I’m preparing Reader Training for tomorrow evening, and one of the topics we’re addressing is children in the worshipping community.
One of the questions I get asked most often on this topic is about the dreaded “shhhhhhh …!” and how to address it.
What is “the dreaded ‘shhhh'”? What harm can it do?
Imagine you’re a young parent with a two-year-old. You’ve got up on a weekend morning, dressed and fed yourself and your child, bundled them into the pushchair or car, gone to church, figured out where to sit and what to do, but you’re feeling conspicuous and nervous in this reverent environment. The sign outside said “ALL ARE WELCOME,” but … does that really mean you? It’s so peaceful and contemplative here. Everyone seems to know all the rules. And here you are, in the back pew, shoving raisins at your kid, trying to get them to sit still and be quiet. Your child stands on the pew (is that allowed??) so they can see, looks at the stained glass windows, turns to you, and says, “daddy, look, I see a sheep!”
In front of you, heads turn. Three or four people are staring at you. One of them says “Shhhhh!!” A few others tut and not-so-subtlely roll their eyes.
How do you feel?
Will you come back?
What message have you and your child just received about your place in God’s house?
Okay, but sometimes a child is screaming …
I’m immensely grateful to Carolynn Pritchard (no relation) from the Spiritual Child Network for clarifying the distinction between SOUND and NOISE.
We all make SOUNDS when we worship. There might be the 35-year-old who forgot to turn down their Lady Gaga ringtone, and the intercessions are interrupted by the first notes of “Bad Romance.”
There might be the 84-year-old gentleman who is in denial about needing a hearing aid and is consequentially two beats behind everyone else when they sing.
There might be the 5-year-old who whispers observations to their friends about what’s happening during the service.
All of this is different from NOISE, which is genuinely disruptive.
NOISE would be if your phone rang and you took the call instead of turning your phone off or going outside.
A toddler having a screaming tantrum in church is noise, and there needs, if possible, to be a safe warm place within the church building for parents to take children who need some time out. (They also need to be clearly told that we would prefer for them to COME BACK when their child is ready!)
So yes, of course, disruptive noise needs to be kept to a minimum in church. And yet, often, people react to any SOUND made by children – shouting “AMEN!” at the end of prayers, calling their carers’ attention to something in the building they’ve noticed, playing with a Bible-related toy like a Noah’s Ark or a Nativity set – as though it were NOISE.
The Unholy Trinity
In my experience, I’ve generally found that this hostility towards children in church who are anything other than silent and invisible comes down to one of three reasons.
- Pastoral reasons. For some people, the presence of children might be upsetting. You might have just found out that your sixth round of IVF didn’t work. Your grown children might have told you that they don’t plan to have children, and you’re grieving the grandchildren you always thought you’d have. You might be a parent whose child has died. In this case, “I’ve noticed you seem upset when children are around – are you okay?” can start a conversation about this behaviour. Often, when people feel able to express their emotions in a positive way, the passive-aggressive behaviour, and acting out, diminish.
- Fear and defensiveness. “If we start getting more young families, this church is going to turn into a three-ring circus of bright colours and loud noises and simplistic dumbed-down worship, and everything I love about my church, my spiritual home, will disappear.” In this case, the person has a particular image in their head of what “child-friendly worship” is, and it’s somewhere between an episode of Peppa Pig and a children’s birthday party. For this, I would recommend:
- Making changes in a slow and careful way (and using the phrase “we’re going to TRY x,” rather than “we’re going to DO x”).
- Making changes that are in keeping with the existing tradition of the church. Don’t immediately go from being a high-church Anglo-Catholic community with a professional choir to having screens and guitars and cafe-style church. It won’t work.
- Demonstrating what the presence of children has to offer US, as well as what we have to offer THEM (“wow, that music the children sang was wonderful, and enhanced MY worship – maybe this isn’t so bad”), can help reassure these fears. But it is a slow process, and there will be setbacks.
- An unexamined, mistaken assumption about what church is. For this, I have to thank Gretchen Wolff Pritchard (there is a relation there, unlike with Carolynn), who pointed out that almost everyone, including parents and children themselves, comes into church with the unexamined assumption that when they come to church, children are “guests at an adult event.” This was driven home to me when I was at a rehearsal for my amateur dramatics group, which I automatically categorise as an adult event, and I got annoyed by the sounds made by an actor’s 3- and 5-year-old grandchildren, who had come along.
When we think of church as an adult event, as opposed to a family event, that creates different assumptions about the role of children. Children, in that context, are supposed to entertain themselves quietly so they don’t disturb the people this event is REALLY for. And when this is internalised by non-childed worshippers, parents, and children themselves, this is what happens:
- Non-childed worshippers think – “children are disrupting an event that’s for me.” They may be more accepting at family events or other occasions where they understand it’s for everyone.
- Parents think – “my children are misbehaving and bothering the people who this is for. I’m embarrassed and I need to make them behave.” The emphasis then becomes not disturbing others, rather than engaging in the event. Watch these same parents at a children’s puppet show – they behave differently. They engage their children, they make sure they can see, they whisper about what’s happening, they make the experience sensory … Carolyn Carter Brown has an excellent article on Whispering In Church which can help parents with this.
- Children think – “this is not for me. I have to sit down and shut up instead of being actively engaged, and wait until I’m set free at the end.”
So what can be done?
In addition to the tips and links above, here are a few ideas – I put the question “how do people answer complaints about young people making any noise in church?” to the Spiritual Child Network Facebook group, and here are a few of the replies:
How have you tackled this thorny topic? What has worked? What hasn’t?