“Sleepers and Weepers: Helping Infants and Preschoolers Be Happy in Church,” Ensign, Mar. 1982, 43–45
“Suffer little children,” the Savior said, “and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:14.)
In more recent times, Latter-day Saints have similarly been instructed that children of all ages are to attend sacrament meeting with their parents and that families should sit together. This practice poses certain challenges to the reverence of our meetings—problems which are magnified when children cry out or fuss, when one adult is responsible for more than one young child, when there are other young children close by, or when parents may not have prepared themselves or their children.
Certainly, consideration for others and the need to contribute to the purpose of our meetings often suggest that fussy children be taken to the foyer or to a room set aside for the care of children until they settle down. But there is much parents can do to keep children quiet and even help them enjoy the meeting. For infants and young preschoolers, the foyer is often the only answer, but for older children the answer may lie in the preparations and interactions of empathic parents.
Imagine sitting on a hard seat with your legs stretched out straight or dangling over the edge, unable to touch the floor. Seated next to you are the people you love most, but they won’t talk to you and scarcely look at you except if you wiggle or talk. Sitting nearby are some of your best friends, but you can’t talk or play with them because you are told that Heavenly Father wants you to be reverent—a vague concept that you may not really understand for several years to come. If you do sit still and listen, what you hear is not interesting to you—except maybe some of the songs. You can’t even see over the seats in front of you to know who is talking. The hands on the clock move ever so slowly, and you are tired but not really sleepy. You really wish you could run home.
Tiny Latter-day Saints are normal children. The things they do during church are typical of their growth and development. Research at Yale University has produced a host of characteristics which children exhibit at various ages. (See Arnold Gesell and Frances Ilg, Infant and Child in the Culture of Today, New York: Harper and Brothers.) At age one children like activity—moving around, pulling up, creeping on the floor, throwing things on the floor to have them retrieved. By fifteen months they like to explore, to turn pages, to observe action around them. By eighteen months climbing is their favorite activity. They like to tear pages out of books, including hymn books. This is the busybody, into-every-thing age. Their temper tantrums are a result of discovering their own will and its effect on others. By age two, children like to practice their newly acquired vocabulary, not always in soft tones. They are particularly fond of father and want to be with him (even if he is speaking in church). Almost all of their play is accompanied by constant talking. By age three children are becoming more responsive to parental requests and can entertain themselves up to an hour if provided with appropriate materials. By age four they are even more self-entertaining but still ask up to four hundred questions daily. They may stay occupied but still not be interested in the proceedings of an entire sacrament meeting.
These developmental facts combine to produce a picture of very powerful, active, inquisitive little Saints. But the normality of our children should be a comfort, not a concern. During the preschool years, children learn more than they will ever again learn in mortality: vital life skills of locomotion, communication, relationships. They form feelings, attitudes, and opinions that will remain with them the rest of life—about God, about church, about family and friends. We must, therefore, not overlook their developmental needs nor contribute to negative attitudes during church. We must capitalize on children’s stages of development and be creatively persistent in helping them cope with the challenges of church activity.
Babies—infants—are oblivious to the proceedings of meetings. Their parents’ main concern should be to keep them comfortable and happy—by using bottles, baby blankets, and quiet toys. But if babies become uncomfortable and begin to make a disturbance, it doesn’t build their character at their age—or help them form correct habits—to let them scream in the chapel. The best thing to do is quiet them in the foyer or in a classroom designated for that purpose.
Toddlers and preschoolers are more conscious of their surroundings. Being comfortable usually isn’t enough for them—they want more interaction and activity. But since they are still too young to understand what the meeting is all about, a preschool child is helped with the following:
1. An adult to interact reverently with on a one-to-one basis. Fathers, mothers, older siblings, other teens, or older or single persons in the congregation can be called upon for this assistance, especially if the child is familiar and comfortable with them. Parents who need help should feel free to request help. Ward members without preschoolers could offer assistance to those who obviously need more helping hands.
2. Necessary interaction during the meeting. Children need to learn to whisper since they cannot remain incommunicado for seventy minutes. They need to receive a lot of winks, hugs, smiles, and pats during the meeting.
3. Quiet things to keep him or her occupied, such as cloth books, sponge blocks, etc., rather than wooden or metal toys. A toy reserved for church can be more appealing.
4. Appropriate sleep-inducing items such as a small blanket, pillow, soft toy, or bottle if these will help him or her relax. Sleepers are infinitely easier to manage than are creepers, leapers, or weepers!
5. A seat where he or she can observe the proceedings of the meeting. Laps provide such vantage points. Seating away from young friends reduces distraction. Sitting near the end of the row or in the back of the room promotes easy exits when necessary.
6. Praise for even the smallest improvement at self-direction and quiet interaction. This is probably best done at home after church; but if the praise can be given in a way that will not detract from the reverence you’ve tried to instill, it could be given during the meeting. Working for quiet during the sacrament, parents will be able to extend the periods of quiet as the child grows older. It is vital not to expect too much too soon. Not until about age three can self-direction begin to occur for the majority of the seventy-minute meeting. Even then there will be some days when interaction is needed.
7. A speedy exit when necessary. Clearly, a disturbing child can best be dealt with outside the chapel. But as you exit with an unhappy child, consider how he is feeling instead of how embarrassed or frustrated you are. Fear or harm-producing measures are not nearly as helpful as expressions of empathy, support, and encouragement. The promise of better interaction upon returning to the chapel will shape behavior more effectively than threats or a spanking.
Even very small children can be happy in church. They can learn while quite young to love to go to church, and, in the process, learn to be reverent.