Should Children Be in Church?

by Joan Woodward Teebagy

Recently in some parishes there has been much discussion about whether or not children should be in church during Divine Liturgy and/or other services, or whether they should be attending Church School (or nursery for the very young) during Church services. Should children be in Church/ The answer lies in how the Church is viewed, and what you see or want for your children in the life of the Church in the future.

Should children be in Church? Definitely. Disagree? Please read on. In my early twenties as a young single woman in charge of a Sunday School and as a professional teacher, my answer from a theoretical viewpoint would have been: "Definitely. You can't teach in a vacuum. You can't teach about the life of the Church if children are excluded from that life." In my home parish at that time, such a question would not have been entertained. Children were part of the Church family. They were expected to be in Church and were a welcome part of the services, even with their "holy noise', 'liturgical movements", and all. We never knew any different. Are they a distraction to others? Sometimes. But they are Orthodox Christians in the making; they will become regular churchgoers if they attend Church on a regular basis from the beginning. Did I know how difficult it was to bring children to Church at that time? No. Does it take preparation and planning? Yes, lots of it. Is it worth it? Definitely.

Being a wife of a priest, some people believe my children somehow behave differently in church because they are used to it or because my husband is the priest. Being used to it? Well, that's the point. Any child will learn certain behaviors in certain situations if they are used to it and exposed to it on a regular basis. Is it easier because my husband is the priest? I am able to use the term "Daddy" instead of "Father John" when pointing out things during the church service. However, growing up in my home parish, we all had a closeness with the priest and I remember my parents saying the same things to my brothers and sisters and me. We had the same reverence and respect - perhaps even a little more since to very young children, the priest may represent God while Daddy is just Daddy. In an answer to mother's question of "Who is that?", instead of saying "Father John," a child of three responded "That's God!"

In reality, my children are no different from any other children their age. Alexander, at five, can be expected to pay attention a little bit longer than Elizabeth who is two and, of course, nine months Nathaniel will just look and take everything in and let out a scream here and there. I have had my moments when I wonder whether it is worth it or not. I have made my treks to the back of the church when my children have become a little too noisy or rambunctious or made trips to the bathroom - often at the most inopportune times during the Liturgy. At some bleak times, I wonder if those who say children should not be in church are maybe just a little bit right. These moments are rare since I am shaken back into God's Kingdom and His welcome of little ones when my son suddenly asks about a particular icon or asks what "mercy" means or my two year old daughter sings along with the choir with a chorus of "Alleluia" or "Lord Have Mercy" or how she crosses herself every time she hears "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" or even when my infant son just watches with great curiosity the censer being shaken or listens intently as the bells are being rung.

Is my time in Divine Liturgy different now with children? Yes. Would it be easier for me during Divine Liturgy if they were in a class instead of church? Yes, but that's not what I want for my children. I want them to be involved with Christ and the Church. This is what I want for them now and in the future. If I keep them on the fringe now, they will be involved only in the fringes of the Church later. At this time, being with my children during Divine Liturgy is my work for God and His Church. If I don't have the opportunity to hear every word of the Liturgy or miss the response to one of the petitions or even not be able to sing in the choir as I have all my life, I can believe that my job now is to raise my little children to worship the name of God, to know my prayers are offered through my children, as I watch them at their tender age recite the Lord's Prayer and receive the Body and Blood of Christ through Holy Communion - to know I have tried my best to make them a welcome part of God's worshipping family.

By regular attendance in church, children learn and notice more than we will ever know in the short term but this knowledge and habits will become a reality and a part of their existence in the long term. One parent, I was recently speaking to, admitted that she thought that she would be the last person to say children should be at Divine Liturgy rather than Church School. She has noticed that her children have learned so much during their time in church, have become used to the length of the service, and have made observations and asked questions about what they see and hear. However, it is not without a great deal of effort and patience on the parent's part. Following are some suggestions that will help you with your little children as you make the life of Christ and His Church part of their life.

  1. Sit as close to the front as possible. Children need to see what is happening. This also helps with their attention and eventual understanding of the service. You may feel uncomfortable doing this, thinking your children will be a distraction to adults. Please don't. It is the children's job to learn how to be a part of the Divine Liturgy at their level, and it is the adult's job to be tolerant of this learning process and not expect children to be adults. (Look around and see some of the adult behaviors, such as talking. This is more of a distraction to priests than a child's "holy noise.") Don't expect young children to sit still for the whole service or stay quiet. This is unrealistic and counter-productive. I never say to my young children "Don't talk" but rather "Whisper." Movement can be restricted but not prohibited. My two and a half year old can move around a little bit more and sit on the floor while my five year old is expected to sit on the pew and stand with minimum of movement.
  2. Bring materials for the children. This can be children's liturgy books, picture books, crayons, and small snacks. Let the children know what is acceptable and what is not - this will change as the children get older. I don't expect my two and a half year old to stand still as much as my five year old is expected to do. As children learn to read, an illustrated Divine Liturgy book may be sufficient. Don't overdo on activities. At times, our pew was so cluttered with the various things packed for the children. Now I have learned to bring much less and set up routines for the children to follow.
  3. Prepare your children for the Liturgy. Try to read the Gospel reading for the day to your children on Saturday night. Explain to the children that they will hear this in church and have them listen for key words during the Gospel. During church, whisper to them to remind them to listen to the gospel story. On special days, such as Elevation of the Cross or Orthodox Sunday, have them bring in their own cross or icon so they can participate in their small way. Have children prepare an offering envelope that they can place in the collection baskets. Children as young as two can recite the Lord's Prayer. Teach it to your children and encourage them to recite it during church. Teaching your children certain routines such as lighting a candle before church, watching for the Little and Great Entrances, listening to the Gospel, receiving Holy Communion on a weekly basis, reciting the Lord's Prayer, etc., not only breaks down the service so it is manageable for young children but also teaches them a lot about the Divine Liturgy itself. (Your children will surprise you with their own observations and habits as my two year old daughter has, who, without any coaxing, crosses herself at every "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" and who sings "Alleluia" and "Lord Have Mercy" - this from a child who is described as the "wild" one of the family.) As your children grow older, expect and teach more. If you do not know enough about the Liturgy to teach it to your children, find out. What a great opportunity to enhance your own spiritual life. As your children grow older, encourage them to participate in the Divine Liturgy and the life of the community by singing in the choir and serving in the altar.
  4. Ignore comments that belittle your effort to make your children part of the church life. People who make these comments about behavior of children have little understanding of what the Church is about or Christ's acceptance and welcome of little children. I have found that my tolerance level is lower and my children's behavior appears to be worse when I am more concerned about what people are thinking rather than concentrating on encouraging my children during the Divine Liturgy. Don't let "bad" days discourage you. Evaluate what has happened, change expectations if necessary and try again. You are not alone to seek advice from other parents as well.
  5. Make the Church an important part of your life. Your own spiritual life is an important role model to your children. If the children see that God and the Church is an important part of your life, this will make a great impact as children grow older and one day, accept this faith as their own. Pray at home, read the scriptures, and involve your children in good works. Your own spiritual strength will also give you that extra strength to tolerate those less than perfect but child-like behaviors in church and to bring your children on a regular basis to the Liturgy, even during those summer months when there is no Church School. Parents who bring their children just to Church School, whether it is before or after church, do not realize that the real class is IN CHURCH. The other class is only a reinforcement. It is only an enrichment of what is being taught at home and what is being absorbed through all five senses in church. When Church School is put first rather than the Liturgy, it sends a mixed message about the importance of the church in your own life and, unfortunately, it is a much stronger message than whatever they could learn in church school.
  6. Attend extra services with your children. Make an effort to attend weekly Vespers and other special services with your children. This is where our Elizabeth learned her "Alleluias" and "Lord Have Mercy" and where Alexander (start at four years old) is getting his feet wet as an altar boy. Although it is not always possible with young children to attend all the services during Lent, attending a few extra services including Presanctified Liturgies, special Divine Liturgies and Akathist exposes the children to the cycle of services. Again, learn about these services and prepare your children to know what they will see and hear.

In conclusion, you need to examine how you view the Church and what you see and want for your children in the life of the Church to answer for yourself if your children belong at church services. If you want your children to experience the fullness of Christ and His Church and possess a full liturgical life that will one day enhance their own spiritual life when they struggle with the question of making this faith truly their own, then you must answer "definitely."

Joan Woodward Teebagy is the wife of Fr. John Teebagy, the pastor at St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church in Dedham, Massachusetts. She has been a member of the Department of Christian Education in the Antiochian Archdiocese for several years and has been recently appointed the chairman of the Curriculum Department of the OCEC. Reprinted from OCEC News, Vol. 16, No. 1, August 15, 1995, 3 pages.

© 1996 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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