Sometimes dealing with unpredictable and unruly behavior in church feels more humiliating than the predictable melt down I’ve experienced so often at the end of a long trip with a toddler to Target.
During the liturgy, the sweet but high pitched voices of our children rise above chanters, and then we cringe a little when we shush them because that sound travels farther. Tiny footsteps echo loudly in the silence of pauses between hymns as our kids speed down the aisle – do they really need to stomp on each metal heating grate? Every step is followed by glares from adults. It seems we parents can’t win: when our kids are behaving nicely their very adorableness provides a distraction, as people around us comment on how cute they are, which provokes more distracted stares.
Why do we put ourselves through all this?
We know why: because the struggles of bringing our children, or our elderly parents, or of overcoming whatever other obstacle presents itself to us as we prepare for church, is insignificant compared to the blessing, the joy, the need of our souls for being part of the body of Christ at our church.
A baby’s participation in our faith begins with churching, baptism, and communion. Even when they fuss a bit in the service, infants are welcomed and loved. Children in church are like the chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies.
The Church, through the temple and Divine service, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendour of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures
+ St. John of Kronstadt
Even infants can experience the beauty and heavenly aspects of being in church, because they too are spiritual beings. Children have an innate faith, one that we adults are called to emulate.
Bringing our babies and children to church sows seeds of faith in their hearts. Attending church every week soon becomes a normal part of family life and is not even questioned by the children: it’s Sunday so we’re going to church. Some families find forming a habit of arriving near the end of Matins decreases that Sunday morning stress of being late and walking in after the service starts. Others choose to go for only part of a service so they’re not stretching a young child’s patience too far.
Our church services extend the faith we teach our children at home. Teaching children about the feasts before going to church will help them connect with the service. Hearing and saying prayers at home helps them recognize prayers when they hear them in church.
Going to church regularly has an important impact on young children in many ways. Learning to be still in a church service helps develop self-control and patience which they need for other settings. Going to church gives them an opportunity to dress nicely one morning a week and go somewhere special, a place that’s meant to represent heaven on earth. Lenten services and other special times in the church year add rhythm, depth, and spiritual beauty to their lives. Being part of a church community gives young children the opportunity to develop loving relationships with other Christian families, children, and adults. Praying in a sacred space and seeing all the icons helps children glimpse a bit of eternity:
In church there are everywhere symbols of love: crosses, the sign of the cross, the saints who were pleasing to God by their love to Him and to their neighbor, and Incarnate Love Itself.
+ St. John of Kronstadt
It’s a challenge to bring little ones, but the temporary struggles are far outweighed by the eternal benefits of growing up in our faith. Our children are not little adults, they are eternal beings created in the image of God and need to be nourished in the Orthodox faith from the very beginning at home and in church.
When your children are still small, you have to help them understand what is good. That is the deepest meaning of life.
+ Saint Paisios