I can remember it so clearly: it was Pascha 2011. I had been waiting all year for this day. I had been dreaming about that moment when I would shout triumphantly, “Christ is Risen!” in multiple language. I had been longing to see the unabashed joy on everyone’s faces, to hear the hymns, to feel with every fiber of my being that Christ was risen and that reality had changed everything.
Instead, I was crying. Sobbing deep, disappointed sobs as I held my almost two-year-old close to me while we huddled in an unused Sunday School room. Away from the celebration. Away from everyone else.
You see, my little guy had been laid down gently in a pack n’ play in that Sunday School room but had been woken up by the noise. Now he was too tired and overwhelmed to be in the service, but too awake and scared to be put back to sleep. So, I held him. I held him and thought, “I’m missing Pascha. Will I ever be able to make it through an entire service again?“
Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you have spent more time watching your toddler run laps in the narthex than actually following along with the Liturgy. Perhaps you have nursed a fussy baby when you wanted to be witnessing the joy of a wedding. Perhaps you have watched in embarrassment as your young ones ran circles around an older member of the parish as though they were a May pole. (Or, maybe that was just me….)
My children are now ages 5, 7, and 10. We are currently in that magic spot: where everyone can put on their own shoes but no one’s hormones have begun to go crazy.
I have been reflecting lately on my time of having littles in church. And, I wanted to share a few thoughts and words of encouragement with you today.
What I’ve Learned Having Young Children in Church
1. Children pick up far more than you would expect.
There were definitely Sundays when I wondered if it was worth it. Was it worth it to spend the hour getting my children dressed and ready for church and the forty-five minutes driving to church, just to pop in and out of the Liturgy while changing diapers, nursing babies, and corralling toddlers?
Then I began to listen to my kids as they played. They regularly “baptized” dolls, sang hymns to themselves while playing with trucks, and enthusiastically kissed icons (and icon-like objects!) of all shapes and sizes.
They were learning. They were absorbing, inhaling, digesting, and hearing the Faith through our time at church.
That made it all worth it.
2. People are kinder and more forgiving than you might think.
I can’t tell you how many times I was absolutely mortified by my children’s behavior during a service. How many times I fumed inwardly or outwardly lost my patience. And yet, I have been consistently encouraged and blessed by the people around me in all of the parishes I have attended and visited.
People have said to me, “I am so glad that your children are here.” “You’re doing a great job. Keep it up.” “My elderly mother loves seeing your kids at church. It makes her week.”
You see, I was more worried about how my kids were acting than most of the people around me were. People are kinder and more understanding than we often give them credit for.
3. The distraction is less about them and more about you.
This one was huge when I realized it. I always thought that the reason I had difficulty praying during church was because I was chasing my kiddos around. And then I (miraculously!) had a week alone at church. I soon discovered that I still had trouble focusing and praying.
Because, the distraction had never really been about the kids–it had been about my own heart. I had been shifting the blame. Once I took responsibility for this, I began to find moments of peace during the Liturgy where I could say a quick prayer. (Because, hey, let’s be honest, it generally was just a moment.)
But those moments became sacred moments, holy anchor points in the week. Little by little they began to transform me as God allowed me to see Him in all of the chaos.
4. Every family does this differently. And, that’s ok.
If you ask ten Orthodox families how they do this whole Orthodox-life, going to church, raising kids thing, you will get ten different answers.
Some people expect their kids to sit still and participate from an early age. Others let their kids roam the church in a way that gives new meaning to the term “free range parenting.” Some let their kids read books or play with toys. Others are horrified at the very idea. Some attend services every single time the doors of the church are open. Others are just happy to make it to the Liturgy before it finishes.
Each family is different. And, that’s ok. You need to figure out what works for yours, and then not judge your neighbor.
5. Each child is a different rodeo.
I have three kids, and each one of them has been completely different during church. Andrew (now 10) had boundless energy. When I remember Sundays from the time he was little, all that I can picture is the narthex. We spent a lot of time walking, eating snacks, going back in for a bit, and then starting the whole process over.
Elizabeth (now 7) was totally different. If you gave her a book, she would sit quietly and read during the entire Liturgy–except when she decided to make a beeline for the altar. She was my runner, my flight risk. She just wanted to go see Daddy. Who can blame her? All of the action was happening up there!
And George (now 6) just wanted to be held. The. Entire. Liturgy. Even when he was four. Though my arms felt like they were going to fall off, I did get some good cuddling time.
The point is: every child will act differently during church. There’s not a one-size-fits-all. Understanding what each child needs, their limitations, their interests, and their motivations will help make services less of a battle and more of an act of worship.
6. The season goes by faster than you could believe.
Finally, though it’s cliche, it’s true: this is only a season. This, too, shall pass. Though it feels like you will never again pray in peace, someday you will find yourself standing alone during a service. Someday your children will be older, and they will experience the Liturgy in a different way. And a new season will begin.
May God bless all of us, no matter the season we are in, as we seek to raise children to glorify His Name.