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 Cavalleti, The Religious Potential of the Child,
Liturgy Training Publications; 2nd edition (August 2, 1992), p. 52
How do Quakers, in a primarily silent style of worship, help our children learn how to participate in worship? And how can we do that in a way that halts on the threshold of the place where God speaks with God’s creature, to paraphrase from the quote above? For families with young children, it can be difficult to learn what the expectations are for how children are incorporated into a Quaker meeting for worship.
The response our children most often need is for us to be with them in the moment, to listen with all our hearts, and to make space for them to be their full, authentic selves. Sometimes, that can be hard in the context of Quaker-style worship.
Remember that we hold responsibility for Worship corporately.
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 children, and likewise, parents may feel embarrassed, anxious, and uncertain regarding whether or not they are welcome to stay. Meanwhile the children may be managing excitement, curiosity, and excess energy.
Here are ways the community can work together to facilitate the integration of children, adolescents and adults all worshiping together:
- We can all hold the children of the meeting in prayer and invite them into a loving, centered space where they can feel the living presence of God.
- If the children are present for the first portion of Worship and then leave for First Day School, we can send loving intentions with them as they leave, praying that their First Day School time continues to be a time of worship and continues to be blessed with God’s grace.
- We can send calming love to a parent and child who seem to be struggling with settling in.
- Outside of the Meeting for Worship, we can mention to a child with joy when we\\\\\\\’ve noticed that s/he has been able to sit a little longer and a little more quietly than usual and ask what that experience was like. We can also mention to a child when it looked like s/he was having trouble settling in and ask what that experience was like, too, and perhaps share with the child about our own struggles with worship.
- We can ask each other, including the children, where they have been finding joy in their lives lately.
Just as with anyone new to our form of worship, our youngest members need guidance about what happens in worship and what the expectations are. A good way to begin that discussion is to read books together that talk explicitly about Quaker Meeting for Worship, such as Thy Friend Obadiah by Brinton Turkle, Benjamin the Meetinghouse Mouse by Clifford Pfiel, We’re Going to Meeting for Worship by Abby Hadley, and The Worship Kit by John Lampen. Many Meeting libraries have these books and all of them are available from www.quakerbooks.org.
When children get agitated in Worship it can manifest in ways that are active and noisy. It’s helpful as parents to plan ahead for that and bring things that will help. One source of agitation can be hunger: the timing for corporate worship is often right at snack time for small children. Most Meetings don’t allow food and drink in the Meeting room but make an exception for young children. You may want to have a baggy of dry cereal with you or some other food that will not leave smudges or crumbs.
Part of the challenge of Quaker worship for all of us is the search for physical and cognitive stillness. It is especially difficult for children not to fidget and tell the people next to them the exciting things that are coming to their minds. Adults often bring knitting to business meeting to keep their hands occupied, finding that it helps them to stay quiet when they should. Likewise, children may be helped by having an option that isn’t entirely still or silent. 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: Cookies, D: Daddy, E: Eddie my cat.…”
- Let the child suck on a Vitamin C drop or chew a piece of gum; knit if they are able; make the sign language sign for “waiting;” encourage the child to practice slow breathing; bring a beloved stuffed toy to hold. All of these allow the child’s senses to be honored in what can be a confusing environment for a child.
- Allow the child to read. For pre-readers, some parents will whisper the words of the book to them extremely quietly. Good choices for books include ones 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. Lawrence and Karen Kushner have written several excellent books (including some available as board books) that have a meditative quality and are engaging in both graphics and words.
- Bring supplies for drawing including a clip board. Plain paper or mandala coloring pages have both been helpful for children in my Meeting, and children will sometimes spontaneously incorporate images from a spoken message into their drawings.
- Some children are helped by getting some energy out before going into Worship. For others, that seems to rev them up. Pay attention to ways you might work with your own child’s needs for activity.
Staying centered; helping our children center
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 these things. If your child can joyfully stay in Worship for 5 minutes and then needs to leave, that might be something to celebrate!
My Meeting is beginning to experiment with an alternative space where parents can take children if they need a different space but want to remain in Worship. A room is set aside for those who need to move around or talk a bit during worship. The main use of this space is for grown-ups to coach their children regarding how to sit in worship, how to quiet one\\\\\\\’s mind and body, and why we do these things. We may do that through talking with our children quietly, reading a religious text together, singing a song that helps us center, talking through a guided meditation, or using a toy to help us settle. We plan to add some “tools” for centering such as settle jars, finger labyrinths, and written directions for guided meditations. We are just beginning this practice, so I cannot yet provide any assessment.
As for some practical advice, here are some tips that many have found useful with their own children:
Encourage children to enter the Meeting Room in a state of readiness. Remind the children why we sit in Worship together and how to get our bodies and minds ready. Before entering the room, do something together that helps us to get ready, such as taking a few mindful breaths or praying a body prayer together. Parents and First Day School teachers can both be part of this work.
Think ahead about what might make you anxious as a parent during worship. Do you have concerns about what people are thinking about you and your parenting? Are you wondering about the “right” or “wrong” thing to do as the above mentioned challenges present themselves? Do you feel caught in what might seem to be conflicting priorities of providing loving support for your children while also supporting the healthy worship of the Meeting at large? Are you speaking to yourself judgmentally? These are common experiences for parents and caregivers. Explore these thoughts at a quiet time to find clarity and perhaps more internal peace. This may help you respond to your child from a centered place rather than from an anxious place. It may help to come up with some questions to use during Worship, such as, “Will I be more fully present to my child if we leave the room or stay in the room?”
Help your children know if there are other adults with whom they can sit during worship. There may be adults with whom they have a special friendship; talk about it beforehand so that all the adults involved and the children know that it’s okay if they want to choose where to sit. Oftentimes, children find it easier to sit quietly with someone who is not their parent.
A little bit of movement or whispering rarely disturbs a Meeting, but pay attention to the “tipping point” where there seems to be a game or a power struggle developing. Remember that setting firm boundaries is a loving action, and know that you are supported in walking your child out of the room if that is what you decide. If you want to discourage acting out as a way for your child to “get” to leave Meeting early, find a spot where you can continue worship outside the main worship room. The balance between firm boundaries and punishment can be tricky to navigate, so ask other parents or ask someone from the committee with care of Worship if you want to talk it through.
Set aside time during the week to practice corporate worship and centering. Many families do this during grace before meals or bedtime prayers. This not only strengthens our “worship muscles;” it also provides us with experiences we can refer to during Meeting for Worship. The Worship Kit has some good ideas for this.
Practice meditation with your child. The vibrations and sounds of a bell being used to bring our minds to meditation can be particularly helpful, as it connects the whole body to the practice. Peaceful Piggy Meditation by Kerry Lee MacLean and Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children by Thich Nhat Hanh both provide practical advice on meditating with children.
Every once in a while in Meeting for Worship, a child will simply start running. Those may be some of the trickiest times to stay centered as adults. We can all take a deep breath and remember that our job is still to love the child and be faithful to God’s call. Parents can be faithful in the ways they need to be, and another adult might be able to help, if appropriate in the situation, by providing a firm, loving blockade so that a parent can catch up with the child.
Keep in mind that Friends are generally more tolerant of the noise and movement than most parents realize. But there are also some Friends who desire less noise and movement from children. In my conversations with Friends, I have heard many reasons for wanting less noise from children, including having trouble staying in worship with the distraction, concern that the noise indicates that the children are not engaging in worship, and having trouble hearing messages over the shuffling noises, particularly for Friends with hearing loss and in meeting houses with poor acoustics. Talking openly with each other might be painful at times but can also be very helpful if approached with love. It often helps to speak from your own experience: “My experience of worship was _____ in response to ______. I’d also like to hear about how you experienced that.” And it’s sometimes helpful to invite others to join the conversation.
Get ready, get set…
Parents may be thinking, “This is great, but will it work for my child?” Some of it might. Other parts of this may not. Parents with children who have special needs may be especially sensitive to this question if those parenting “tricks” that work like a charm for other kids never seem to help your own child. Try things out and see what works, and remember that the thing that works one week may very well not work another week. Be gentle with yourself and remember that each time we enter worship we have a chance to try again fresh.
And finally, if you’re in need of a pep talk before walking into Meeting for Worship, put this somewhere you can read it over before walking into the Meeting house, or rewrite it so that the words are right for you: