Sunday, September 05, 2010

How to worship with your Toddler

One of the many things that I am loving about the new job is their worship.  Not only is it extremely well done, with dynamic and engaging preaching and amazing music, but it truly is a family friendly place.  Coming in a mom of young kids and as the Director of Children's Ministry this is HUGE for me!

But the big plus for me is that the schedule actually allows me to worship together with my family, something that I couldn't make work in my old job.  Now that I am sitting down weekly in worship with the family and the toddler-entrenched baby goat  I am even more painfully aware of the challenges and joys that having a small child in worship can bring.
Thus, I thought I should share some of the tips I have about making worship go smoothly for parents and for children.  Rest assured we are not always successful and often baby goat exhibits his toddler opinions fiercely, but already 6 weeks into this planned worship as a family we've come a long way toward creating this habit for him.

So here are some of the things that help us, I may periodically update this as baby goat grows and we have new tricks to help things go smoothly.

Tips for worshiping with your child: The Toddler Edition

* Kids will learn the habit of worship.  If you put off taking them to worship until they are at a certain age you will make it ultimately less meaningful for them than if they witnessed its importance throughout their lives.   Worship doesn't always work well with small children but every time you try it you show your child that worship is important.

* Most members of the congregation are very generous and forgiving of small indescrecions by the child.  They will pick up toys for you and smile knowingly as you try to keep your toddler in check.  Know that they are grateful for your dedication and attempts.  Take the time to greet the people near you during the peace and thank them for their patience.

* That being said know your child's limitations.  If their fussiness or inattention is reaching a meltdown stage take them out.  Either go to the nursery or just walk the halls for a few minutes until they calm down.  Then get down to their level and say "It is time to go back into church now, ok?"  This can be a good time to judge if the meltdown has passed or more down time is necessary.

* Use the nursery if you need and head back to worship yourself.  However if there is communion I recommend stepping out during the offering and gathering your child before communion so that they can witness an important part of the service (and one of the most participatory too!).

* Tag team with your spouse, partner or a trusted adult friend whenever possible.  Sometimes it helps just to have another set of hands to help wrangle the toddler.

* Plan ahead.  Come with some favorite toys, a snack and stuff to color with.  Keep most of it safely tucked away, bringing out only one thing at a time when a distraction is needed.

* Bring only quiet toys - books, cars, figures, small stuffed animals.  Bring things that your child likes to play with.

* Yes, it is OK to bring a snack.  The sermon can be a long stretch to sit and a snack can help keep the mid-morning crabbiness at bay.  We keep the snack hidden until the sermon begins.  This is because the first part of the service is more interactive and it is easier to keep a toddler engaged.  Bring snacks that are dry and easy to eat and clean up - Cheerios, pretzels, graham crackers, goldfish, etc.  You can bring water (or a bottle of milk if they still infants) but keep it in a covered sippy or cup.  Don't risk spills in the sanctuary.

* If your child likes to create art work bring colors and paper to use.  This is a wonderful quiet activity.  However, ONLY use colored pencils in the sanctuary.  They don't mark the pews and can be erased from hymnals and Bibles if your toddler gets away from you.

* If your congregation has worship kid bags consider bringing one so there are new surprises in them but confirm with the congregation that they are safe for under 3s.  Sometimes they contain smaller pieces that aren't appropriate for toddlers.

* Engage your child in Worship.  Toys, books, snacks and coloring are all good to have in your back pocket for worship but remember that your goal is to 1. Model worship for your child and 2. Worship yourself.  To do this have your child participate in the service in age-appropriate ways.  For toddlers have them stand up with you to see the people who are speaking.  Encourage them to fold their hands when we pray and model singing the hymns with your kids.  Follow along yourselves and show kids what the parts of the service are.  Stand up when the congregation stands up, show them the hymns, liturgy and readings in the hymnal and Bible, let your child put an offering in the offering plate, or bring the child up to communion for a blessing.   Every time you engage them in the actual service they become more comfortable.

* Take them up for the Children's sermon.  Young children may be afraid to go up to a children's sermon alone.  Take them up yourself and either sit on the floor or in the front pew in sight.  It will be seen as endearing to the congregation and will help teach your toddler that the Pastor and space are safe for them and a place to learn and participate.

* Most of all try to keep the space sacred while keeping your own attitude open and relaxed.  It is ok to sshhh your toddler but avoid angry or impatience if possible.  They are toddlers and by nature inquisitive.  If you are open and honest with them they will feed off your calmness and engagement.  It is not always possible but take the time and effort to keep yourself calm with your kids.

* Finally, remember that God's grace is sufficient to forgive even the worst Toddler (and parent) worship "transgressions" so give some of that grace to yourself and your toddler.

What would you add to this list?  Share your own story and tips here!


Heather of the EO said...

This is great, lady. Thank you. I can't add a thing. You've given such great ideas/thoughts. I needed this.

Jen said...

Great list.

Personally I've never found it necessary to use snacks during worship and I don't like it when people around me do because then my kids want them. Unless they're an infant needing milk, they can go that long without food.

The only thing I can add is to ask the kids questions to get them thinking. We say stuff like "where is the cross?" "What is the priest doing?" Even if it's stuff they don't know they answer to, it gets them to think a bit and then you can tell them the answer. I think they learn better that way then just telling them the answer from the get-go.

I agree with not overusing the nursery. At Grace's age, I knew much more about what was going on in Mass and knew the songs and prayers better than Grace does now because she went to the nursery too often and at too old of an age. She was still going some last year as a 5yo.

edh said...

Great post, Liz. Worshiping with a toddler can be tough – Seth sings in the choir loft so I am usually going it alone. While it’s tough to wrangle Anna at times, I also feel very strongly that it is important for her to participate fully. And she does! :) I haven’t heard a sermon in about 19 months, and expect it’ll be a lot longer before I can fully participate myself without worrying about engaging my child(ren) too, but I view that as my role in ministry for right now.

Monkeymama said...

Lovely post Liz. I agree with a lot of what you said and I always encourage people to bring their kids to service with them. It's a beautiful family time (if you can get through the parts that can be frustrating!) :)

I strongly agree with engaging your child in the worship. We, like Jen, ask questions to draw attention back to the front. We let them hold the hymnals and always open the book to the readings, even if they aren't actually reading. We allow some room to wiggle, but as they age we expect more as far as standing or kneeling at the right times and being respectful.

We also don't do snacks (other than milk for a baby) or toys. My kids just can't play quietly enough for my tastes. For a while Rebecca had a small notebook she doodled in during the homily, Joe is still kind of wild with a writing tool.

We're very quick to bring kids out into the hallway if they are loud. It isn't required for them to be there, so I want to be sure they distract other people as little as possible. But, hallway time means being held by Mama or Papa until you are calm enough to return, not run around and play time.

I appreciate your reminder to avoid getting impatient with kids during service. I know I need to work on that at times.

It can be really difficult to attend church with little kids. But, I have found the benefits more than outweigh the negatives. And the routine of setting aside that time as a family really helps to restart our week with grace and love.