Soon after I started as a church children’s worker, a parishioner greeted me after a service. “Thank you so much for the work you do with the children.” she beamed. “It’s wonderful!” I asked her what she’d noticed. “Oh, they’re so much better behaved now!” she replied, and, giving me a pat on the arm, went to get her coffee.
What she meant, of course, was that the children had stopped running around, making noise and distracting her. As Becky May, author and Messy Church advisor, says: “I think the focus is often far more on children’s behaviour enabling adults to participate in worship than adults and children worshipping together.” In this mentality, children are guests, not participants, welcome only as long as they don’t get in the way of the ‘real worshippers’ – the adults. And while it is important, of course, that everyone in our churches be able to worship, too many churches still reduce the question of children’s behaviour to whatever doesn’t bother the adults. And too many churches still – if they’re honest – have that as their primary job description for children’s workers or volunteers: distract the children and keep them quiet so I, as the pastor, stop getting angry emails from parishioners. Whether the children are actually getting anything from Sunday school or worship is secondary.
Usually, children are in church in one of two different contexts; sometimes both at different times. They’re with their families in a service (including initiatives like Messy Church), or they’re with their peers separately in Sunday school, junior church groups or similar. Behaviour expectations, and the question of who decides on and maintains those expectations, are different in those contexts.
Children in worship
When we talk about how children behave in church, what should we talk about? Revd Ally Barrett points out that the language of ‘behaviour’ itself is loaded: “‘Good behaviour’ is a term used about prisoners on early release!” she laughs. “It’s not a word we use in relation to those we consider to be of equal status.” And she points out that often, in worship, there is a double standard: “Adults who talk are tolerated, but children who make sounds are not.”
Dean Pusey, youth officer for St Albans Diocese, agrees. “When you think about the quintessential ‘behaviour’ moment in church,” he says, “it’s the parent saying: ‘Sit still, don’t embarrass me. You need to be a saint for the next hour.’ But actually, the reality of it is, we come in and what does welcome, hospitality, look like in a place that’s supposed to embody welcome and humanness? Do we say to children: ‘It’s okay, you can be? And if you want to shout out loud AMEN, or if you want to speak in tongues, as most kids and babies do, that’s okay’?”
Many people I talked to said the issue isn’t so much behaviour as engagement. If children are engaged in worship, what adults consider ‘good behaviour’ often follows. Anyone who’s seen parents talking, or on their smartphones, during a Messy Church session knows that it’s not just children who ‘misbehave’ when we sense an event isn’t aimed at us. So, Revd Ally says, the questions we need to be asking are: “How are children engaging? Are they making noise or moving around because they are engaging or because they cannot engage? Are there safe places that allow participation? Can children see and hear what’s going on? Is anything intentionally done to draw them in?”
Children’s areas in churches can be a lifeline for young families, but these need to be more than what Revd Dr Sandra Millar calls “dead teddy graveyards”. A children’s corner with Bible storybooks, toys related to Bible stories and worship (toy bread and wine, a Noah’s Ark, puzzles, a Nativity set, a doll in a Christening gown etc) can help children engage in worship through play. And if it’s somewhere they can see and hear the front of the church, even better.
Parents are also key. “When we talk about behaviour, we think about order and achievement and us having authority, and so our tendency is to go straight to the education model,” says Ben Mizen, children and youth advisor for the Diocese of Portsmouth. “But we need to look at the familial model.” He suggests it might help to encourage parents to think about church not as like school but as like a family activity. “Think about a family going to a swimming pool,” he says. “How does that work? When you’re engaged in the pool, you learn by doing. If the child is learning to swim, will the parent not help them?” Church is the same, he suggests.
Parents already have many of the skills needed to help their children engage in worship, but they often don’t realise it. They forget they can model worship with children and help their children engage (Carolyn Carter Brown’s ‘Whispering in church’ article is very good on this. See youthandchildrens.work/links)
If you follow the swimming metaphor, Ben suggests, you start to naturally see how the whole church can be involved in helping children worship. “If a child gets really good at swimming, they might take lessons, or someone else might help them; not standing by the side. They get in the water and they help them. The person is engaged in that activity.” This is the role of significant adults other than their parents – the other people who help the child grow as a Christian, who give opportunities to help lead or get on rotas, who lend books or suggest films or music, who get the children and young people involved in the church’s justice or charitable work, and so much more.
Dean adds that significant adults can help parents struggling with their child’s behaviour as well. Despite our cultural cliché of the big-eyed, grateful Victorian orphan, children who are sad, worried, grieving or traumatised don’t behave like perfect angels, or a child may have additional needs. He says that an adult “taking the time, saying ‘What can I do to help?’ can cut the embarrassment stuff out. This is the space where these children were baptised. An adult helping can cut out the embarrassment, give the parents permission to say, ‘This space is still the best place for this child to be.’”
That understanding is crucial to supporting children and families, Dean says. “For us to connect, we need to understand there might be issues going on in that young person’s life, beyond the walls of the church that need support. One of the things that struck me about the story of Zacchaeus and his strange behaviours is that Jesus noticed him. And it’s when a pastor or families worker, or someone in the pew says ‘I’ve noticed’ – not negatively – ‘Do you want to talk about it over coffee? Or when’s a good time to give a call? How can I help?’”
So support, understanding, a whole-church approach and engagement can help children with behaviour in worship. But there’s another place where children and young people may spend a lot of their time in church: their groups.
Children are assessed to within an inch of their lives everywhere else. Our churches have the chance to be somewhere where the last word is love
Children in Sunday school
“Please sit down, we’re listening to the story.”
“If you don’t stop talking, you’ll have to go back to Big Church.”
Does this sound familiar? Do you wish it didn’t? Does it feel a bit weird – and self-defeating – to make ‘going back to church’ into a punishment?
In some ways, issues with behaviour in Sunday school or youth groups are the same as in churches in general. If children are engaged, they tend to have fewer behaviour problems. So it can help to remember that children have limited attention spans and plan accordingly, and that visual and physical elements to storytelling and prayer can be useful (see the below box for other ideas). But it also helps to remember that we are a Church, and as a Church we’re supposed to be different from other places in children’s lives in important ways.
We’re supposed to be accepting. God’s approval or love is not dependant on a child’s ability to sit still and get the right answers in the Bible quiz. By focusing on knowledge and being good, we forget that, as Ben Mizen says, church isn’t just about learning, but about “belief, belonging, and being. Children come to church to be a part of a community where they are loved and accepted as they are, and they come simply to be, in the presence of God. Church isn’t about learning ‘correct’ ideas about God, but about experiencing a lived faith.”
Part of being that community is deciding together how to be, so why not let your children help put together the rules? Talk together about how God wants us to treat each other, write their ideas up, and display them in your space. That way, the children have ownership of the rules, and the rules have come not out of arbitrary adult authority but out of questions about God and community, and what it means to be a church. The key thing is to avoid the impression that failing to meet the adults’ standards of model behaviour in church is the same as displeasing God.
Another difference between church and school is that Sunday school may have different leaders from week to week, and children need consistency. Make sure expectations – and training – are consistent throughout your team. Teach your volunteers to praise good behaviour (kindness, inclusion, as well as ‘sitting still and listening’), and give gentle reminders of group expectations rather than critical tellings-off. To read a good article that may help facilitate discussions with your group leaders, visit youthandchildrens.work/links.
There may be times when the value of inclusion comes into conflict with church being a safe place for all. We believe as Christians that God welcomes all, but what happens if a child or young person in your group is hurting others? In those situations, Dean says: “the issue is to find out what is going on as much as is possible, in consultation with parents and carers.” But, he stresses: “If it’s at the point where it’s at the detriment of the other young people’s safety, or their property, then obviously you’ll have to make a decision about whether there needs to be some form of cooling-off time. I don’t like to call it exclusion.” With children, there may be more flexibility: a parent or carer can come to Sunday school with them to help support positive behaviour, but that becomes more difficult with teenagers.
So how do you, if needed, give a young person a cooling-off period in a way that doesn’t read as ‘God is rejecting me?’ Dean says that the root of it has to be love. “We have to be saying, ‘I notice. I hear. However, you have a responsibility to yourself and to the community that you are in, and we don’t want that community to withdraw from you because of what you are doing. Therefore, can we see a better path that can have you as part of the community?’”
During the cooling-off period, an adult from the group can meet with the young person outside of the group setting to keep the connection, and help put together a pathway for a return to the group. Sometimes, this may not be possible. As Dean says: “there is Biblical precedent there: the rich young man. Jesus says, ‘This is the situation’, and the rich young man couldn’t do it. People take ownership of their behaviour. That may not be our pathway with that young person, for that particular period of time.” But the root of any process of behaviour management in church has to be acceptance, understanding, and love. Children and young people are judged and assessed to within an inch of their lives everywhere else in the world. Our churches have a chance to be different. They have a chance to be somewhere where the last word is love.
The ten commandments of behaviour management
- Thou shalt worship only one set of rules: have consistent routines and expectations even with different leaders
- Remember the age of the children and keep it sacred (a four-year-old cannot sit still for 20 minutes straight)
- Thou shalt have rules that make sense, with natural and proportionate consequences
- Thou shalt remember the power of silence (wait, say nothing, and often a fidgety group will settle down)
- Thou shalt notice and praise them doing well
- Honour the different needs of the children and provide fidget tools/chill-out zones if needed
- Thou shalt suggest good behaviour: “Show me how well you can …”
- Thou shalt not criticise the child – only the behaviour
- Thou shalt not sweat the small stuff
- Thou shalt love the children as thyself, basing behaviour management in positive relationships