I have to confess something right out of the gate. I am a doodler. If I am in a meeting or listening to a lecture and I have a pen in my hand, I am drawing little cartoon characters, cars, trees, flowers and the occasional crazy-awesome spacecraft. In between, I will stop to scribble a phrase or a reference or a book title that I will want to remember later. But if I’m in a room sitting still, my pen is probably moving.
I know this is controversial, and I know that many would say that if someone is doodling or drawing then they are not paying attention. It is indeed very possible to get so lost in your silly artwork that you are no longer engaged in listening. It is also possible to sit completely still with your hands folded on your lap and for your mind to be in space. We have all done that plenty of times. For me, if my hand is engaged in writing, even drawing, my brain feels less distracted and more focused on the subject. I also understand not everyone is the same, but for this reason I am not opposed to giving children something quiet to write with during the sermon time of worship, and if they use it for drawing, I am okay with that too. I would wager that they are listening and picking up way more than we give them credit for.
For two-thirds of our worship service, there is plenty of engaging activity for little ones. We sing, we read, we pray, we stand, we sit, we kneel, we raise our hands, we eat and drink, we give. All of these are times where a little noise, a little shuffling as we go from one thing to the next, a little movement is expected and necessary. It really is just for the sermon time that we are training our children to sit still, quietly, on their bottoms, facing forward and to listen to the best of their ability without distracting anyone around them. If we are honest with ourselves, it is often difficult for us as grown people to do this.
With my children, my goal was always to make worship a delight for them and not torturous and to ease them into the focused attention that I was seeking without expecting the same behavior out of a one-year-old that I expect from a fifteen-year-old. I know some parents have very small children who can sit still and quiet without any stimuli, and I remember a time when I wish God had given me one of those. I know some other parents who have tried to force small children to remain still and quiet with nothing to keep them occupied out of principle, and worship ends up being a horribly exhausting experience for them and everyone around them.
The trick is to keep small children quietly busy in a manner which is neither going to draw attention nor distract others. Here are a few ideas we used with our children when they were small:
- From babies to toddlers really the biggest challenge is getting them to the point where they are not hollering randomly just to hear their own voice or fussing for no reason. One way to keep them from shouting is to keep something in their mouth – a bottle, a sippy cup, a pacifier (if you use those.) We often brought little snacks like Cheerios or those puffy rice things, but you don’t give them the bag to rattle or the container to throw or drop or spill. You pour a small handful for you to hold and as you keep the child on your lap you distribute one at a time to keep them busy. As they become a little more alert, a very small toy – a car or a soft animal – or board books can go a long way. We saved special things in the diaper bag that they only saw on Sunday. We also did crayons for drawing on the back of the bulletin or another sheet of paper – not the big box of 96 Crayolas – just two or three crayons which I held tightly in my fist. When they want a new one they have to put the used one back in and pull out a new one. Sometimes just taking and depositing crayons was a quiet activity in itself. If you allow them to color, you don’t want to bring a big coloring book that they can rattle and tear the pages, or drop the whole thing. One sheet of paper, using the hymnal for support, together with three crayons and about twenty Cheerios will get a lap child almost completely through the sermon.
- When our children are growing from toddlers to school age we can start to expect them to sit on their own chairs, or in their own space on the pew. This is the time to slowly stop bringing the snacks and toys. The expectation is that they are going to begin to learn how to keep themselves mentally engaged without flopping around or laying down. But they may quietly turn the pages of a children’s Bible, or another good book. They may color with a handful of crayons on a single sheet of paper. It’s during this time when they will amaze you with questions from the sermon on the way home. They will have heard something that sticks with them, and that shows that they are beginning to listen.
- From kindergarten age through adulthood the expectation is increasing focus and attention. No, early on they are not going to grasp every concept of the scriptures or the sermon, but they should be expected to put the effort into listening to gain as much as they can. You may ask them to write down three important things from the sermon, or to draw a picture based on the content of the text. When they start to take notes in school, you may ask them to take notes from the sermon – to write down the main thoughts and organize the information. The ride home from church, or the Sunday meal is a good time to review their note-keeping.
The purpose through all of this is not to give them something to do so that their minds can wander, but so that they can learn age-appropriate ways of being still, being quiet, and beginning to learn the disciplines of Christian worship.