would have worn out his arm trying to teach reverence to those kids.
About ten years after my first visit to sacrament meeting, I was again sitting in an LDS chapel, but this time I was a member of the Church and a father wrestling with unruly toddlers of my own.
“There’s got to be some positive way to teach our children reverence,” I said to my wife. “I don’t want them to dread church as I did.”
Since then, my wife and I have found ways to help our four children, all under the age of eight, be reverent during church. They aren’t always paragons of reverence, but most of the time they are reverent enough, and what is more important, they are learning to enjoy sacrament meeting.
Here is some of what we learned as we “trialed and errored” our way into sacrament-meeting reverence. These ideas have worked for us; other families may have different but equally effective ways of encouraging reverence.
It is important that parents teach their children by example that reverence in sacrament meeting is important. We can’t expect our children to behave in church when we don’t behave ourselves.
When I was in the bishopric, I had many opportunities to watch the example parents set for their children in sacrament meeting. Many were reverent, and their children responded likewise. But I would see a few parents standing in the back of the chapel with young babies in their arms, using the meeting as a time to chat with friends. Others were reading, writing, or catching up on their sleep. Their children were usually equally irreverent.
As parents, we owe it to ourselves and to our children to be active participants in sacrament meeting, not indifferent spectators. We need to pay attention to what the speakers are saying. Once we get home, we should discuss the sacrament meeting talks and what we learned from them.
After we improved our own sacrament meeting behavior, we taught our children exactly how we expected them to behave in church.
Our first attempts consisted of taking them to the foyer when they misbehaved, which is necessary so others can enjoy the meeting. This method had mixed results. Our noisy children weren’t disrupting the spirit of the meeting, but my wife and I missed out on much of what was going on. On top of that, our children soon decided that the freedom and fun of the chapel foyer were much more desirable than sacrament meeting.
After reviewing why we had failed, we changed our tactics and fought the battle of sacrament meeting reverence at home instead of at church. In family home evening and at other times during the week, we had our children practice sitting quietly. As we focused our lessons on the purpose of sacrament meeting, we explained to our children why we took bread and water. We talked to them about Christ’s sacrifice and explained that sacrament meeting was a time for them to think about Jesus.
After only a week, the effects were noticeable, and after three or four weeks, our older children were actually beginning to sit quietly for most of the meeting.
Of course, the children occasionally slipped into irreverence, but when they did, we knew we had to do more than just take them out to join the foyer carnival. My father had made it clear to us that he wanted us in church, not just in the vicinity of it. After considering Dad’s methods and listening to a speech on discipline, my wife and I realized that taking irreverent children out of sacrament meeting solved the immediate problem, but it did nothing to encourage them to avoid future irreverence. We made up our minds to teach our children that life in sacrament meeting was much more pleasant than life on the fringe of sacrament meeting.
The next Sunday, my two-year-old son had a terrible tantrum. I immediately carried him out of the chapel, but this time I didn’t stop in the foyer. I found an empty classroom down the hallway, sat down on a folding chair, and held him firmly on my lap.
In a minute he calmed down and squirmed to be free. My initial reaction was to let him down, but I decided instead to keep him on my lap. He complained, and I explained to him that he would remain on my lap, as immobile as I could hold him, until he decided it was time to return to sacrament meeting reverently.
To my wiggly two-year-old, such restriction was the worst fate possible. After ten minutes of pleading, squirming, and crying, he realized I meant business, and he asked if he could go back to sacrament meeting.
“Will you be reverent, Son?” I asked.
“And if you’re not reverent, what will happen?” He pointed to the chair.
We returned to the meeting, where he remained reasonably quiet. He and our daughters still had their moments on other Sundays when they had to be taken from sacrament meeting, but it didn’t take them long to learn that they preferred their freedom in sacrament meeting to the restriction of Dad’s lap in a quiet classroom down the hall.
Naturally, it’s better, and easier, to prevent irreverence than to deal with it at church. Knowing that our children wouldn’t be able to listen to or understand all of the sacrament meeting talks, we planned alternative quiet activities for them when they began to lose interest.
All of our children, even the youngest, enjoy reading and looking at the illustrated children’s scripture stories published by the Church. We also bring a few crayons and blank sheets of paper for the younger ones to draw on when they become too wiggly. The older children are allowed to draw, too, but we encourage them to draw pictures that relate to the talks being given.
We also found that games, food, treats, and toys usually create more chaos and mess in the meeting than they prevent.
We don’t expect our children to be perfect in church because we know at their ages it’s sometimes beyond their abilities. But my wife and I have a goal to enjoy sacrament meeting. When one of our children misbehaves, we deal with him or her as quickly and as unemotionally as possible.
It also helps to keep a sense of humor. If a member of our family does a flip off the back of the bench or toddles, unnoticed, to the stand, we try to remain calm, extinguish their behavior, take them out if necessary, and tell ourselves that, someday—maybe—we’ll chuckle over the incident.
If you are alone and outnumbered by your children, you can still maintain reverence—with a little help. When I was called into the bishopric, my wife was left to handle our children by herself. After a few Sundays, she found the task overwhelming and exhausting, so we asked a retired couple in our ward if they would sit by our family every Sunday to even the odds. They willingly agreed, and now our children love to sit by their “grandparents.”
In our family, we try to make sure church is a positive experience for us and our children. With a little practice and planning, and with lots of patience, we are helping our children learn to appreciate sacrament meeting and to do it reverently.