…Be Training Them to Behave
While We Worship God Together.
By observing their parents’ consistent preparation, punctuality, vocabulary, & focus, children come to see that worship is a privilege, & are primed to learn about the actions that constitute worship. Proper training requires the proper expectations, explanations, examples, encouragement, & enforcement.
Children need the proper Expectations. A wise man once said, “Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding. For I give you good doctrine, forsake ye not my law” (Proverbs 4:1). In giving “instruction” & “good doctrine,” he told his children more than just what to do & how to do it, he supplied them two key features of learning: a goal to reach (“to know understanding”) & boundaries to recognize (“forsake ye not my law”).
Children must know what is expected of them: they need boundaries & goals. It is never too early to begin giving children these things, & for many, we pray it is not too late to start.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English poet & philosopher, once hosted a visitor who asserted that children should be given free reign to think, act, & learn at an early age so as to make their own decisions. Coleridge took the visitor to his overgrown flower garden & told him it was his “botanical garden.”
“How so?” was the reply, “It is covered with weeds.”
“Oh,” replied Coleridge, “I thought it unfair in me to prejudice the soil towards the roses & strawberries.” In other words, his garden was all weeds & few roses because of unrestricted growth without guidance.
Apply this to children: without boundaries, goals, or correction, the result will be nothing but weeds. This is true in life & in worship. They need boundaries: they need to know that crawling beneath, standing on, or lying prostrate in the pews as we worship is not permissible. They need to know that playing musical chairs by going from lap to lap, seat to seat, or pew to pew is not allowable. They need to know that Minecraft on the iPhone, Fruit Ninja on the iPad, or Batman on the LeapPad is not condoned. Parents, do our boundaries help them learn to “Be still” & know God (Psalm 46:10), or do we teach them to “Be Distracted” & ignore God, or even worse, to “Be Entertained” & become their own gods?
Not only do they need boundaries: they want boundaries. Studies have examined children’s behavior in different playground environments. On fenced playgrounds, children tend to utilize every square inch of the playground. On unfenced playgrounds, they overwhelmingly tend to congregate toward the center: unsure of the boundaries & unsure of what is safe, they cannot make the most of area. Again, the same principle is true when worshipping: by knowing their boundaries for conduct, children are able to benefit more from the worship assembly.
Boundaries do little good without goals (Proverbs 4:1-2), & children need to know what the goal is when we assemble to offer worship to the Almighty God.
Parents, be honest: what is our goal for our children when we worship? What goals have we given them: “Don’t humiliate me today” or “Just sit there & be quiet so that I can worship”? If so, we’ve shifted the focus from God to me, & we’ve done our children no favors. We cannot allow them to be disruptive or disrespectful, but we also must not train them to be disinterested or distracted. A parent whose only goal is to quiet his children may see short term success, but they will not learn to “Be still” & come to know God. In time silence will lead to sulking, sulking will lead to separation & a feeling of not belonging with the church, & this inability to identify will beget resentment toward the very idea of gathering to worship.
Focus their goals on God, not mom. Why not say, “Let’s be good today & show God how we love Him,” or, “Let’s behave so we can all thank God for being so good to us”?
Paul said to sing “with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16): so it should be with every worship activity, including the preaching of God’s Word. Paul said that “from a child” Timothy had “known the holy scriptures” (2 Timothy 3:15): if Timothy could focus on the holy scriptures as a child, can our children could do the same? If not, why not?
Goals & expectations must take into consideration a child’s age & health, but the sooner the training begins, the better. A child of eight years will be better able to focus than a child of two, but if that two-year-old is a handful now, just see what happens if you wait until he is eight to start training him.
How can parents know whether goals are reasonable or not? For starters, take note of a child’s abilities in other settings. For instance, can the boy stay awake & attentive through a 90-minute movie at home or in a theater: if so, why should he make a bed out of the pew every time he is in the meeting place? Yes, there are occasions (usually on Sunday nights) when they worshipped that morning, had lunch with brethren, & then had little time or no time to nap because their parents were in teachers’ meetings or Bible studies throughout the afternoon, & by time for the sermon on Sunday night, those children’s eyes are heavier than suitcases full of bricks. It happens. However, why on Sunday morning would a well-rested & healthy child struggle to stay awake, unless of course it is because the child is either not well-rested, not healthy, or has not been taught the importance of focusing on God. In setting goals, start by realizing what they are already capable of doing.
Parents, in setting goals, don’t make excuses for little Johnny: failure to set the bar high results in a mediocre attitude toward God, which God rejects (Revelation 3:16). Also, careful not to set the bar too high & discourage by causing them to think that nothing they do is good enough: you will know if your child is truly trying to adhere to the boundaries & focus on the goals. Be willing to admit if you have set the bar too high too soon, or if you have set the bar too low.
Children need the proper Explanations. “For I give you good doctrine…” (Proverbs 4:2a). In instructing, the wise man did not just tell them what to do, he taught them how to do it. Part of teaching involves delivering the information in a way the student can comprehend. This requires explanation.
Parents, don’t just tell them, “We’re here to worship:” show them what it is. When the congregation prays, whisper, “It’s time to pray,” & let them see you put your hands together & bow your head (no, this does not cause God to hear a prayer better, but it will let them see that you’re not just shutting your eyes for a quick catnap). When the church observes the communion of the body of Christ, whisper, “It’s time to think about Jesus.” Just before the offering, whisper, “It’s time to give back to God, since He gave every good thing that we have.” Before a song, whisper, “It’s time to sing,” & let them sing! So what if they’re off key & don’t know the words? Chances are, they’re not the only ones! Besides, they will learn more lyrics, more about song, & more about how singing uplifts the soul when they are allowed & encouraged to participate.
When you do this, great joy will follow. Not only do you help them develop an deep understanding & appreciation of the worship of God, but you get to enjoy the questions they will ask. I once told a nephew just before the offering, “It’s time to give money back to God:” his whispered response: “Are we going to go outside & throw it in the sky?” Did I smile? Absolutely. Did I burst into laughter? Almost. Was I reminded of another blessing that God had so abundantly put into my life? Amen!!
Children need the proper Examples. They fuss & fidget, draw & doodle, whimper & whine, cry & complain. They even stretch out & sleep in the pew. And that’s just the parents.
“My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways” (Proverbs 23:6). Parents, can we say this as we worship, or are we more likely to say, “Listen to me, but don’t watch me”? The wise parent never says, “Do as I say, & not as I do.” No, such words are from the lips of fools. Children need examples.
Show them the example of being grateful to be present. Smile. It won’t hurt.
Show them the example of being sincerely engaged in worship. Indifferent parents train indifferent children who become indifferent teens & wayward adults. Let them see you following the sermon. Let them hear your fervent singing, motivated by grace in your heart unto the Lord (even if you can’t carry a tune). Let them see that it is important to give back to God as God has prospered you (1 Corinthians 16:2): don’t be the parent who grumbled about the sermon & the singing on the way home, only to hear his child say, “Well, it was a good show for a dollar.”
Show them the example of being focused upon God. God desires to be worshipped in spirit & in truth (John 4:23-24): this is impossible when distracted. Children love attention, & they are pros at getting it. Parents, your children will try to pull your attention toward them during worship just for the sake of having your attention: they’ll try to crawl into your lap, ask irrelevant or impatience questions, get you to draw or play with them, or even whisper something sweet & precious just to see you focus on them instead of on God. Don’t let this happen. Jesus’ words still ring true, “He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37): let them see that they don’t always have to be the center of attention, especially when it is time to worship God. Grandparents, this goes for you, too. Don’t endanger the souls of your precious grandchildren by distracting them from God just so that you can dote & play!
Be a consistent example. Do you, like so many others today, use a mobile device as your Bible? If so, do your children know how you are using that device, or do they think you are playing Angry Birds? Do you claim to use it as a Bible but allow it to distract you with email & news alerts? These gadgets can be invaluable for taking notes or getting a snapshot of a slideshow for the sake of later study, but let’s be careful & candid about how we use them & about our example.
Whether you are a parent or not, if the smartphone distracts you by tempting you to check Facebook or send a text message, just turn it off & use a Bible. It is not worth it. Not only will it affect your soul, but it can take untold years to undo the damage of one child seeing you abusing one of those gadgets one time.
If you’re not a parent, you can still show other people’s children a proper example of focus, participation, & gratitude. When a precious face looks back & makes goo-goo eyes at you from a pew in front of you, you can give a smile, & then focus your attention beyond the child to whatever avenue of worship is being done at the time: the smile will let the child know you are delighted that she is there, & your attention to the worship of God will let the child see how important God is to you, too.
Children need the proper Environment. The “Be still” principle involves removing distractions (Psalm 46:10). The wise man’s son was told to “look right on” & “straight” ahead, & to be careful of where he walked (Proverbs 4:25-26). Staying focused on the goal requires being careful about our environment. Parents, you control more of your child’s worship environment than you realize.
One of the best parenting tools in the pew is a booster seat. This remedies those “peek-a-pew” games that children play by turning around & catching the eyes of others sitting behind you, distracting both children & adults. From as early as six months old, a booster seat helps a child learn to sit up & face forward. (Be careful to use a booster seat that will not allow your child to lean too far forward & go crashing into the pew in front of you.)
Another favorite of children is the “Whoops” game. You’ve played it: a child drops something, you say, “Whoops,” & by some cosmic anomaly this becomes the funniest thing the child has ever seen, & the game has begun. Drop, “whoops,” giggle, grab, give, & repeat. What can break this timeless tactic of distraction? After the second or third deliberate drop, do not return the item. Yes, there will be pouts & perhaps tears, but the lesson will be learned: it is time for God, not for games.
Do not juggle a portable toy box! Less is more! When a child has more toys available, she wants to hold more toys; when she wants to hold more toys, you must sort more toys; the more toy sorting you do, the less you can focus & fully worship God.
For parents of toddlers or younger, a small bag of quiet items is recommendable: small stuffed animals (NO squeakers), teething rings (if needed), soft fabric Bibles, or similar items. In order to keep their interest, let these be items that they only see in the worship setting, not items they see on a daily basis. They will begin to view worship as an environment that offers certain exclusive enjoyments, & that is a good thing. As they age, use items that help them to be included & involved in worship: a child of three may not be able to take notes, but a great way to start developing a habit of taking notes during the sermon would be to allow him to use a notebook & pencil. Make it a pencil, not a pen! If you give the child a pen, you’ll likely regret it!
Bible teachers, you can help parents in this area. Rewarding children for participating in Bible class is great, & you deserve a “Thank you” for trying to give young people positive memories of Bible class. However, those rewards should not be items that are a deterrent to worship: besides, what do you want your students to remember getting from you in years to come: great Bible lessons about God & Jesus, or great toys that frequently got them in trouble during worship? Keep parents in mind as you select any trinkets or prizes that you might plan to give: will this item make mom’s job harder, or easier? Thank you for helping parents in this area, & thank you for not lowering the bar & undermining parental authority by saying things like, “Well, those parents shouldn’t be so strict; I let my children have toys like that when they were that age.”
Parents, depending on the child’s age, it may be helpful to keep quiet & clean snacks on hand: goldfish or crackers may seem convenient, but cleanup is another story. Cheerios or dissolvable snacks (like Gerber Graduates) make minimal messes & can be great for such settings. Barring health issues, children by the age of four or five ought to be able to go without a snack until after the assembly ends.
Help them to be a part of the environment. By age two or three, get your child an inexpensive Bible. Yes, the pages will likely be torn, but having his own Bible will develop ownership. Also, even children who can’t read yet can hold songbooks: this makes them feel like they are participating as well. Teach them to care for the books: reward proper treatment with praise, reward an accidentally torn page with disappointment, & reward a recklessly torn page with a light pop on the hand.
Another potential aspect of the worship environment is the training room. When such a room is available, it is for training! It is not the “cry room” or the “play room.” A training room is for parents who are truly training their children to worship, who want to be able to give correction & instruction, & who want to do so without distracting the focus of others.
Some details of the worship environment are out of parents’ control. Other worshippers or their children can be a major challenge to training our own families. Nevertheless, by removing as many distractions as possible, we help our families to learn to “Be still” & come to know God.
Children need the proper Encouragement. “For I was my father’s son, tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother” (Proverbs 4:3). Fondly recalling how his parents treated him, knowing he was daddy’s boy & the apple of mama’s eye, the wise father sought to instill the same positive seeds within his son. This, too, is integral in training children to worship. Give them positive reinforcement. Reward their good behavior. Commend their attentiveness while worshipping God. Acknowledge their efforts to join their voices in the songs. Let them know that you are pleased with their progress in behavior & participation, & that God is pleased, too.
What happens if we fail to do this? Paul warned against this mistake: “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged” (Colossians 3:21). John Paul Getty, America’s first oil billionaire & once the nation’s wealthiest man, once received a heartfelt letter expressing matters deeply importance to his teenage son, & the letter came back to the son with grammatical & spelling errors marked in red: a lesson in heartlessness never forgotten by a son who became defined by drug abuse, divorce, & indifference toward his own son. Let us not make this mistake, but rather encourage our children by commending them for proper conduct whenever we can.
Children need the proper Enforcement. Proper conduct is to be encouraged. Improper conduct is to be discouraged. To “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” includes proper correction when needed (Ephesians 6:4).
Many modern childrearing philosophies disagree with God’s wisdom: “The rod & reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Proverbs 29:15). There is a time for negative reinforcement. There is a time for the rod of correction, & the rod of correction is unpleasant: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beastest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell” (Proverbs 23:13-14).
“But I love my child too much to spank.” This is a lie. Hear God: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Proverbs 13:24). Love does not refuse to discipline: a loving parent will ache in his soul in order to teach a son “while there is still hope” (Proverbs 19:18).
Parents, love them enough to stick to the boundaries that you have set. Otherwise, the boundaries are for naught. Do not permit silent rebellion by allowing subtle misbehavior.
The goal of discipline is to instruct, not to injure. Discipline with control: especially with young children, a light swat will often do the trick. Discipline with love: be motivated by the child’s best interest, not the parent’s embarrassment (Proverbs 13:24). Discipline with promptness: do it while there is still hope for him to learn & before he forgets why he is being disciplined (Proverbs 19:18). Discipline with teaching: “The rod & reproof give wisdom” (Proverbs 29:15), & nothing is accomplished when a child receives pain for wrongdoing without being pointed in the right direction. Discipline with mutual consistency: the father’s instruction & mother’s law must go hand in hand (Proverbs 1:8-9), & there is no room for one parent to pamper a child while the other parent is disciplining, nor is there room for second-guessing each other in front of the child.
When should parents begin enforcing discipline? Parents must decide how early is too early, but a one-year-old can understand when his actions brought about a light swat.
When the child is not behaving as he should, begin with a warning, letting the child know that unpleasant ramifications are ahead if his conduct continues. The number of warnings depends upon the age & understanding of the child. If the misconduct continues, follow through! Be calm, consistent, & communicative. Calmly let the child know what actions led to this penalty. If the child is unceasingly disruptive & inhibiting your worship or others’ worship, yet you (the parent) deem the child too young for corporal punishment, then calmly take the child out of the worship assembly, find a place to sit, set the child in your lap, & hold the child still. Let her know that this is time to be quiet, & do not allow her to play. A child who gets to play because she did not behave in the worship setting has just been rewarded for misconduct: bad idea.
When a child who is old enough for corporal punishment has ignored parental warnings, lead him out of the assembly, whispering why & where you are going as you get up, as you walk through the lobby, & as you arrive in the room where you will do the reluctant but necessary duty of a loving parent.
Designate a room these situations. If possible, use a room where no one else is present. Let no one follow. A parent administering correction to a child was once pursued out of an auditorium by a socially liberal busybody who, suspecting that the child had been spanked, called child services & embellished the ordeal to the point that the child was put into foster care for a year. Let’s be abundantly clear: to interfere with parents who discipline per God’s Word is to declare war on God Himself, & only a servant of Satan running headlong to Hell’s damnation would oppose parents doing their God-given duties & threaten to dismantle a stable home in the process. Parents, be prudent.
In the designated punish room, make it unpleasant. This is no reward or reprieve from worship. Also, children can cry silently. If your child makes scenes & pitches fits, it is because he believes that his will can outlast yours. In such a case, make the penalty more unpleasant. If this fails, there are other effective means of getting his attention. The book The Strong-Willed Child by Dr. James Dobson can help parents in such situations.
When the proper discipline has been given, return the child promptly to the worship environment. Do not linger. As one sister put it: “Take ‘em out; wear ‘em out; bring ‘em back.”
It will not likely take long for your child to realize what the expectations are & adjust to them. Soon a mere look or a whisper will be all that is necessary to correct misconduct. If you are consistent in administering corrective discipline, then they will come to trust you to carry through on your warnings.
Parents, there is no shame in disciplining a child. The shame is in failing to train & discipline a child, for the wise man said, “The rod & reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Proverbs 29:15).
Sometimes parents need Reinforcements.
Sometimes parents need positive reinforcement. Let them know that you appreciate their parenting efforts. Support them. Encourage them. When a mother’s infant would not stop screaming during a service, find that woman & encourage her: she may be so cross-eyed & confused by that time that your kind & encouraging words are the only thing that get her through the parking lot to her car.
Sometimes parents just need reinforcements. Perhaps a mother is by herself with multiple children. Someone who can handle children should volunteer to sit with the family so that mama can take one unruly child out while not having to worry about what the others are doing. Help that mama!
Do not second-guess their willingness to discipline!
Do not second-guess their desire to train their children!
Do not pamper a child over what mean ole mommy did when she took him out of the assembly! If anything, tell him he is blessed to have a loving mother who will correct him.
If you don’t have children, do any that sit where they can see you as you worship? If so, what kind of example are you giving to them? As they look frontward to the preacher or the Lord’s table, do they see you holding yourself in a way that manifests a distracted mind or indifference to worship?
Parents, you will need reinforcements. Be willing to ask. If you are frequently the only parent sitting with your children, have a plan with a nearby adult about what to do in the event that you must exit. Also, recognize which people are good with your children & which ones tend to make them more disruptive: no one is helped if the well-intentioned person assisting is doing more harm than good. If your infant screams when being held by an unfamiliar face, or if your toddler misbehaves when with sister Jeanie because Jeanie is a pushover, or if your well-behaved six-year-old becomes an inadvertent distraction when sitting with Mr. Joe because Mr. Joe doesn’t know how to whisper, then don’t put your child that person’s care. You can say, “I’m sorry, he’s going to sit with Ms. Kay tonight,” or, better yet, “I really want him to sit here with me until I know he is ready to sit elsewhere.” Parents, you will need backup, & you have every right to ask for it from your brethren. You have every right to decline some with the best of intentions.
Brethren, parents need your help! They need the help of those who are good with children. They need people to volunteer, & not be hurt if they respectfully decline. Brethren, do you want to know the best way to help parents who are training their children to worship God? Here it is: Be Flexible! Their goal is to worship God & to train their children to do the same: be willing to help them in whatever way they need.
Parents, if your child will not behave for you, but will behave for others, then your child does not respect you. This may be because children identify parents’ hypocrisies, it may be because they have learned to control their parents instead of vice versa, or it may be because their parents have never actually disciplined them. Whatever the cause, be consistent, be in control, & be the parent: this is what they need you to be!
Parents, don’t sweat the inevitable unpredictables. Trips to the restroom, freak injuries involving a pencil & an attendance card, & embarrassing bodily noises are going to occur. Just take it in stride. God blessed you with those babies.
Do you wonder how long it will take to make your child “perfect”? Don’t be delusional: it won’t happen. Do you wonder how other parents got so lucky with well-behaved children? It’s not luck! It’s training. If you do it with your children three times a week, before long, they will be well-behaved, too.
…Be Training Them to Behave
After We Worship God Together.
After the final song & closing prayer, adults tend to socialize with their peers. Children desire the same thing. Of course, the problem is that children socializing often involves running inside a building where octogenarians are trying to maneuver with canes: a dangerous situation.
How do we view children: as Jesus did, or as His disciples did? Jesus’ disciples rebuked some who brought little children unto Jesus, but Jesus said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto Me” (Matthew 19:13-14).
Jesus said that children belong with Him! Since the church is His body (Ephesians 1:22-23), it only makes sense that children belong with Jesus’ church! They need to feel like they belong. They need to feel like they have a place in the crowd. If their parents stand & laugh while they are expected to sit & sulk, they will get frustrated. If they cannot enjoy time with their peers, they will see the church building as a prison, resent being there, become discouraged, & become the very thing Paul warned against (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21). In the end, if they develop faith at all, it will be a fake faith that they discard when they are able to exercise certain liberties.
So how can we give children a sense of belonging?
Some just want to be helpful. Some adults allow children to help them clean the communion trays, & those children are delighted to be a part of a job behind the scenes: to all who make those children feel included, I thank you. There are boys who are never more delighted than when asked to return empty collection trays to the front of the auditorium to the Lord’s table after services: to all who make those children feel included, I thank you. Some children who rush to the exits to open doors as people leave, & it brightens their eyes to hear an elderly sister’s “Thank you” or a gentleman’s “Good job, young man”: to all who make those children feel included, I thank you.
Some just want to have fun. What’s wrong with that? There’s no need for running wild or entering areas where they have no business, like sound rooms or counting rooms for the collection: but there is every reason for them to have a place to play without posing a danger to other frail souls in the area. Parents, if an eldership has not designated an area where children can act like children after the assembly, then identify an area that is not frequented by adults, let your children know the limits of the area & of their activities, & let them be children.
If the child misbehaved during the worship assembly, then don’t let the child play afterwards. If the trip to the punishment room didn’t get his attention, this should.
Whether they’re your children, grandchildren, someone else’s children, or children you have never seen, let them know you’re glad that they’re here, or else eventually they won’t be.
Conclusion: Parents & brethren, let us shun the path of least resistance in training children to worship God. The easy road is a dead end (Matthew 7:14). Let’s do it God’s way.
The sound of children as we assemble is a Good Thing! What better place for them to be?! Let no parent regret taking a child to worship, even though it may be difficult for a while. No, if you regret anything, regret not taking them to worship, or regret not teaching them how to worship. If it is worth the time to gather with the saints & worship God, then it is worth the effort it takes to train our children to do it properly.
It’s not about getting them to be quiet for an hour: it’s about developing a life focused on God, & that appreciates the privilege of assembling to pay homage to His glorious name.