How do we encourage our children to have fun in our children’s groups and church, while ensuring their behavior doesn’t hinder anyone else’s worship or engagement with God? Margaret Pritchard Houston shares some thoughts and practical suggestions.
Soon after I started as a church children’s worker, a parishioner greeted me after a service. “Thank you so much for the work you do with the children.” she beamed. “It’s wonderful!”
I asked her what she’d noticed. “Oh, they’re so much better behaved now!” she replied, and, giving me a pat on the arm, went to get her coffee.
What she meant, of course, was that the children had stopped running around, making noise and distracting her. As Becky May, author and Messy Church adviser, says: “I think the focus is often far more on children’s behavior enabling adults to participate in worship than adults and children worshiping together.” In this mentality, children are guests, not participants, welcome only as long as they don’t get in the way of the ‘real worshipers’ – the adults.
And while it is important, of course, that everyone in our churches be able to worship, too many churches still reduce the question of children’s behavior to whatever doesn’t bother the adults. And too many churches still – if they’re honest – have that as their primary job description for children’s workers or volunteers: distract the children and keep them quiet so I, as the pastor, stop getting angry emails from parishioners. Whether the children are actually getting anything from Sunday school or worship is secondary.
The focus is often far more on children’s behavior enabling adults to participate in worship than adults and children worshiping together.
Usually, children are in church in one of two different contexts; sometimes both at different times. They’re with their families in a service (aka Big Church), or they’re with their peers separately in Sunday school, junior church groups or similar. Behavior expectations, and the question of who decides on and maintains those expectations, are different in those contexts.
Children in worship
When we talk about how children behave in church, what should we talk about? Revd. Ally Barrett points out that the language of ‘behavior’ itself is loaded: “‘Good behavior’ is a term used about prisoners on early release!” she laughs. “It’s not a word we use in relation to those we consider to be of equal status.” And she points out that often, in worship, there is a double standard: “Adults who talk are tolerated, but children who make sounds are not.”
Dean Pusey, youth officer for St Albans Diocese, agrees. “When you think about the quintessential ‘behavior’ moment in church,” he says, “it’s the parent saying: ‘Sit still, don’t embarrass me. You need to be a saint for the next hour.’ But actually, the reality of it is, we come in and what does welcome, hospitality, look like in a place that’s supposed to embody welcome and humanness? Do we say to children: ‘It’s okay, you can be? And if you want to shout out loud AMEN, or if you want to speak in tongues, as most kids and babies do, that’s okay’?”
Many people I talked to said the issue isn’t so much behavior as engagement. If children are engaged in worship, what adults consider ‘good behavior’ often follows. Anyone who’s seen parents talking, or on their smartphones, during a Messy Church session knows that it’s not just children who ‘misbehave’ when we sense an event isn’t aimed at us. So, Revd. Ally says, the questions we need to be asking are: “How are children engaging? Are they making noise or moving around because they are engaging or because they cannot engage? Are there safe places that allow participation? Can children see and hear what’s going on? Is anything intentionally done to draw them in?”
Children’s areas in churches can be a lifeline for young families, but these need to be more than what Revd. Dr Sandra Millar calls “dead teddy graveyards”. A children’s corner with Bible storybooks, toys related to Bible stories and worship (toy bread and wine, a Noah’s Ark, puzzles, a Nativity set, a doll in a Christening gown etc.) can help children engage in worship through play. And if it’s somewhere they can see and hear the front of the church, even better.
If children are engaged in worship, what adults consider ‘good behavior’ often follows.
Parents are also key. “When we talk about behavior, we think about order and achievement and us having authority, and so our tendency is to go straight to the education model,” says Ben Mizen, children and youth adviser for the Diocese of Portsmouth. “But we need to look at the familial model.” He suggests it might help to encourage parents to think about church not as like school but as like a family activity. “Think about a family going to a swimming pool,” he says. “How does that work? When you’re engaged in the pool, you learn by doing. If the child is learning to swim, will the parent not help them?” Church is the same, he suggests.
Parents already have many of the skills needed to help their children engage in worship, but they often don’t realize it. They forget they can model worship with children and help their children engage.
If you follow the swimming metaphor, Ben suggests, you start to naturally see how the whole church can be involved in helping children worship. “If a child gets really good at swimming, they might take lessons, or someone else might help them; not standing by the side. They get in the water and they help them. The person is engaged in that activity.” This is the role of significant adults other than their parents – the other people who help the child grow as a Christian, who give opportunities to help lead, who lend books or suggest movies or music, who get the children and young people involved in the church’s justice or charitable work, and so much more.
Dean adds that significant adults can help parents struggling with their child’s behavior as well. Sometimes children go through seasons when they are sad, worried, grieving or traumatized, as a result they don’t behave like perfect angels. Having a caring adult who takes notice and says, ‘What can I do to help?’ can cut the embarrassment stuff out. Sometimes a parent simply needs to hear that even though their child is not at their best behavior, the church is still the best place for this child to be.
That understanding is crucial to supporting children and families, Dean says. “For us to connect, we need to understand there might be issues going on in that young person’s life, beyond the walls of the church that need support. One of the things that struck me about the story of Zacchaeus and his strange behaviors is that Jesus noticed him. And it’s when a children’s pastor or small group leader, or someone in the pew says ‘I’ve noticed’ – not negatively – ‘Do you want to talk about it over coffee? Or when’s a good time to give a call? How can I help?’”
So support, understanding, a whole-church approach and engagement can help children with behavior in worship. But there’s another place where children and young people may spend a lot of their time in church: their groups.
Children in Sunday school
“Please sit down, we’re listening to the story.”
“If you don’t stop talking, you’ll have to go back to Big Church.”
Does this sound familiar? Do you wish it didn’t? Does it feel a bit weird – and self-defeating – to make ‘going back to church’ into a punishment?
In some ways, issues with behavior in Sunday school or youth groups are the same as in churches in general. If children are engaged, they tend to have fewer behavior problems. So it can help to remember that children have limited attention spans and plan accordingly, and that visual and physical elements to storytelling and prayer can be useful. But it also helps to remember that we are a Church, and as a Church we’re supposed to be different from other places in children’s lives in important ways.
We’re supposed to be accepting. God’s approval or love is not dependent on a child’s ability to sit still and get the right answers in the Bible quiz. By focusing on knowledge and being good, we forget that, as Ben Mizen says, church isn’t just about learning, but about “belief, belonging, and being. Children come to church to be a part of a community where they are loved and accepted as they are, and they come simply to be, in the presence of God. Church isn’t about learning ‘correct’ ideas about God, but about experiencing a lived faith.”
Part of being that community is deciding together how to be, so why not let your children help put together the rules? Talk together about how God wants us to treat each other, write their ideas up, and display them in your space. That way, the children have ownership of the rules, and the rules have come not out of arbitrary adult authority but out of questions about God and community, and what it means to be a church. The key thing is to avoid the impression that failing to meet the adults’ standards of model behavior in church is the same as displeasing God.
Another difference between church and school is that Sunday school may have different leaders from week to week, and children need consistency. Make sure expectations – and training – are consistent throughout your team. Teach your volunteers to praise good behavior (kindness, inclusion, as well as ‘sitting still and listening’), and give gentle reminders of group expectations rather than critical tellings-off.
The ten commandments of behavior management
Thou shalt worship only one set of rules: have consistent routines and expectations even with different leaders
Remember the age of the children and keep it sacred (a four-year-old cannot sit still for 20 minutes straight)
Thou shalt have rules that make sense, with natural and proportionate consequences
Thou shalt remember the power of silence (wait, say nothing, and often a fidgety group will settle down)
Thou shalt notice and praise them doing well
Honor the different needs of the children and provide fidget tools/chill-out zones if needed
Thou shalt suggest good behavior: “Show me how well you can…”
Thou shalt not criticize the child – only the behavior
Thou shalt not sweat the small stuff
Thou shalt love the children as thyself, basing behavior management in positive relationships
There may be times when the value of inclusion comes into conflict with church being a safe place for all. We believe as Christians that God welcomes all, but what happens if a child or young person in your group is hurting others? In those situations, Dean says: “the issue is to find out what is going on as much as is possible, in consultation with parents and carers.” But, he stresses: “If it’s at the point where it’s at the detriment of the other young people’s safety, or their property, then obviously you’ll have to make a decision about whether there needs to be some form of cooling-off time. I don’t like to call it exclusion.” With children, there may be more flexibility: a parent or carer can come to Sunday school with them to help support positive behavior, but that becomes more difficult with teenagers.
So how do you, if needed, give a young person a cooling-off period in a way that doesn’t read as ‘God is rejecting me?’ Dean says that the root of it has to be love. “We have to be saying, ‘I notice. I hear. However, you have a responsibility to yourself and to the community that you are in, and we don’t want that community to withdraw from you because of what you are doing. Therefore, can we see a better path that can have you as part of the community?’”
During the cooling-off period, an adult from the group can meet with the young person outside of the group setting to keep the connection, and help put together a pathway for a return to the group. Sometimes, this may not be possible. As Dean says: “there is Biblical precedent there: the rich young man. Jesus says, ‘This is the situation’, and the rich young man couldn’t do it. People take ownership of their behavior. That may not be our pathway with that young person, for that particular period of time.” But the root of any process of behavior management in church has to be acceptance, understanding, and love. Children and young people are judged and assessed to within an inch of their lives everywhere else in the world. Our churches have a chance to be different. They have a chance to be somewhere where the last word is love.