My husband and I made what I consider in hindsight to be a major mistake in introducing our daughter Katie, now five, to the life of the Church. When she was a toddler, we brought children’s picture prayer books, Bible story books, and religious coloring books with us to services, and encouraged her to sit quietly looking at the pictures or coloring. This allowed us parents to pray and participate in the services, and kept her relatively quiet so those around us weren’t disturbed… she was in Church very regularly, soaking in the smells and sounds of worship, and “learned” about Jesus with materials “appropriate” for her age. These were good things, the right things to do— or so we thought!

Unfortunately, we gave Katie a completely incorrect notion of what we Christians actually do in Church, and we have spent the past two years “unteaching” our mistake.

What are we supposed to do in Church?
The word ‘liturgy’ means work! Everyone—men and women, adults and children—works together in Church to praise God and ask for His mercy and help, led by the priest and deacons. This work of worship is hard, and there are no shortcuts.

The services of the Church are also where we learn about God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—by learning and then participating in the living Tradition of the Church. Teaching a child to be an Orthodox Christian—and what that means every day—takes a huge commitment and constant effort on the part of the parents and godparents. Here are some of the things we learned the hard way, or were shown to us by people much wiser.

Age by Age, Stage by Stage
Infants & Toddlers — Make a point to hold your child up so that he can see what is going on around the Church during services. Point out the censing of the Church and the clouds of smoke, the gleaming icons, the flickering candles, the music, and the entrances (or ‘parades’) to keep his attention focused on the worship. Keep up a whispering commentary if you can (even if he is too young for explanation, say the names of things, and that they are “for God” and “beautiful”). Don’t be afraid to move around the back and sides of the nave with your child so that he can touch the icons, or pick up an unlit candle, or breathe in the incense, or see the view right up the center aisle. Let him “explore” this holy environment with you as a guide.

Does this mean that toddlers, or even older children, should be allowed to wander around on their own, explore under the pews, hide behind baptismal font at the back of the nave, or roll on the floor in the center aisle during the sermon? No, absolutely not! Children still need to show proper respect for the holy place where they are, the house of God. And the parents and godparents need to be at their side to explain what they’re supposed to be doing, and illustrate both proper behavior and attitude by example.

Pre-Schoolers — Encourage your child to sing softly with you during the litanies and hymns, and work with him at home to learn the Our Father as soon as he is able to understand what he’s asked to repeat. Remind him to make the sign of the cross or bow toward the priest or deacon when it’s appropriate, and praise him when he does these things by himself at the right times.

Repeat over and over that it’s his job to pray, too, so that God can “hear” him and “see” him… he’s part of the “team” and can “play” just like the adults and older kids. You may even want to give him a picture prayer book so he can follow along with the main points of the service (matching the picture in the book to what he sees), and do what mom, dad, and the other adults are doing (turning pages together as the service progresses).

Eventually, you’ll have to “stay put” during services rather than wander together exploring, usually when a child is too heavy to hold comfortably for a long period. Choose a place to stand in the nave as close to the front as possible (or comfortable, if you still need to make occasional mid-service exits with younger children) and on the center aisle, so that your child can stand on his own and be able to see.

This age is also when the “deep theological questions” usually start: What is Father doing with that funny candlestick? Why is he washing his hands? Why is he holding up that piece of bread? For the parent, this is when the “real” work of teaching the Faith begins!

Encourage your child to ask you, your spouse, and his godparents questions quietly during the service, and whisper an answer as he’s watching the service progress, if possible. If you don’t know an answer, make a point to say, “I don’t know. We’ll ask Father at coffee hour. You remind me, okay?”

Kindergarteners — As soon as your child is able to recognize words on a page, have him follow along with the service in your parish’s adult service book. Ask him to keep track of the “Lord, have mercy” for you as he sings, and to let you know when it’s time for the Gospel or Our Father. This is a wonderful way to keep him involved and interested, and to really illustrate the point that we are all working together in the services: we all follow the same “script”, just like our grandparents, and their grandparents, and even your child’s patron saint did!

Back on the Right Track
We’ve gotten back on the right track, I think, in teaching our daughter that the Church’s services are for worship and learning about God together, not for reading and drawing on your own. It is a gradual process, and we still suffer setbacks from time to time: standing with a good friend, socializing is more appealing than praying; near a group of younger children, coloring or “babysitting” are enticing. Don’t give up on your own efforts to draw your child — whatever his or her age — into the worshipping community of the Church. It is worth it!

Condensed and used with permission from Orthodox Family Life Journal, Vol. 5, Issue 4, Summer 2000. To view the complete article, click here.