Engaging children in Church: Tips and tricks for parents

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When my husband and I became Eastern Orthodox seven years ago, I knew I had come home.  However, I wasn’t sure how to make my own home reflect my new faith.  This series–”So I’m Orthodox, Now What?”–is based on the questions I asked myself in the first few years after our chrismation:  How could I make our home a “Little Church”?  How could I instruct my children in a faith that I myself was only beginning to explore?  After some experimentation, conversations with older and wiser Orthodox mothers, readings, and instruction from spiritual fathers, I have found ways to create an Orthodox home.  I hope that this series can provide encouragement and practical ideas for new converts and a forum for more seasoned Orthodox families to share their practices.  
I remember it so clearly.  It was Holy Week, and I was in church with my very active two-year-old.  All was somber as we began the Procession for Holy Friday.  So quiet and reverent…..until my son made a beeline for his father, who was holding the cross in the procession.  He ran right in front of the priest and nearly tripped him, knocked into the subdeacon holding the incense, and ended up on my husband’s feet at the front of the procession.
I thought I would die of embarrassment.
Has anyone else been there?  (Please tell me I’m not the only one!)  Having children with us in church is hard work!  Is it worth it?  Can it be made easier?  Does it ever get better (please, please say yes!).
Orthodox Philosophy of Children in Church
My husband and I both grew up in Protestant churches where young children were generally sent to nurseries.  Often the older children had a “Children’s Church” during the sermon and rejoined the adults at the end of the service.  That was my normal.
However, this is not the normal in the Orthodox Church.  Our Church teaches us that children are fully part of the Church.  They partake in its sacraments.  They participate in its Liturgy.  They belong.
I deeply appreciate the beauty of this teaching.  I love hearing children singing “Lord have mercy” or belting out “Christ is risen!” at the top of their lungs.  I get choked up when my little ones sing the Lord’s prayer with us for the first time or reach up on tiptoe to kiss an icon.  I am so glad that my children are welcomed into the Church.
But it can be one absolutely exhausting having them there.
Engaging Children in Church: Tips and Tricks for Parents
Quick disclaimer:  I am by no means an expert in helping my children pay attention during church (or even to be quiet!).  I am learning and growing in this.   These tips apply to me, too.
1. Practice Hymns at Home
Try to incorporate hymns of the Church in your Morning or Evening Prayers.  We sing the Lord’s prayer twice a day.  We also sing “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” in the morning and “Come Let us Worship and Bow Down” in the evening.  You could also sing the Hymn to the Theotokos, Christ is Risen from the Dead, or other festal hymns.
Children love being able to sing along with the adults when they know the hymns.  This helps them focus and participate.  The more hymns they know, the more they can participate!
2. Use the Whole Body
I don’t know about your children, but mine have a little, (ahem) a lot of energy.  They need to move, and a two hour liturgy can get a bit long.  That’s why I love the movement that is naturally part of the Liturgy.  If you teach your children the sign of the cross when they are young (my kids learned at age two), they have ample opportunity to move their bodies during church.  Model prostrations and help children make them when appropriate.
In our church, children all go to the front of the church and hold candles during the Gospel.  My kids love being able to walk up and stand next to their friends for awhile.
3. Venerate Icons
Children are drawn to icons.  In my experience, they are somehow able to understand and draw spiritual focus from them.  If you have a squirming toddler who is fussy, try walking around the back or perimeter of the church to look at the icons.  Stop before each and quietly explain who it is and have the child kiss the icon.  At every church I have attended or visited, this has been completely acceptable.  I have seen many older parishioners smile at us as we go by, happy to see a child venerating an icon.
4. Use Liturgy Books Strategically
There are several fantastic books for children that walk them through the Divine Liturgy.  For younger children I recommend The Child’s Guide to Divine Liturgy.  It has excellent illustrations that help kids follow along with and mark the key parts of the Divine Liturgy.  By knowing what is coming up and what to look for, younger children can participate more fully.  Any teacher will tell you that the more involved a child is, the less likely he or she is to misbehave!
Older children who can read will be able to follow along in your church’s liturgy book.  My son (the same one who almost tripped our priest!) is now six-years-old.  We require him to follow along in the book, reading and singing, for the first part of the Liturgy.  After the homily he can either continue following along or read his children’s Bible.
5. Give Children Jobs
Most young children love helping.  Try to use this desire to involve the children in Liturgy.  Let young children learn how to light candles carefully.  I ask my daughter to “let Mommy know” whenever it is time for Communion.  At three-years-old, she has learned all of the cues!  (“Mommy, Father just closed the curtain.”  “Mommy, we just said the prayer.”  “Mommy, he opened the curtain.  It’s time for Communion!”)
In some churches, children can join the choir or sing at the chanter’s stand.  Our church allows children to help the greeters in welcoming people in and helping newcomers find the Liturgy books and candles.  When my son was four, our treasurer let him help count and sort the money from the offering.  He took his “job” very seriously and loved the responsibility! When your son is old enough, talk with your priest about having him become an altar server.
6. Realize that They are Children
If you have a toddler with limitless energy and a very limited attention span, these tips may seem absolutely impossible.  My child pay attention and sing, yeah right, lady!  And, I get that.  Completely.  My children are 6, 3, and 1, and my husband serves at the altar many Sundays.  That means I have three little ones by myself.  Whew.  At the end of Liturgy, I am completely wiped out.
It can be easy to become frustrated with your children.
To resent them for distracting you during Liturgy.
To long for a time when you can worship without distraction.
To want to shoot spitballs at that mom whose three young children sit angelically for the entire service. (True story.)
To feel that there must be something wrong with you as a parent because yours decide to yell at the top of their lungs while sprinting toward the altar.  (Also true story.)
Remember, however, that they are children.  They will make mistakes.  They will make noise (gasp!).  They will act like children.
But, they are God’s children.  And He wants them in his Church.  He welcomes them–and you–to His house.
The orthdoxmama.com

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Mathew 28:19