Orthodox America

  Children in Church

By Matushka Ann Lardas

A joyful cross

      Recently on the Internet Orthodox List, someone wrote, "Having children can be a joyful cross to pick up -- a self-emptying of love. In a church setting, though, it can be painful -- especially for the parents."

      This is true. We have four children, and with Pr. George in the altar, I often feel like the guy with the spinning plates on the old Ed Sullivan Show.

      Once you get one child settled, facing forward, and no longer making shadow puppets, another is talking to a friend while the baby has started an alternate liturgy of his own, censing with my keys and chanting from somebody's prayer book. The problem is that children of a certain age have no idea that they are NOT behaving -- at home they coo, sing, and wander around freely. We have to work on making it clear to them that Church is "God's House," and that they should behave "like someone He'd want to invite back to stay there forever," I told my eight year old in exasperation one Sunday. My oldest two are 15 months apart, and when they were toddlers, I would keep them in church through the Gospel, then take them out and literally let them run laps around the church. I think each child starts out each day with a finite number of pre-programmed hours of 'good," after which they crater. So a child may be good during the service and crater during trapeza, or might be horrible during the service but an angel after. Clever parenting makes allowances for this, and anticipates when children will "need" to be -rowdy. Parents who drive a long way to church might want to leave yet earlier, for example, and allow time for the children to stop at a park or otherwise vent a certain amount of energy before calming them down and bringing them into the church. Or it may be necessary to take the children outside for a quiet walk before they reach the point of no return, so that when they come back in they are refreshed and can behave better.


Participating in the Divine Services

      As our children grow older, I make our trips out of church less and less fun    to the bathroom and straight back, no running, so that Church would be more attractive than Not Church. Along the same lines, if I need to spank or scold someone, I take him out first. This makes leaving church look even less attractive. (James once went limp on me and whimpered, "NOT outside, Mommy! Not outside!" when I led him out the door after a tantrum. Clever move, too -- he still got spanked, but the ladies loaded him down with candy after out of sympathy.)

      As the children mature, I let them miss less and less of each service. At 8 and 9, Nicky serves the whole Liturgy in the altar, and Xenia either stands with me or sometimes sings with the choir. Even if the Liturgy is in Slavonic, once a person knows the alphabet, one can sing, since it's phonetic, and that teaches the children more about the structure of the service, how some parts change and some don't.

       James, at 5, is sometimes a "pre-altar boy." We figure that if there can be pre-school, which isn't as long as real school, there can be pre-altar boys, who don't serve as long as the big boys. Our deacon, Fr. John, sends him out to me while he's still being good, telling him, "James, you did a great job." Now's the part in the service, though, when pre-altar boys go back and stand with their moms. Okay, so that part in the service changes from week to week, depending on James' temperament and the number of servers. Still and all, James accepts this decision and is happy to have done a good job.


Teach them about the Divine Services

        Teaching the children, at home, about what will happen in church helps immensely. You can buy a set of tapes of the eight tones in English, for example, for less than $20, and even if the children don't recognize the Slavonic words, they will understand which tone we are using and will know what the Troparian and Kontakion mean for that week. Reading the Gospel at home in advance also makes it something familiar and important when the children hear it in church. "Daddy read about those seeds Mr. John told me about last week!" James said when he was three.

    During the Liturgy, as well, you can whisper to the children about what's happening, so they will understand. "That's the bread and wine that will become Holy Communion." "This is a psalm about all the good things God does for us." "This is a letter that St. Paul wrote to tell the early Christians how to be have."

      One Russian lady quoted her mother as saying that Orthodox services were wonderful because if you get tired of listening to the service, you can always look at all the beautiful children. Children who've ceased to listen to the service can be encouraged to at least look at the icons, and learn that way about the saints. Fussy toddlers waiting for Communion can be calmed down if you hold them close and point out each saint on the Icanostasis -- "Look! There's Saint Nicholas!" Some children, at two, can name the saints on every icon in the church. John, at 18 months, can already point to St. Vladimir if you ask him. If we take the time to teach them to name their toes and tummy and chin, we should also teach them the names of those who pray for them.

      Also, some children have an almost physical need to move around, more so than others. If we assign them duties -- keeping watch for candles that have burned low, serving in the altar, singing in the choir, or helping to watch the babies -- they feel more like an essential part of the parish, and will behave more maturely.

      It helps that our parish doesn't have pews. I can take the baby to the back of the church if his noise level is relatively low, and move back into the narthex if he gets too loud, outside if he starts drowning out the choir.

      But really, the best advice came from an elderly Russian who said, "You say to child, if you no be good, I give!' (pointing to his belt, and if they no be good, you give) We're not into using a belt, but to have a clearly established reward for good behavior and consequence for bad helps. With Nicky, we use Godzilla movies. If he's good, Monday is Godzilla day; if he isn't, it isn't. Once children grasp the concept of "I'll get you later!" they can take more responsibility for their own actions.


Enlist allies

      People who don't have children can be a great ally in the war against lawlessness. Adults, older children, or teenagers can greatly help overburdened parents by asking one of the children to stand with them. The children develop a rapport with another Orthodox adult, the parents are then freed up to sit on the other kids, and the kids learn to rely on the extended family of the parish as authority figures and people to turn to. This can help even more when they become teens. When Nicky, as a toddler, was hyper, one man in Boston used to take him to see the clock in the trapeza.

      Something about either Paul or the clock calmed him down, and Nicky even came to call him "Clock!"

      Xenia's godmother would hold her during services, which gave Xenia extra attention and helped her get to know Auntie Carol. In our parish in Houston, a retired doctor just has a way with fussy babies, gets them quiet every time, and rounds up the toddlers who are misbehaving and has them stand with her for a spell. Far from resenting it, the children appreciate the attention. One boy calls Galina "that lady who loves me."

     Godparents or friends can also see to it that children get to church to receive Communion when their parents are home with sick siblings. When we lived only a block from the church, friends who were not communing would come watch whichever child was sick so I could take the healthy child to Communion.

     Of course, people with no children can also be part of the problem. Often, the very people who complain about kids misbehaving after the service egg them on at the time because it's "cute." Years back, Xenia and Nicky would start to waltz with each other, looking up into the choir for approval, and I'd see nodding smiling faces encouraging them until l turned and looked. A couple of conversations with the grown ups improved things. If you ask, as a favor that they please turn their heads when the children misbehave, people are generally willing to cooperate, and when the children don't get attention, they turn to something else. Enlist allies.

      Also, the older ladies in church keep hard candies in their purses which they give only to children who are good in church. Unfortunately, this is a great incentive. However, a little extra sugar (especially consumed AFTER the service) will not do them any harm equal to the good that comes from them befriending the older generation.

      There's nothing wrong, too, with praying for guidance and help when your children are driving you to distraction. You can pray to the Mother of God, to your Guardian Angel, to the children's angels, to your saint, to their saints, to the saints of the day, the patron saint of the church; we have many places to turn to for help.

      It is enormously helpful for kids to see other children behaving in church.

      This places positive peer pressure on them. I like to point out the good behavior of a slightly older child. "Wow! Look how nicely Misha is standing there! When you're a big three-year-old, you can stand so nicely in the Communion line, too? Misha overhears that someone has noticed that he's being good, and John has someone to look up to. Conversely, my kids know that if they misbehave one of the things they'll hear about is "setting a bad example for the younger kids." It's good for children lo know that they are part of a community, and that their actions have consequences that reach beyond their selves and their family.


The goal: passing on the Faith

      But all of this is designed primarily to get children to the point where they can listen to and actually comprehend the services. We know that, even though they don't understand everything, the services make a deep impression on the young soul. Many toddlers like, for instance, to "play" church, which should be encouraged unless it becomes blasphemous, they get silly, or they try to do the Consecration. I find it comforting to hear the baby walking around the house with an icon, or a book, singing "A yi yooooooo i ya!" while I'm working. He's been known to make his toys kiss the icons before putting them to bed, and makes the sign of the Cross, after a fashion, over his food.

      These things are good -- it means they've been paying attention.

      The reward for all the correcting and explaining and exhorting and chiding comes years later, when you know that if you need to leave church for a minute, your children will still be where you left them when you return.

        When you miss the service because of illness and the children can tell you, when they get home, what the Gospel was and give you a synopsis of the sermon, it's because you've established the foundation. And ultimately what we're aiming for is for them to know how to get their own children to behave in church long enough to hear the services, so they can learn enough about the faith to pass it on. Because ultimately, we won't always be there to watch them. The wiggly years seem to drag on forever, but like so much else about childhood, it's really such a small window of opportunity to teach so much. 

Matushka Ann, a convert to Orthodoxy, lives in Houston, Texas. She is a regular contributor to Orthodox Family. She and her husband, Fr. George, have four children

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