July 15, 2009 5:12 PM

Children in church: teaching good behavior

A couple weeks ago a young mother came up to me after Mass and thanked me for a piece of advice I'd given at a Workshop for Moms I did last spring. She whipped out a very familiar-looking card and told me that by using it, she'd been able to encourage her little ones to be on their best behavior in the pews.

To tell you the truth, I couldn't remember sharing this piece of advice, which is something I made to use with my special needs kids and never thought of extending it to all children. But you know, when she told me how well it worked for her children, I could understand why.

I've talked before of having high expectations for children in church and of letting them know in advance exactly what those expectations are. I do not believe in trying to keep children happy during church with distractions like food, toys, or coloring books. As in all things concerning children, I believe the Montessori approach is best: laying the groundwork in the early years is best for teaching children who grow up with strong self-discipline and character. If we want our children to grow up with reverence for God, then that reverence is best instilled in the earliest years, which means church is not a place to eat or be amused, but a place to be still and listen and experience God on whatever level possible.

One thing I will say is that children are quick to pick up on any power they have over parents, which is why some parents find their children impossible to control. The children you see sitting beautifully and attentively in church are not acting that way because they fear their parents but because they have developed some self-control. They are able to sit through a church service or concert or play and actually get something out of it because they have become masters over their bodies.

How does that happen?

I wrote this piece in our church bulletin a couple weeks ago (I have a weekly column there now):

Teaching Children Self-Control

One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is self-control - a foundation built day by day as you teach your child to make decisions about his own behavior.

Remember that a child may be well-behaved for all the wrong reasons - fear of punishment or withdrawal of affection. This often results in a tendency to "act up" in awkward moments. In the long run, children raised to be outer-controlled rather than self-controlled may be more vulnerable later to peer pressure and rebellion.

The potential for self-control is best released during the toddler years, when the child is eager to do things for himself. We can capitalize on his natural inclination to master his environment by helping him master himself.

A young child has little to be steward over - except his own body. Challenge yours by offering opportunities to gain control:

"Let's see if we can close the door without a sound."

"Let's see if we can walk on this straight line."

"Let's see if we can hear this pin drop."

This provides a context for reminding a child not to fidget or lost his temper: "You are boss of your body. You can decide to sit still."

Another effective way to help your child develop self-control is to let him know in advance the kind of behavior you expect - at a party, in the grocery store, library, or church.

When kids know what is expected, all it takes is a glance at someone who is out of order - not meant to instill fear, just one that reminds a child where he is and what he's supposed to do.

One word of caution: Construct your expectations realistically. Remember your child is an individual and he is changing all the time. Set your expectations just high enough to call forth the best from your child, but never too high for him to reach. Otherwise you end up with a discouraged child.

Since children respond well to word-pictures, as mine got older I used Proverbs 25:28:

Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.

In ancient times, cities built walls to protect themselves. Any breach made them vulnerable to invasion and defeat.

In the end, training which encourages self-government rather than dependence on outer control produces the kind of child people want to be around. A child with all the selfs our culture tries hard to foster too late and too superficially: self-awareness, self- reliance, self-confidence, and self-esteem.

When a child knows he can make the right decisions and is in control of his actions, all of these will follow naturally.

One problem many parents have is using too many words. Corrections should be delivered as clearly, simply and with as few words as possible.

Because a couple of my children are not that verbal, I created a visual reminder to use with them when we were out where it was important to be quiet.

On one side of an index card, I printed a green smiley face:

smiley face green.jpg

On the other, a red frowny face:

frowny face.jpg

I showed Daniel - the child who was having some issues at church - using my own smiley and frowny faces to connect with the images. I laminated my card and put it in my purse. The next time we went to church I showed him again before we went in. That Sunday, whenever his behavior was inappropriate, I would show him the frowny face, and as he took control of his behavior, I would turn to the smiley side.

I did this without emotion and without making a big fuss. It was just a neutral reminder that he was outside the limits of acceptable behavior.

Each week I found I used the card less and less frequently. Now it's been months since I pulled it out of my purse - which is why I was so surprised when the young mom at church showed me hers and said it had worked for her - which I know it had because she and her children were sitting right behind me and I never heard a peep - well maybe one or two :)

This is how good parenting works - finding ways to empower your children to take over their own discipline, to challenge themselves and take satisfaction in being able to become more mature and capable.

And isn't it reasonable? We adults depend on visuals everywhere we go which remind us what the limits are. And it's less humiliating to see a visual and remember to obey the speed limit than to have a policeman pull you over. The same principle works for children: instead of being chastised by a parent, he sees a visual and has a chance to independently pull himself together.

If you try this, be sure to come back and let me know how it works for you.


Posted in Mothering, Preschoolers | Permalink


Thank you so much! We use the smile system with our toddler, but I'd never thought of putting both faces on opposite sides of one card. Such a simple thing, but I think it will really streamline the process.

We're working on some of the control exercise right now. As I've written before, self control is the biggest challenge we face with our son. Thank you for giving us some tools to work with!

Posted by: Lauren | July 15, 2009 6:30 PM

This is a great idea, Barbara! Thank you! Our family is on the hunt for a family-integrated type of church where entire families worship together rather than sending children to sunday school. Apparently, they are very rare..After a few years of sending my oldest to sunday school, we stopped after we felt the conviction to keep all of our children with us in church. I have an older toddler who sits well in church, along with my older children, but the baby makes noise. How do you keep a baby quiet in church? What is the trick? My children are usually just a little over the age of 2 before they learn to sit through a service..

Posted by: Lisa | July 15, 2009 6:31 PM

This self control thing is something I've been working on with my 7 year old. He's fallen into a bad habit of throwing major fits. I told him this quote from George Chapman:

Who to himself is law, no law doth need, offends no law, and is a king indeed.

Then I explained that he is the king of himself. He does not need anyone standing over him making him be good because he can make himself be good. Then he will be free, a slave to no one, in charge of his world, in control of himself.

Posted by: Michelle Potter | July 15, 2009 6:35 PM

This is wonderful and so timely for us! I was thinking of emailing your for book suggestions on behaving in church. My four-year-old is struggling because we are attending a new church plant that meets in a school cafetorium in the evenings (while attending our regular services in the mornings. Though they have done a beautiful job creating sacred space in the school, my daughter is having a hard time staying in her seat. There is lot of social time before church, and a refreshments table in the back of the room. Oh, temptation! We have only been twice, but now I can frame my expectations for her and use the cards if necessary. Thank you!

Posted by: Amanda Fowle | July 15, 2009 9:28 PM

What a wonderful idea! It irks me that my church sends the toddlers off to a room to just play and trade germs for the whole service. The toys are totally secular and the room looks more like a daycare than a part of a church. There is very little support for teaching toddlers to sit quietly and listen in church.

Posted by: Peggy | July 16, 2009 9:29 AM

The card is a great idea that we will start using. We are expecting baby #3 (#2 is in Heaven and #1 is 3.5 years old) who is due around Christmastime. We attend Mass daily, and my 3.5 year old boy has tons of energy just like his daddy. Although it's not easy attending daily Mass with our son, I would like to share that:
1. studies show that children who attend Mass are more likely to attend Mass when they are adults (and the converse is also true)
2. if we want our children to love the Mass, we must love the Mass first
3. if we want our children to behave better in the Mass, then we should take them to Mass more (as Mother Teresa said, if we want to pray better, just pray more)
That being said, I will testify that there are good days and there are bad days and sometimes there are very, very bad days. But I far prefer struggling with taking young children to Mass than taking teenagers and adults who have lost their faith.

Posted by: Connie | July 16, 2009 10:21 AM

very practical points. I really like the idea about the card.

Posted by: anar | July 16, 2009 4:29 PM

This is timely for me. I'm LDS (Mormon) and we have 3 hours of meetings- 70 minutes of worship together as a family, then sunday school by age and auxilliaries. My husband just got called to a leadership position in a congregation of single students, so we're suddenly in a different building and he's not there to help me wrangle my 2.5 year old son or the 8 month old.

It's been a battle to teach my oldest to sit quietly for 70 minutes. He did marvelously 95% of the time until the new baby came. He feels like he can get away with more since more than half of the last 8 months his dad hasn't attended church with us (military service). My mother made a lovely quiet book, but it seems to make him more demanding instead of keeping him occupied.

I'm definitely willing to give this a try, maybe it will help reinforce the expectations we voice every time before church starts (he can recite them, he just can't remember to obey them!)

Posted by: Emily C | July 16, 2009 4:40 PM

Good reminder...I want Katherine to be in church with us, but I need to remember that she should not only be there, but also be learning to participate in the service, rather than in her own little world with stickers or books. I need to work with her more about understanding not just how to be quiet in church, but how to learn and worship.

Posted by: Becky Miller | July 17, 2009 4:11 AM

Thank you, Barbara, for this post. It is so helpful and timely. I did wonder, however, about self-control exercises for the 6-9 child. Are there exercises more geared for this age group?

I also would like to mention Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. It is a Montessori-based religious education program, created by a Montessori directress and a Hebrew Scripture scholar. It does an excellent job inspiring awe and wonder in children regarding the liturgy. Here's a link to the national website: www.cgsusa.org I would also recommend The Religious Potential of the Child by Sofia Cavaletti for some helpful background reading.

Thank you for all you do. It is very much appreciated!

Posted by: Emily Grantham | July 17, 2009 9:22 AM

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