What can we do to promote happy Sabbaths for our small children?

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“What can we do to promote happy Sabbaths for our small children?” Ensign, Aug. 1980, 31–32

Our Sabbaths seem to be long and boring to our small children. What can we do to promote happy Sabbaths?

Sharon and Wayne Dequer, parents of three children, Monrovia Ward, Arcadia California Stake The Savior clearly taught that the Sabbath is a day to distinguish between idle wants and real spiritual and physical needs. Little children are irrepressibly active, and we must recognize that need in planning their Sabbaths. Rather than asking “Should they be active on Sunday?” we could probably more appropriately ask, “How should they be active on Sunday?”

We want our children to learn that Sunday is a day for being able to do different things than we get to do the rest of the week. They can readily see that daddy doesn’t go to work or mow the lawn on the Sabbath, and mommy doesn’t shop or clean or bake cookies—we do different, more restful things. How can the day be different for our children as well?

First of all, we save Sunday as a day to be together with just our own family, rather than a day to play with friends or to spend watching television. Then it’s up to mom and dad to make it an interesting and enjoyable day. To accomplish that, instead of stressing the “shalt nots,” we begin teaching our little ones to ask—and answer—the question, “Is it appropriate?”

That question led us to such activities as reading, coloring, singing, and playing musical instruments. But while these seemed to be quite appropriate, they didn’t go far enough to stretch through the day. So then we learned to turn to other ideas: helping one of our children “write” a letter, acting as scribe for another while he dictated a page in his personal history, having personal interviews with each child, just talking together and sharing thoughts and ideas.

Low-key creative play, we feel, is entirely fitting on the Sabbath. The question of appropriateness can generally be answered by looking at the amount of preparation and clean-up work a particular activity requires. We also choose games that are different from those normally shared with friends. We’ve decided that playing in the dirt, for instance, isn’t a Sunday activity, but blocks and other construction games seem more acceptable. And they can be tied in with the gospel. So after reading the story of Noah’s ark or Lehi’s journey to the New World, we can have each of the children build his own representation of their ships.

The key to helping our children have an enjoyable Sabbath seems to be our spending time with them. Certainly other Sunday activities also demand our time, but a half hour here and there with our children, strategically placed, goes a long way. Many families find that walking to church, at least part of the way, really helps the children sit restfully and quietly when they arrive. We have also made a special effort to help our children appreciate Sunday church services. Here, again, the question of appropriateness has proven useful. Quiet toys and coloring books are valuable for occupying the littlest ones, but of course they must be closely monitored, since nearby children and even adults find these distracting. We always rejoice when we find a book that is gospel-centered; those we use only in church and at other special times. The child soon learns that the book is different from his other books and hopefully will associate church and reverence with it.

We feel we must begin this training as early as possible. A toddler’s cooperation span may be frustratingly short, so we encourage him or her with “when-you’re-big enough-to-stay-in-the-meeting-with-the-rest-of-the-family” comments.

The occasional time does arise when we must take one or more of the children out of the meeting. When we do, we’ve found it important to help the child to act as if he were seated inside the chapel—seated and quiet. Otherwise, going out of the meeting becomes a “reward” for misbehavior. We feel that threatening punishment would make our children dislike going to church, so we try to make separation from the rest of the family the alternative they’ll want to avoid.

When our children begin to stretch their capacity to stay in the meeting and to postpone coloring and playing with toys until after the sacrament, we as parents really try to make the service more meaningful for them. We do this in several ways.

We encourage even our littlest ones to participate actively in the singing. We share a song book—letting them hold it—and point to the words and notes as we go along. At home we sing the more familiar hymns, and teach a few special ones (“Come, Ye Children of the Lord” and “All Creatures of Our God and King” are among our favorites) so that when they are sung in church it will really be a special occasion for our children. Some parents even find out in advance the songs that are to be sung each Sunday, in order to prepare their family to participate.

Encouragement to participate in other “standard” parts of sacrament meeting, such as sustainings and releasings, and especially partaking of the sacrament itself, is also helpful. Some wards regularly incorporate a children’s story into the service, further enhancing children’s appreciation of the meeting.

Discussion of the speakers’ remarks after the meeting is good, but usually too late to meet the need. During the talks, then, we whisper in a child’s ear brief comments about the speaker’s topic. (Any other conversation is firmly refused.) This is where the scripture stories we’ve read to the children begin to tie into their lives, where they find elements of the worship service which are truly of value to them. This is also where they begin developing the capacity to wean themselves away from coloring books and other distractions.

In tailoring Sabbath activities for children it is important to remember the Savior’s love for them and his statement that we must become as a little child to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Did he see the childlike qualities of boundless energy, curiosity, and enthusiasm as characteristics merely to be tolerated, or as divine attributes to be nurtured? With his perspective in mind, we can use appropriate activity, goal-setting, and quality family time as keys to helping our children discover and share the joy of the Sabbath day.