Getting Kids to Behave in Church

Kids in Church 1

We received this question from a mom with three active boys who, at the time, was taking our online course Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart:

We have three boys all 4 and under. Our 4-year-old twins are very persistent and strong-willed. Yesterday at church I was trying to get them to stay quiet and quit climbing on the pews but they would not stop. Church is one of the hardest places for us because we are trying to get them to comply as we are working hard ourselves at staying quiet. It is so stressful!

There is only so much we can do without taking them out of the sanctuary. We have tried explaining our expectations prior to arriving at church and giving them incentives for complying, but it is still a continual problem and a source of frustration for us.

Can any of you relate?

It’s awesome when parents want to experience church together with their family! However, if all church means to kids is a place to go where they get in trouble or are tightly controlled, they will likely learn to dislike church in a hurry.

Here are some perspectives and ideas using the Connected Families Framework. For starters, our overarching suggestion is to do whatever is needed so that your kids find church a place of joy.

FOUNDATION: “You are safe with me.”

The key question to consider is, “What’s going on in me about this issue?”  How do my thoughts and feelings, and the opinions of others affect my responses? And what do my kids see in me at times like this? Most parents admit that their facial expressions and body language show our kids that church is more of a chore than a joy.  

If this describes your family, it may help to remember that Jesus loved hanging out with the messiest of people, and when the disciples rebuked people for bringing children to Him (presumably the kids were not acting like little adults in the meeting!), he said, “Let them come to me for this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.” (Matthew 19:13) Maybe the kingdom of heaven is not a place where kids have to sit still for an hour but instead a place of grace and acceptance for all who come!

Remembering God’s mercy for our messiness in the midst of the liveliness can help us create a safe environment for our children to learn and grow at church.  When we model that church is a safe and joyful place our kids will learn to see it that way too!  

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CONNECTION: “You are loved no matter what.”

The key question here is, “Do I really understand and empathize with my children?” Active or “strong-willed” children tend to have more sensitive nervous systems and find church more over-stimulating than other children might. If this is the case, these kids will often seek extra activity/movement/noisiness to help them feel more in control and less overwhelmed. This can feel disrespectful or defiant to adults, but it might just be your child’s way of compensating for the stress of the church environment.

Do your lively little ones know that you understand how hard it is for them to sit still and listen to something they don’t understand, when their bodies are driven to move? How might you sincerely empathize with them?

Another question to consider is – am I meeting my child’s God-given need for attention before we get into church, or do we stressfully fly into the service with my kids suffering from “attention deficit”? Read about how to prevent misbehavior with quick, intense, joy-filled attention.

COACH: “You are called and capable.”

An important question here is, “How could I set my child up for success rather than wait for them to fail?” You can discuss this with your kids and make a plan together. As you do this, consider what your unique child might need in order to have the best shot at staying reasonably calm during church. A creative child might benefit from activity books that have biblical messages, a tactilely sensitive child might benefit from a back rub or some putty to fidget with, a “mover and shaker” might do best with strong movement first: run into church from the far side of the parking lot and/or march up and down some stairwells before the service.

You might also consider having your child serve in church alongside you (nursery, ushering, handing out programs, etc.).  This often brings a sense of belonging and value to your child which can be motivating. The ultimate goal is NOT to have quiet kids for one hour, but rather that they enjoy learning, serving and worshiping together with the body of Christ.

CORRECT: “You are responsible for your actions.”

If you’ve tried some of these ideas and the kids are still struggling, it’s okay to find other options outside the sanctuary. The message is: church is a wonderful privilege, and we are responsible to make sure those around us aren’t distracted from learning and worshiping.

Some parents go into the lobby and let the kids roam a little more freely. Some find churches that are more intentional about engaging the younger kids. Some churches have rooms for parents and kids to be together in ways that don’t disrupt the larger service. Most churches want children to enjoy coming as much as you do!  If you are at a loss for ideas you could also seek out the children’s pastor – they are trained in these things. 🙂

In conclusion, children probably won’t remember many of the specific things they learn at church, but they will remember how they feel at church. We can have a goal for our kids to feel like those children felt when Jesus pulled them onto his lap!

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