Children in Church

I posted these suggestions for how to handle children in church on Byzantine Texas a few months ago. I’ve done some small revising and adding since then and figured I’d just throw it out there for anyone who is interested. If you have anything to add or suggest, please leave a comment! (c:

 [Disclaimer: I am not a paragon of parenting perfection (although I do like alliteration). I am probably guilty of breaking every one of these “rules” of my own devising a goodly number of times.]

1.   Have high expectations. They can do it. If you assume bad behaviour, you’ll probably get it. (You’ll get bad behaviour at times anyway, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot.)
2.   Don’t bring food into church. Nursing babies excepted. (: I haven’t had a child yet faint from not eating for two hours. The older ones keep the communion fast. If you have a child who for medical reasons needs food every hour to half hour, then by all means feed them. Just don’t do it in the temple.
3.   If they’re getting bored, pick up the younger ones and slowly (and unobtrusively) walk around the periphery of the church or the narthex pointing out the figures in the icons, moving to the next when the novelty of the current one has worn out. Point out the various features in the church and the action.
4.   If you attend a larger church, don’t stand in the very back. Wouldn’t you be bored if all you could see were people’s legs or backsides? (This assumes a church with no pews but even then it’s better to sit where they can see the “action”.) 
5.   If a child fusses beyond whimpering or brief crying, take him out. But don’t make going out fun. Settle them down in a way appropriate to age and then bring them right back in. Stress “it’s important for us to be in church right now.” You might go out thirty times when you first try this, but it decreases markedly over a short period of time. If you have a church with a narthex (lucky you!) then you can probably hear and participate in the service from there unless your child is too loud. I have many times stood in the narthex with one or more children, pacing back and forth with a fussy baby and singing responses. If people look at you like you’re crazy because you’re singing “Gladsome light” by yourself, then let them. Your children will see that it is important and that you’re not out there on a lark.
6.   Go to church. This sounds obvious, but if you limit your time in church to a Liturgy every few weeks or months, your children will forget how to behave from one time to the next. The parents’ excuse is usually, “I don’t come to church very often because they act out.” This is reversing cause and effect. [Note: if they’re sick, do keep them home. Not only will they get everyone else sick but they’re likely to behave worse than usual and you’ll be miserable.]
7.   I have allowed small “church books” (about icons, saints, the church building, the services) in church and allow the child to look at them quietly, sometimes pointing out the parallels between the pictures and what we’re actually doing. Once the books become projectiles, they disappear. No returns. I have had no success with anything else because when they have “toys” they play. “Toys” have included 33 knot prayer ropes. They have good imaginations. (And it’s a good idea to search little boys’ pockets before church.)

Each family has to tailor suggestions like these to their own situations. Life with many small children (or one small child) can be difficult in church. No one will get it perfect. There are some days when you will just want to give up, strap everyone in their car seats and head home. I’ve done this at least twice. There are limits, after all. Perseverance has its rewards though.

Do not hesitate to ask for help from other adults (or even teenagers) in church. Most people will be afraid to volunteer their help for fear of being seen as interfering or critical, but will be happy to assist if asked. Sometimes this help may come in the form of having someone keep an eye on some of your children while you take the fussy one out. It is a good idea for children to form relationships with other adults in church so that they will happily go to them if you have to leave.

If you have any children you probably remember the day you switched from “Can’t those people control their children?” to “Those poor parents. I was in their shoes last week.” Spare a kind look and some encouraging words. They’re probably feeling like they’ll never be welcomed back. Make sure they know that’s not the case. Be especially encouraging to families who are visiting an Orthodox church for the first time. They’re probably used to nurseries and Sunday school for children during church and are panicked about how their children will behave. Also keep in mind that you don’t know the whole story. If you have a family who is really struggling with the behavior of a child, there might be issues you know nothing about. In general, parents do not want their children to misbehave in church or be a distraction to others. Always assume the best and be kind.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”   [Mt 19:14]

**More on Children in Church**

28 thoughts on “Children in Church

  1. this is excellent! It is very true to what I have experienced in the past 2 years of being in the Orthodox church with small children (who used to be in Sunday School or nursery during church). I'm going to forward this to my priest 🙂


  2. oh and another thing our priest encouraged us to do is, as you said, to sit closer to the front. His explanation was that if we sit close to the exit, it will be too easy to whisk the kids out all of the time 🙂 sitting near the front helped us all to work on our liturgy etiquette!

    We still have issues getting the kids to pay attention and not crawl around on and under the pews (boo pews!) and our eldest (ADHD yadda yadda) often gets glued to a book and otherwise hangs off of us and fusses a lot. Any suggestions on how to deal with this other than bribery?? lol


  3. I dearly wish the people who need these suggestions in my parish would read this. I had boys, and they were sometimes obstreperous and difficult to control when they were small, so I have a lot of sympathy for young mothers. Nevertheless, my children were *never* as bad as some of the children I've been seeing lately. (For example, they *never* hit an adult or pulled their grandfather's hair with a maddening-to-the-observer “I know I'm going to get away with this” grin on their little faces…)

    Do you have any suggestions on what we could possibly say to people whose children are clearly out of control?


  4. Awesome post! I remember judging parents whose kids were having bad days at church…and then I started taking care of friends' kid during church (they were both quasi-vital to the choir at the time) and feeling so terrible for what I'd thought before :-). Word on the toy ropes – they're definitely for throwing, not praying ;-).


  5. Good list! We pretty much do all of these things, but my oldest (4) still has a really hard time behaving in church. He's just one of those very loud, passionate children who has to act everything he sees out. We usually have to take him out far more than our little ones (2 and 1)! Patience, I tell myself every week… it will eventually get better. There is nothing like having the worst-behaved child in the parish to keep you humble. 😉


  6. I may have to do a f/u post to address some more specific things like how to deal with parents who are permitting outrageous behavior, etc. Elizabeth, I've had the worst-behaved child in church too. It does keep you humble. (:


  7. I had the worst-behaved child in SEVERAL parishes! (Not Orthodox in those days)– whenever somebody's kid is really fraying my nerves, I just figure it's payback. ;>)
    Take heart, they do grow up!


  8. Thank you Matushka Anna!

    Our family is new to the church, so our kids really have no foundation for how to get through Divine Liturgy.They are not rotten kids. They are just young (2, 4, 6, & 8). My 6 and 8 year old are perfectly behaved. They make it through the entire service maybe leaving once if they need to go potty, and sometimes my 6yo daughter steps outside when the incense makes her cough uncontrollably. But she is always polite. My 4 year old is neuro-atypical. WIthout going into too much detail he has trouble sitting still, does not have an age appropriate understanding of natural consequences, and does not respond to discipline in the same way typical children do. His younger sibling is completely typical but has had an atypical role model and has some behavior issues that we are working on. He is only 2, I remind myself, when he can't whisper and says loudly “Mama there's a man up there!” (on the ceiling).

    Now I realize I have written a lot. I guess as a new catechumen family, I would urge those who would say “My children were never so awful!” to step back from that point of view. I may be a newly converted idealist, but is that really why we go to Divine Liturgy? To see how well behaved our children can be? Bringing them is more important, IMO, than training them to behave as quickly as possible. The truth is, at least in the way I see it, they will learn. It may take time. and God willing, they will have the time they need and love the Church and never leave.

    Matushka Anna, your advice is golden. It is balanced, sensitive, and knowing. I try hard every Sunday with my little ones, my husband and I take turns. We may try some new ideas as well. After a hard day last Sunday I accidentally read this article:

    Which left me wondering if I was even welcome at my parish.

    I would love to hear more from you regarding helping children adjust and do well.


  9. I'm feeling a little bashed on. Those of you feeling defensive: Do your children pull your hair? Do they hit you?

    Look, my children weren't angels in church. When they were small, they were often loud and obnoxious and tried hard to get each other in trouble. I got plenty of glares (at one point, we were the ONLY young family in the parish — most of the parishioners were ossified elders with extremely unrealistic expectations of young children's behavior). One of my boys would kick the pew in front of him, just because he liked the noise (he is now a percussionist). Things of that nature. We spent plenty of time in the narthex trying to calm them down.

    Believe me, I remember and understand what young mothers are going through and I don't have a problem with restless littles causing varying levels of disturbance. It's just what they do.

    However, it is NOT judging to simply observe that a child is truly out of control, and then to wonder what one can say to help. The particular child I'm thinking of crawls under pews, throws toys around, climbs all over his parents and grandparents, pulls their hair and hits them (!!!), all with a with a “you can't stop me” grin on his face the entire time (except when he's screaming because he wants something).

    Yes, that's worse than my children ever were. It's worse than the normal run of small-child-ruckus that I see on a weekly basis, wherever I go. Possibly it's worse than most people reading this blog, too.


  10. Oh dear. I was worried about that. I did just post a follow-up post because the comment I was leaving got so long. I assumed you meant by saying that “yours were never that bad” that you're watching children who are being permitted to do anything they want with no control. That the issue was more one of whether the parents were working on the behaviour or letting it go completely. During my time as a parent of only very little children it was very easy for me to beat myself up because my children weren't as good as other children I saw. I felt like a horrible parent and it caused a lot of tears. I felt like I was being judged (and I think I was to some extent) especially by the elderly people in church. Anyway, it was really easy for me to feel defensive. I thought BOTH of your comments were spot on. Honestly.


  11. This is tangential but I can't comment on anyone else's blog for some reason. Tabitha, I was trying to leave a comment for you which included asking you to email me when you can, but it wouldn't let me.


  12. On a lighter note, one parish I lived in, Father and Matushka had two boys, and then they had a girl. Boy, was she ever Daddy's Little Girl. And when she first learned to run — hoo boy, look out. At least a couple times every Sunday, she'd twist loose from Matushka and make a break for it — straight toward Daddy at the altar. Matushka always caught her before she could go barreling through the royal doors, but sometimes she got pretty close.

    Me, I always impishly hoped she would make it. 😀


  13. {I had one wander in the north deacon's door and back out, escorted by a little push from Father… I was mortified and couldn't grab her after she wandered in and it was a moment before he saw her.}


  14. I really don't mean to bash. Honestly.

    But yes, my son hits me, bites me, and pulls my hair. He has multiple labels ( SPD, Bipolar disorder, Autism) but I don't like to think of him that way. His name is Anatoly.


  15. Tabitha,
    Those circumstances are seperate- I don't consider my one any different than the others either and when I discipline, I USUALLY adhere to the same rule and apply the same consequences. Which really isn't anything but a time-out… which really may not be for the child but for myself sometimes. 🙂 I know a mother of 10, her youngest had multiple issues but she'd lovingly and understandingly would be much more gracious than I could be , it did me good though to reflect on her example even if I'm by no means always so patient even now.


  16. I just wanted to echo the idea about being kind… With my boys being autistic I received plenty of dirty looks when they were little. (Not at Orthodox parishes). They weren't capable of being in the “Sunday School” classes or the nurseries, and I had pretty bad experiences with people who thought my kids had no place in the church service. We've always sat on the front row because it's easier for them to be part of what's going on – and feel less overwhelmed when there's less to see. The truth is, there were a few years when we just didn't really take the boys unless we knew it was an understanding environment. Now things are different – my 13 year old gets to serve at the altar regularly (that's his favorite place to be), and my 10 year old sits with me in prayer on the front row. Both of the boys have active prayer lives and a deep sense of the holy… I'm very thankful we didn't give up and we were able to instill a love for God in them when they were small. It would have been so much easier though if others who didn't know the situation would have been less critical…


  17. My aunt posted this on FB, and brought to mind how incredibly LOST I feel in church right now. We have four boys- 6.5, 4, and 22mo twins. While we do have my MIL to help I don't require her to, and never know the boundaries of what I can ask from her. (I realize I should ask HER, but I like to avoid uncomfortable situations) My oldest is angry any time he doesn't get his way, including in church, and the twins are, well, 22mo old boys. Let's just say that most of the time now I dread going to church. I want to teach my kids to be quiet in church without whisking them out every time they're too loud, but then we hear that we should be mindful of the people around us and their ability to worship. While I don't want to be a bother, I have four boys- we're going to distract people. So do I just not come? Do we live in the Narthex (which is a good size but only one icon by the candles, and boys and flame do NOT mix) only coming in for the Eucharist? I've cried so many tears over this the last few weeks as it's gotten worse. *shakes head*


  18. Cassie, I'm sorry you're having so much trouble. I remember those days. I didn't have boys, and I didn't have little twins (God bless you!), but a bunch of little ones close in age are difficult no matter what. I think that you really ought to enlist assistance in church. You simply don't have enough hands. Even if you have help with just ONE child, then that can be huge. I usually asked for help with the best child because that left me free to deal with the worse offenders. People are generally very willing to help you, but they most of the time feel uncomfortable offering help (thinking it can be construed as criticism). Just ask! In the meantime ((((hugs)))). It gets better – promise!


  19. Matushka, thank you. My husband and I have talked and for a bit we're going to let the twins stay in the nursery (through the Gospel) so we can focus all our attention on the older two. They may be acting out because I cannot give him more attention, and since the twins love the nursery it seems to fit. I've never used the nursery at our church but I'm desperate, and why not? 🙂 I didn't realize until looking through old posts, we have a mutual couple of friends- St. Theophan's Academy and Stumbling Impatiently Along. The latter is my 2nd boy's Godmother. Prayers to you for your precious boys in heaven. I have two bothers there as well– I cannot wait to meet them some day. Much love, and thank you again. God worked through you for me yesterday.


  20. My husband and I both have priests for fathers and have been handed down a lot of good advice for kids in church. From the time our boys were babies, they were strapped to me in a moby wrap, forward facing until big enough to stand on a chair that's turned backward. It makes for a nice transition so they don't develop a habit of constantly looking back at what's happening behind them(of course you'll have that issue anyway…they're curious boys!). Right now I have our 5 month old on me, our 4 year old on my right and 2 year old on my left. There's no running around. They're up higher so I don't even have to move to whisper a correction to them, thus I get to keep my gaze on Christ. We're part of a small parish so we stand right up front. Daddy always serves, so he peeks out from time to time to survey the scene which is helpful. Now all the kids at church are standing on chairs and boy does it work! When we go elsewhere, chairs are the first thing I grab when we get in and that helps keep consistency. I hope others will try this because it's so much easier than trying to keep those little feet beside you if it means dropping down first!


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