Parenting in the Pew (Successfully)

A crying baby is the sound of a growing church.

This nugget of wisdom should be in every parent’s mind as they enter church with their young children. Children are not a burden in church and should never be viewed as such. Rather, the presence of children in church is a joyous and encouraging sign of the next generation being raised in the faith.

Sadly, many parents are made to feel as if their small but mighty offspring are a vocal nuisance that should be quickly escorted off to the nursery. Well-meaning signs and parishioners encouraging parents to bring their kids to “Children’s Church” (a personal experience of mine!) can often have the opposite effect and make families feel unwelcome in the church service.

Children and families belong in church for many reasons, but parents may find the responsibility of parenting their children in church overwhelming. When I first became a mom and began my solo journey of parenting in the pew as a pastor’s wife, I was a hot mess. I expected my new son to never cry and sleep peacefully through service – which worked out well for a few months before he grew out of the “newborn” stage! I then experienced the ever-changing phases of toddler-hood including teething, tantrums, potty-training, and when I finally thought I had this church-parenting thing down, we added a new baby into the mix.

We now have five children under the age of 9, and I’ve discovered it takes mental preparation, strategic planning, and intentional practices to make this task a successful one. We can’t expect our children to sit perfectly still and quiet through every single church service, but you can help teach your children mindfulness—understanding what is happening in church and (slowly) learning why—at a young age. Hundreds of moms from all walks of life have given their input and agree that these 20 tips will help you successfully parent your children in church.

1. Lower your expectations.

I made the mistake of expecting my children to be perfect angels in church: no crying, no rolling on the floor, and not making a sound or disrupting the people around us. Yes, go ahead and laugh – that was a completely unrealistic expectation. As parents we need to accept and expect reality: Sunday morning could go relatively well or it could be a total disaster! Expecting your children to act up and anticipating that dreaded walk back down the side aisle a few times mentally prepares you to handle the situation better. Children are going to fidget, whine, be vocally outspoken, cry, fight, and throw tantrums from time to time. Parents can be calmer and more collected if they are expecting disturbances and are prepared to handle them appropriately.

2. Choose your discipline approach and practice at home.

Every parent has their methods of discipline. You know your child better than anyone, and what works for your family in the discipline department. Choose how you’d like to address tantrums and misbehavior in church, and then use that same approach at home. Toddlers will fight hard when you attempt to discipline them, but if they recognize that they won’t “get away” with their behavior, their resistance becomes less and less. Practicing your “church discipline” at home will familiarize children with their boundaries and they too, will know what to expect.

3. Less is more.

Many parents will bring a huge variety of toys, games, books, snacks, etc believing that this bag of exciting stuff will keep their child occupied for the duration of the service. I used to be one of these parents. I learned the hard way that it only made my stress levels higher as my children would get bored of each new toy I pulled out within 30 seconds. Ditch the “stuff”. The less you have with you, the more your child will pay more attention to what’s going on around him. There are some specific items that can help keep your child distracted (see tip #11).

4. Bring specific church snacks.

Some parents will say no to snacks altogether. Others choose to bring a snack that only makes an appearance on Sunday morning. Pick a snack that doesn’t leave crumbs or sticky remnants behind. A few favorites include raisins, cheerios, apple pouches, and/or veggie straws. Whatever you choose to bring, make sure you don’t share it with any ants! Avoid packaged snacks (they are so loud when you try to open them!). Reusable pouches for applesauce and pureed foods like these are favorites in our house. These resuable bags for snacks are also great, both for functionality and a zipper activity for the 18 month old. Save their special snack for church only!

5. Save snacks or bottles/nursing for the sermon.

Make it a habit to save any type of snack or feeding opportunity for the sermon. I always felt that if I could get through the sermon period without any tantrum or crying spell, then church was a success!

6. Sit close to the front.

Most parents feel that if they sit towards the back, they will be less disruptive in the event that they have to take a child out. However, when families sit close to the front of the church, the children are able to see what is happening. They become more involved with the service, and fascinated with everything that is taking place. Another benefit of sitting in the front is that voices project forward. So if your child is having “a moment” and vocalizing her opinions, the sound will carry forward and be less disruptive.

7. Visit the bathroom before church starts.

Make it a family rule that no one leaves during the church service. Visit the bathroom as soon as you arrive at church to give everyone a chance to go. If you are potty-training, know your child’s potty schedule and judge if they really need to go.

8. Find “Pew Grandparents”.

“Pew Grandparents” are the best, especially if you find yourself solo-parenting in the pew. Many elderly parishioners would love to sit with a young family and take a child onto their lap or by their side. As a pastor’s wife, I have been blessed beyond measure to have several couples who have embraced my kids as their “adopted” grandkids. Children benefit from these wonderful church family relationships as well. Having an extra pair of hands to help takes some stress off of the parents.

9. Bring a booster seat for younger children.

This tip came from a pastor’s wife and mom of 6, and I’m wishing I had though of it myself a few years ago! If you have multiple children of a younger age, bring a 5-point harness booster seat with you for a younger child. The added height will help him see better (especially in the front row), and he might feel more secure in a familiar seat. (Bonus tip: practice at home while you make dinner to see how your little one likes it!)

10. Use ASL for communicating with children.

Learn some basic commands in sign language that you can say while still keeping a smile on your face. Words such as “sit”, “stand”, “water”, “sing”, “thank you”, “pray” and “stop” would be very useful to communicate silently to your children. This helps keep the noise level to a minimum and encourages your children to respond in kind. Here are some basic baby signs you can learn and use with your little ones. This is also a great book to really get into signing with your kids, even at home!

11. Choose purposeful activities.

While toys are discouraged, you can bring a small selection of busy activities that are saved specifically for church. Special books, stickers, and a pencil and notepad are common items that help keep children creatively busy. “Whisper, Whisper” is a very popular book for parents to read to their children and teach them what to expect in church. My babies have also been huge fans of the touchy feely “That’s Not My” books. Older kids will love this Bible Superhero Sticker and Activity book along with basic notepads and pencils.

12. Point out the crosses, pictures, banners, colors, stained glass windows.

Children are curious creatures. They want to know everything, even if they don’t understand. Parents can utilize this curiosity by pointing out the special “church decorations”. Quietly point out the crosses, the special church artwork, the banners hung up…whatever is around the church building, show it to your child. Bring these church books and have them find the pictures from inside.

13. Encourage participation as early as possible.

Be a role model for your children by participating, and encouraging them to participate as best they can. Even little ones are able to fold their hands, stand up, sit down, and follow the pastor’s cues. Point out how other church goers are being active and engaging. This will help draw your young child’s attention outward beyond their own seat and spark their curiosity as to what’s going on in the service.

14. Give age-appropriate tasks.

Depending on the age of your child, this is a great tip to use especially during the sermon. This will help keep kids focused on their “job” and give them some busy work. Older kids can write down words they hear during the sermon, take-away points, and draw illustrations. Younger children can use church bulletins, Bibles, or hymnals to find colors, letters, and basic words.

15. Leave church for misbehavior, but return quickly.

Parents will typically take their child out of the church service area when they begin to act up and become disruptive. It’s going to happen. But the key is to make sure you return back to the service as quickly as possible. Letting your child down to “walk around” or to distract them will only reinforce the idea that if they misbehave, they get to “play”. Use your chosen discipline method and then go back into the service quickly. Children will learn that misbehavior doesn’t give them a “free pass” out of church!

16. Nursery is for play, not redirection.

Similarly, try to avoid the nursery when you need to take your toddler or older child out of church. The nursery should be used for times of play (i.e. Bible study or Sunday school time for younger kids). Taking your fighting toddler into the nursery “for a moment” will tell him that he’s allowed to play, and will encourage the behavior that made you have to leave church!

17. Practice whispering.

It can be so difficult for kids to use their “inside” voices. Practice whispering at home and make it a game, so when you need to whisper during church service your children will know how to whisper back.

18. Practice familiar parts of church service at home.

Children catch on to songs, stories, prayers, etc that they hear on a regular basis. You can help make church familiar to them by practicing the common parts of your church service with them at home. Say common prayers, sing songs, and use your church’s regular responses with your kids during the day.

19. Have nightly devotions.

Yes. This is difficult. I know. Being consistent with family devotions presents a huge struggle for many families (if this is a challenge for you, try my free guide to consistent family devotions that will help you in this area!). You can start nightly devotions with these easy steps. Routinely sitting down with your young children as a family can help create a mini-worship setting in the home. This teaches them how to sit still for a certain period of time on a regular basis.

20. Go to church every week.

This final piece of advice is crucial to not only helping your children learn how to behave in church, but also in establishing the importance of church in your family life. Attending church “every so often” tells our children that it isn’t important. If it’s not important, then it won’t be something they will actively pursue when they become adults and start their own families. Actively participating in church and becoming part of a church family helps strengthen our own faith, while also instilling in our children values that will remain a part of them for the rest of their lives.

Parenting children in church is challenging, but also extremely rewarding. The struggles you face on Sunday morning will eventually fade away and be replaced with the incredible joy of seeing your children participate in services. Our prayer is that these tips will encourage you in your parenting journey and give you the confidence that you can bring your children to church and successfully parent in the pew!

We want to hear from you! What has encouraged you in bringing your children to church?

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