The help the adult can give the child is only preliminary and peripheral, and one that halts—that must halt—on the threshold of the “place” where God speaks with His creature.
Sofia Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child
How do we Friends, in a primarily silent style of worship, help our children learn how to participate in worship? For families with young children, it can be difficult to understand the expectations for children in Quaker meeting for worship. And then, when we also layer on our hopes that our children will have their own experience of worship and God’s presence there, things get complicated.
My meeting has been actively grappling with this topic over the past couple of years and I’ve been experiencing it first-hand for eight years (the age of my older child). There are many concrete steps we can take to help children sit still in worship, but I have found that the best way to improve children’s experience of worship is to be fully present with them and to be faithful to the ministry of loving our children wholly. Being centered in God is the best thing we can “do” for our children.
Holding corporate responsibility for worship
Everyone in the meeting is a part of creating gathered worship, and we all bring our imperfect selves to that task. Adults in the midst of worship may feel interrupted and distracted by the noise associated with the addition of children, and parents may feel embarrassed, anxious, or uncertain as to whether or not they are welcome to stay. Meanwhile the children may be managing excitement, curiosity, excess energy, or boredom.
In our desire to facilitate the integration of children, adolescents, and adults all worshiping together, my meeting’s committee on worship and ministry encourages the meeting for worship participants to follow these guidelines:
- We hold the children of the meeting in prayer and invite them into a loving, centered space when they enter worship, praying that they are surrounded by a palpable sense of God’s living presence. (In my meeting, the children are in First-day school for the first portion of meeting and only enter worship for the last 15 minutes or so.)
- We send calming love to a parent and child who seem to be struggling with settling into the silence. (I often speak with such parents afterwards to give them a chance to talk about their experience and to share some of the more outrageous stories of children’s behavior from the past.)
- Outside of the meeting for worship, we may approach a child with joy when we’ve noticed that s/he has been able to sit a little longer or a little more quietly than usual, and ask what that experience was like. And when we notice a child having trouble settling in, we may approach that child after the meeting is over and ask about that experience. In this case it often helps to share with the child about our own struggles with worship.
- We may ask each other, including the children, what has brought us joy lately. Knowing each other more deeply draws us together more when we are in worship.
As with anyone new to our form of worship, our youngest members need guidance about what happens in worship and what the expectations are. In my family, we read books together that talk explicitly about Quaker meeting for worship, such as Thy Friend, Obadiah and Benjamin, the Meetinghouse Mouse. We also read books that provide reverent descriptions of listening for God, of worshipful moments in everyday life, and of ways to put into words those moments when we feel most touched by the divine presence. We have especially enjoyed The Other Way to Listen (Byrd Baylor), God’s Paintbrush (Sandy Eisenberg Sasso), In God’s Hands (Lawrence Kushner), children’s illustrated bibles, and many titles from Jewish Lights Publishing.
Many families set aside time during the week to practice worship and centering. Activities like grace before meals and bedtime prayers strengthen our “worship muscles” and provide us with some tools we can use during meeting for worship. My own family often sings our grace before meals—another wonderful way to worship together, and a practice that can help us recall God’s presence during our everyday lives.
Meditation is another way to practice centering oneself. The vibrations and sounds of a bell can be particularly helpful to bring our minds to meditation, as using our senses connects the whole body to the practice in a way that does not happen outwardly during Quaker worship. Peaceful Piggy Meditation by Kerry Lee MacLean and Planting Seeds by Thich Nhat Hanh both offer practical advice on meditating with children.
My meeting’s committee on worship and ministry has led programs to help the children of our meeting understand what goes on during meeting for worship and how to match their own experiences of God with what the adults are saying. This past fall, we had four weeks in a row where worship and ministry committee members led First-day school class focusing on worship. The first three weeks we told stories from Faith & PlayTM (www.faithandplay.org) and the last week we shared our own images and experiences of worship. Each week after the exercises, we would enter a period of worship together. Following this four-week initial unit, we began having a class on worship every other month, drawing heavily from exercises in Planting Seeds.
Being centered and fully present with the children is key while “teaching” worship. We can tell a story, read a book, or do a craft that illustrates a point about worship, but children, like all of us, need others to listen to them. They want us to respect what they have to say and to show them that we love them. When I lead a program with the children, I pray silently for each child as s/he enters the room and then stay in silent prayer for us as a whole group, that we will be faithful to God during this hour. I also invite a few adults without young children of their own to join us as elders whose only job is to hold the whole group in prayer.
Honoring children’s senses
Many of us strive for physical and cognitive stillness during meeting. This can be especially difficult for young children who, by design, take information in through all their senses, and whose bodies and ability to control those bodies is constantly changing.
Parents in my meeting have shared ways they have honored a child’s senses in the context of this form of worship that seeks stillness. Some practices that parents in my meeting have suggested include:
- Whisper prayers back and forth to each other. One example is a gratitude alphabet: “I am grateful for A: Aunt April, B: my Bike, C: Chocolate chip cookies, D: Daddy…”
- Give the child a Vitamin C drop, a piece of gum, or some dry cereal.
- Bring a knitting project for the child to work.
- Make the sign language sign for “waiting” (palms up and wiggle your fingers).
- Breathe slowly with your child.
- Bring a beloved stuffed animal or toy to hold.
- Bring books. For pre-readers, some parents will whisper the words of the book to them extremely quietly or have them just look at the pictures.
My meeting’s committee on worship and ministry provides clipboards, markers, mandala coloring sheets (ours are from Hellokids.com coloring pages) and picture books with religious themes for use during worship as another way to honor children’s need for sensory experiences. We hoped the mandala sheets would be intricate enough to encourage focus, yet abstract enough to allow God’s voice in. In practice, this has worked. Once when someone was delivering a message that included a story about a dog, a young worshiper began drawing a dog into the edges of the mandala. Another time, a young worshiper shared that he had used the colors of the earth in his drawing because the earth is God’s and we are responsible for taking care of it.
For some children, the challenge of sitting still and quiet is further compounded by developmental differences. My son, for instance, has challenges with his hearing and balance that make sitting still and quiet downright painful. Worship felt like a weekly battle for a long, long time, and I often wondered what we were teaching him by forcing him into something he hated so much—was he forming an association between agony and Quaker worship? Once he began reading chapter books, we allowed him to read the whole time, any book he wanted, and the problems dissolved. He had something physical to hold and something visual to engage. I was uncomfortable at first with having him reading Hardy Boys in worship, but once we allowed it, my son began sitting quietly, often for the whole hour. This also became an exercise of trust for me—trust that God was in charge, not me, and that my child would get what he needed from his experience at meeting one way or another.
Children have different abilities to be still and quiet at different ages and developmental stages. Oftentimes, infants can stay in meeting for much longer than toddlers or preschoolers, and almost no child falls into any sort of straight-line, one-way progression when it comes to developing these skills.
We can remind the children why we sit in worship together and how to get our bodies and minds ready. We can talk about expectations as we travel to meeting. We can take a few mindful breaths or say a prayer together before we enter the meeting room, but we still can’t control how ready or how centered our children are.
We can, however, keep ourselves centered. Parents and caregivers often feel torn between what seems like conflicting priorities of supporting our children while also respecting community expectations. I find that staying fully present with a child who is having a hard time is the best way I can respect the community and be faithful to what God is calling me to do in that moment. When my daughter’s desire to exhibit her acrobatic skills, for instance, overcome her desire to conform to the group, I prayerfully ask, “Will I be better able to be fully present with my child and help her in the way she needs at this time if we leave the room or if we stay in the room?”
Some children are better able to keep a calm body if they sit with an adult other than their parent. My daughter, for instance, sometimes sits with an adult friend or will glom onto an older child in First-day school and sit with that child’s family instead of with us. The older child usually rises to the occasion and becomes the “good example,” and my daughter sits quietly in awe.
A little bit of movement or whispering rarely disturbs a meeting, but there is a “tipping point” where the child begins trying to engage the parent in a game or a power struggle. That is the point at which it’s usually time to take the loving action of setting firm, safe boundaries. Sometimes this means walking my child out of the worship room. I often find a spot where we can continue worship—an otherwise empty room, for instance, where the snack table is out of sight. The balance between firm boundaries and punishment can be tricky to navigate, though, and I have received support and guidance by talking it through with other parents in the meeting.
And then there’s the occasional kid who just takes off and starts running during worship. In moments like this, we all just do our best to stay centered and keep our humor intact. I’ve received help from another adult who provided a firm, loving blockade so I could catch up with my child. We also have stories in our meeting of kids falling from a balcony or getting their head stuck between the back and seat of a bench. It helps to know that many, many others have trod this same path before me.
But is it working?
I’ve had glimpses here and there of my children “getting something” out of worship. We’ve had moments where one or both of them sit so peacefully that I can feel their reverence. Sometimes I can be in prayer for them as we sit snuggled up. Occasionally but extremely rarely, we will talk about worship and I will get some insight into their experience of it. A few other parents have had wonderful conversations with their children after a children’s program about worship—conversations that provided a window into the child’s experience of worship and God.
Ultimately, though, I have no control over whether it “works.” I walk our children up to that threshold and let go. I trust that God will love my children with the same steadfast love I myself have experienced. I do what I can to help them develop a vocabulary to be able to talk about it. But I can’t control what happens from there.
And thank goodness for that.