I remember the big, bold letters catching my eye as I did the obligatory scroll before bedtime. “How to Survive Church with Toddlers!” It claimed. ‘Ooooh!’ Thought I, as I clicked away hungrily. ‘This should be good!’
“There’s no snacks!” I called to Husband, brushing his teeth in the bathroom. “Ten whole tips on surviving Church with toddlers and not one of them is “snacks”?!”
“Garbage.” He concluded as he walked into the room.
Fair point, well made.
Like most of the “Travelling With Toddlers” pins I’d almost fallen for last winter, it only took a few references to “her” or “him” to work out that they just didn’t have three under-fives and one parent in mind. (Nor did they have a second, more appealing parent, animated and visible, yet dangling out of reach like a big clergy carrot, come to that!)
So, like most other articles before it… We mocked it, mercilessly, until we felt better about our failings and carried on just trying to keep our heads above the water.
As you do when you’re up to your neck in it.
However, as I wrote in my previous post, our last few visits to Church, I fear, crept a little too far towards the edge of carnage. I mean, to be fair to us and to them, it had been a particularly manic and unsettled Christmas, and now every little old dear with a handbag was slipping them chocolate and enquiring about Santa… but still. Things had gotten a little out of hand. The kids had lost the plot, Husband had lost his head and I had almost certainly lost my grip. Something had to change.
And today (she typed 3 weeks ago), I’m pleased to report, it did! (Hallelujah!)
So. Just how did we do it?!
1. I increased my expectations
I admit it. Sometimes, in the throes of sleep deprivation and perpetual scatty-ness, I just throw my hands up and accept that this stage of life is chaotic. A few mad Sundays on the trot, however, and I realise that I had, however briefly, just stopped expecting anything better from anyone and resigned myself to the run-around. This Sunday, however, I expected better behaviour from my children.
And do you know…
A simple change of mindset went an awful long way for the lot of us.
2. We did some groundwork
One of the best resources I’ve discovered in recent times is Play Through The Bible, by Liz Mallay. (I know… she’s an American Pinterest-Mommy, I should love to loathe her, but actually… I just can’t! This stuff is so well put together, specifically aimed at toddlers rather than “children”, and just so easy to follow for parents who want to be intentional but have forgotten how to think! Take a look.)
This week ‘s session was conveniently on Jesus as a little boy; getting lost in Jerusalem and found in the temple- the place that He loved best. After goofing around and basically acting out the story to Home Alone, I used it as a basis for talking to the kids about why we go to Church, what Daddy is doing up there and when it’s OK to join him and when it isn’t. Sounds basic but honestly, this is the first time since having 3 in tow that I’ve managed to get my own head into that place. Besides, the story and the resources gave me the confidence, inspiration and motivation to finally tackle it. (I know, the Bible hey… who’d have thought?!)
3. I closed my eyes
We left the house on time.
I mean, it looked like someone dumped all of their junk in Card Factory and then you know, just blew it all up… Twice…
… but we left on time.
For I decided to prioritise Church today. Which meant not arriving late, in a great wind of stress and chaos and disorientation, for everyone to hear and see. Which, in turn, meant closing my eyes- and the door!- on the debris we inevitably left behind.
I figured it could wait, and do you know… three weeks on… I can confirm, it did.
The mess waited. Go figure!
4. We prayed
I’ll tell you a secret… Sometimes I pray for help coping with my kids… With my kids. I don’t even know if that’s good or bad, but at the very least it’s honest. If I’m getting too overwhelmed and snapping and shouting too much and I know I’m not being a model parent (or, in fact, person), then I model being a praying one instead. (So, you know, hopefully instead of reaching that inevitable point where they realise with utter disappointment that I’m not the goddess they always thought I was, they’ll know the truth in advance and call on God for help!)
With this idea in mind, we prayed together in the car that God would prepare us for Church and help us to behave in a way that made Him smile.
Can’t ask for more than that.
(Actually, this week, Tinker thanked God for all the things that made her laugh and asked for help to calm down; whilst Toddler whispered something about being sensible in the sensible bits. This, my friends, is what I call immeasurably more!)
5. They packed their own bags
Truth be told we gave up on bringing toys to church a while back and I can’t even remember why. Probably more hassle than they were worth, when there’s a room full of them at the back. However, in my resolution to get our act together and be more prepared, I turned once more to The Gospel According to Pinterest, intent on bagging some wins. I was very prepared to go shopping and design some awesome hand luggage for each child, when I found myself surprisingly… underwhelmed. See, none of the suggestions I found particularly linked to the different elements of the service, such as worship or prayer, and all emphasised specifically quiet ways of keeping them busy.
I realised at this point that I don’t actually want to keep them busy or even quiet all of the time. I don’t want to keep them distracted and disengaged. Quite the opposite! But I do want them to behave respectfully and appropriately, which is actually a really difficult balance to strike. (Now I know lots of articles do advise talking with and engaging your child with what’s being said and done; but again, even with a five year old, this doesn’t quite work when you also have an energetic toddler steamrolling his way to Daddy at the front and a hangry baby in your arms! Something’s gotta give.)
However, I couldn’t quite get my head around what to pack to help them to engage with the service independently, without a running commentary from me, so… I asked them to do it.
They each got a paper bag with some crayons and stickers to decorate it, and made off around the house selecting items “to help us listen, pray and worship.” (I mean, I’m not sure how I could personally use a Happy Meal disc shooter to pray, but I’m not gonna judge… They understood the intention, which was the main thing!)
What’s more, they packed their own snacks, which actually worked a treat! No longer was my nappy bag expected to take on Poppins-like status and provide a bottomless pit of healthy edibles. They knew what they had and how long it was intended to last. A very surprising win, as it goes.
Three weeks later… this method is still going strong, especially with Toddler. Win, win, win!
6. We brought some appropriate noise!
In complete disregard for the quiet toys rule, we brought an echo mic and a guitar, just for the songs! Don’t get me wrong, this definitely took more parenting than I would have felt capable of six months ago, but again, three weeks on, it’s still working! The kids not only stayed in our pew, but joined in making music to God at the right time, to the point where this week… I actually felt like I joined in the worship too! Which is a bonus, because…
7. I lowered my expectations
The biggest problem I often experience in Church is going away feeling disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to learn anything, or engage with anything, because, well, if the kids haven’t engaged either then we might as well have stayed at home. This week, however, whilst I raised my expectations of the children, I intentionally lowered my own. I taught myself that this Sunday, Church is all about those first twenty minutes before Kids’ Club. At a basic level, this stage of life is not really about taking much in, to be honest. It is simply about teaching my children how we behave in Church, how we engage with Church and why. We’re laying the ground and paving the way for the future. Anything else is a bonus! (Of which, actually, three weeks on, I’m finding there are many.)
As for my personal growth, well… Praise God for Youtube!
And finally… 8. OTHER PEOPLE!
By far the best resource for “surviving Church” and the only way to thrive in it is… other people. Church is not a building, it’s a collective, and for us, I still don’t think I could cope with it right now if it wasn’t for the supportive, helpful, and often intuitive folk who meet there with us .
The lady who chooses to sit next to us. The gentleman who guards the door at the back. The volunteers who prepare activities. The many folk who offer to hold the baby when Toddler is losing his cool. The teenagers who lift and chase and play at the end, so I can have a coffee and a grown-up chat. The wardens who let them play pretend before the altar, and the worship leader who lets them loose on the keys. And those grown-ups, all the ones with their own trials and issues, who take time to encourage and compliment over coffee, and ask if there’s anything else they can do?
I am thankful for a Church that tries so hard to be Church… can’t ask for more than that, can you?!