“And the child was healed”

As far as Mormon scriptures are concerned, children are holy, they are alive in Christ, and they need no repentance. If we are converted and become as little children, we might enter the Kingdom of God and be called the children of Christ. As far as some Mormon adults are concerned, however, children suffer from a fatal flaw: they sometimes act like children during sacrament meeting.

At least that’s what I heard the other day in a talk that recounted the speaker’s experience with a four-year-old relative. The scene opened with a meltdown over shoes. In response, silent prayers were spoken, faith was exercised, “and the child was healed and acted normally for the rest of the meeting.”

My eyebrow raised. Childlike behavior is a disability to be cured? Normal childlike behavior is silent attention to the proceedings of a meeting that, even on a good day, caters only to the adults and adolescents in the room?

After years of having sacrament meeting during the third hour, I am inclined to assure anyone who cares to inquire that normal children are not naturally reverent in the pedantic sacrament-meeting-talk-on-reverence sense, neither today nor in the olden days (see “The Story of Grandpa’s Sled and the Pig“). While some denominations spare the finger-wagging and leave the children outside with more age-appropriate activities, we bring the whole family to church, and although we allow only some of them to partake of the Lord’s Supper, we subject all of them to 40 minutes of preaching, much of which is focused on how we should behave during that interminable period and none of which is actually pitched to small children.

Why? Tradition, I suppose. Our Protestant forefathers led the way and we meekly follow. Socialization may be another reason–children grow up eventually, and the sooner the better, especially if the preschool application process is competitive. Whatever the reasons, the insistence on age-inappropriate reverence is probably unproductive. No doubt many children grow up just fine despite these well-intended efforts, and who knows, maybe learning to be unnaturally still in a meeting for adults does wonders for some kids. But others may be distracted from more important things if reverence gets out of hand.

Allow me to explain. Following the birth of my daughter, I devoured parenting how-to manuals and advice booklets by day. By night, I reclined among the smoldering ruins of well-laid plans. One day, I happened across Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting, and the scales fell from my eyes:

Several years ago, while on a lecture trip, I was sitting in an airplane that had just landed and taxied to its gate. As soon as the ding! signaled that we were free to stand up and retrieve our carry-on bags, one of my fellow passengers leaned into the row ahead of us and congratulated the parents of a young boy sitting there. “He was so good during the flight!” my seatmate exclaimed.

Consider for a moment the key word in that sentence: Good is an adjective often laden with moral significance. It can be a synonym for ethical or honorable or compassionate. However, where children are concerned, the word is just as likely to mean nothing more than quiet–or, perhaps, not a pain in the butt to me. Overhearing that comment in the plane, I had a little ding! moment of my own. I realized that this is what many people in our society seem to want most from children: not that they are caring or creative or curious, but simply that they are well behaved. A “good” child–from infancy to adolescence–is one who isn’t too much trouble for us grown-ups.

Over the last couple of generations, the strategies for trying to produce that result may well have changed. Where kids were once routinely subject to harsh corporal punishment, they may now be sentenced to time-outs or, perhaps, offered rewards when they obey us. But don’t mistake new means for new ends. The goal continue to be control, even if we secure it with modern methods. This isn’t because we don’t care about our kids. It has more to do with being overwhelmed by the countless prosaic pressures of family life, where the need to get children into and out of the bed, bathtub, or car makes it hard to step back and evaluate what we’re doing.

One problem with just trying to get kids to do what we say is that this may conflict with other, more ambitious, goals we have for them. This afternoon, your primary concern for your son may be for him to stop raising a ruckus in the supermarket [….] But it’s worth digging deeper. In the workshops I conduct for parents, I like to start off by asking, “What are your long-term objectives for your children? […].” These parents said they wanted their children to be happy, balanced, independent, fulfilled, productive, self-reliant, responsible, functioning, kind, thoughtful, loving, inquisitive, and confident.

What’s interesting about that collection of adjectives–and what’s useful about the process of reflecting on the question in the first place–is that it challenges us to ask whether what we’re doing is consistent with what we really want. Are my everyday practices likely to help my children grow into the kind of people I’d like them to be?

At the time I was mired in the depths of seven sleepless months. It was hard to consider long-term objectives over short-term solutions. Yet when I read the passage above a light switched on, sleep training experiments (central feature: getting babies to sleep when it’s convenient for their parents) were immediately discontinued, and within weeks of putting the cart back behind the horse, sleep, sweet sleep, arrived (and remains) in abundance. I don’t know if the one had anything to do with the other, but I’ve found that asking the question “Are my everyday practices likely to help my children grow into the kind of people I’d like them to be?” is a useful way of maintaining perspective in the face of “the countless prosaic pressures of family life.”

Demanding that small children silently endure sacrament meeting is an exercise in forcing round pegs into square holes, in my view, and docility is not a quality I particularly want to instill in my daughter. Of course, I do what I can to minimize the disruption to others while seeing that my daughter’s emotional and physical needs are met in a meeting that was not designed with them in mind. But when she gets unruly, she has my sympathy and I don’t blame her  because she isn’t the problem.  I hope the balancing act pays off–that others get what they need out of sacrament meeting and that my daughter likewise has positive associations with the experience.

I do this because like most of you, I consider sacrament meeting attendance to be a means to a long-term end, not a short-term fix. But what if instead of trying to heal or discipline our children in the pursuit of reverence, we adapted our expectations to “the least of these my [children]”? Last year, an apostle asked us to “examine [our] feelings about, and [our] behavior on, the Sabbath day,” asking “is the Sabbath really a delight for you and for me?” For me, the answer to that question is incomplete without the input of children. Surely there’s a way to give children greater latitude to experience more of the Sabbath delight our leaders wish for us to reach for without the sky of discipline landing on our heads.

Comments

  1. John Mansfield says:

    I bettter appreciate my young children’s behavior in church services, and I think they appreciate the setting of church services better, when recitals and high school and middle school symphony and choral concerts come around a couple times a year. I never get complaints about sitting in the chapel, but I do when it’s time for another music night. “Again!? Why can’t I stay home?” “Because your brother is playing, and we’re all going to hear his orchestra,” (and three or four other music ensembles).

    Civility is not orthogonal or counter to being “happy, balanced, independent, fulfilled, productive, self-reliant, responsible, functioning, kind, thoughtful, loving, inquisitive, and confident.” It is aligned with several of those qualities.

  2. Civility is not orthogonal or counter to being “happy, balanced, independent…

    I hope this post does not come across as advocating the substitution of the staid traditions of sacrament meeting with a Lord of the Flies-like experiment in self-rule by children.

    I guess civility could entail sitting patiently while others talk over your head. I’m just not sure why we expect that children will naturally take the repeated disregard for their time and attention sitting down, so to speak.

  3. I, too, bemoan that very little (if any amount) of our sacrament meetings are “pitched to small children.” I would be interested in any constructive ideas on how sacrament meetings could be tailored towards children. Have there been previous posts or discussion at BCC on that topic?

  4. My wife and kids attended a non-LDS church service for Christmas Eve. (I always wondered why we don’t have a service.) The message was engaging (contemporary music and video presentations) and all of my kids, from teenagers to little kids, were engaged in the meeting. The pastor had a 15 minute message for kids where all the kids came up and he told them a simple story. My teens said we should start going there. I’m sorry, but the reason kids can’t sit still is that sacrament meetings are boring as all get out. We need to modernize the music, incorporate awesome church video presentations and do something that involves children. Listening to 40-50 minutes of droning doesn’t cut it.

  5. “we allow only some of them to partake of the Lord’s Supper”

    I know it’s not your main point, but I was a bit surprised at this. I’ve heard some people express the opinion that you should only take the sacrament after you are baptized, but I’ve never heard a convincing doctrinal argument for a closed communion, and I’ve never heard that opinion from any authoritative source. I’ve also never seen any ward leader ask any ward member not to give the sacrament to their young children. I think Joseph F. Smith expressly said that we should give the sacrament to young children.

  6. I would be interested in any constructive ideas on how sacrament meetings could be tailored towards children. Have there been previous posts or discussion at BCC on that topic?

    I confess I don’t know if this has been treated already (probably has, but I’ve neglected the archives). And of course my own post dances around the hard part you identified.

    The pastor had a 15 minute message for kids where all the kids came up and he told them a simple story.

    That sounds great. Recently I attended the baptism of a friend’s baby as a Roman Catholic and something similar was done–all the children present were invited to come to the fore and participate, including by sharing the light of Christ with others (going around and lighting candles that had been brought for this purpose). I was touched.

  7. Jared vdH says:

    “I guess civility could entail sitting patiently while others talk over your head. I’m just not sure why we expect that children will naturally take the repeated disregard for their time and attention sitting down, so to speak.”

    Why should it be natural? If you have to learn it, it isn’t natural. I don’t expect perfect docility from children, nor do I anticipate it ever being otherwise. I also don’t expect parents to demand or force their children into perfect docility. However I do have the concern that the desire to let our children “be their authentic selves” hews much closer to the “Lord of the Flies-like experiment in self-rule by children” than does the desire to teach children to be respectful of others’ time, space, and feelings and tempering one’s passions so that they do not encroach on others. We cannot always be the center of attention, nor can we always be catered to. If it is inappropriate to teach that to children of a young age, when is it appropriate? (This is not a rhetorical question, I’d honestly like an answer.)

    I can’t wait for the usual litany of suggestions on how to fix sacrament meeting as Sam has already started. I’m always amused at how everyone thinks they have the answer, yet there will be ample examples in the comment thread that no, your “solution” does not fit the desires nor modes of worship of everybody else. Perhaps a sizeable contingent, but certainly not a majority. I certainly believe that Sacrament Meetings and our entire Sabbath worship program could be changed and improved, but I know that my preferred program would not be satisfactory for many. This is not a problem that can be solved by a public referendum in the Bloggernacle.

  8. I’ve also never seen any ward leader ask any ward member not to give the sacrament to their young children.

    Yeah, in my experience it’s parents that make the decision. Which is none of my business, of course, and I understand the reasoning (it’s important and shouldn’t be seen as a snack, etc.). But it’s the one part of the meeting my daughter anticipates, and quietly sits through, and to deny her that at this age would be to make sacrament meeting pretty much a total loss from her perspective.

  9. We cannot always be the center of attention, nor can we always be catered to.

    I agree in principle. It’s just that in sacrament meeting, you–and the other adults and adolescents–are the center of attention and the meeting does cater to you. One way this lesson might be impressed on adults is to consider how we might cater to another demographic for a change.

  10. Jared vdH says:

    Oh, trust me, I do not feel catered to in Sacrament Meeting. I sympathize with the kids and usually find the meeting boring. But like I said, I know enough about my tastes and how they correspond with much of the rest of society that if my preferences reigned in Sacrament Meeting there would be even more complaints than there are now.

  11. Actually, I think that a meltdown is a behavior that needs to be cured.

  12. No doubt the causes need to be addressed.

  13. Really wonderful post and perspective. You are wonderful parents, Peter. Thanks for this.

  14. Thank you for this piece, I think this is an important part of our gospel that will be a part of our community whether we have children or not. The thing I keep coming back to is the notion of reverence, while I want my children to behave, I want them more to learn to behave not simply out of fear or for hope of reward, but because they have some sense of reverence about what they are doing. Obviously that’s a slow process, but I believe that children are more capable of these real senses of recognizing that they are part of something good than we give them credit for.

  15. I want them more to learn to behave not simply out of fear or for hope of reward, but because they have some sense of reverence about what they are doing.

    Thank you for this succinct formulation of a dimension of the issue that my post neglected. Also, point well taken “that children are more capable of these real senses of recognizing that they are part of something good than we give them credit for.” It seems that viewing children as broken adults tends to obscure such capacities, though maybe nobody does that and I am just projecting.

  16. To prove Jared vdH’s point, the thought of the Christmas Eve service Sam describes makes my skin itch. I attended Midnight Mass at an Anglican cathedral without a child in sight. That’s much more the kind of service I would like – even less child-friendly. As Jared says, our sacrament services leave something to be desired, but there are no easy answers.

  17. … to consider how we might cater to another demographic for a change.

    Because while your kids will mature in a very few years, there is (thank heavens) an endless parade of younger generations coming along to take their places as squirmers-and-squealers-in-chief. You and your kids will survive this relatively briefly period, then join the relief of your elders in worshiping as adults without finger plays and flannelboard stories and songs about eensie-weensie-spiders.

  18. Ya know, we as adults can help when speaking in Sacrament Mtg. Too often we act on the need to be profound and weighty in our talks. We forget, particularly in afternoon meetings, that by the time we talk half the high priests are dozing and the other half can’t hear. Our awake audience isn’t profound, they’re hungry.

    Back when I used to speak regularly I tried to make my talk interesting to teenagers. I also tried to have one good story. I figured if a kid old or young could hear and remember a story I’d won half the battle. If they remembered the point of the story the battle was won. If the adults listened to the rest of the talk, so much the better.

    I don’t speak but once every two or three years now so I’ve lost my touch but still on the rare occasion I do speak I at least try to say something interesting to an eight year old. Sometimes I succeed.

  19. Indeed, Ardis. Turning sacrament meeting into a third hour of primary is not the solution. My concern was approaching children as a disability to be healed.

  20. This might be less of an issue now that more and more wards are having sacrament meeting first, but I think a lot of responsibility for children’s restlessness in sacrament meeting falls upon the Primary. When I was called to serve in the Primary a couple of years ago, I was horrified at how little the children were allowed to move around and do hand-on activities. It was almost like a mini sacrament meeting for how much they were just being talked at. I incorporated as much movement as possible in my lessons to counteract the effects of sitting through most of sharing time and singing time.

  21. “If it is inappropriate to teach [deferring to the feelings/needs of others] to children of a young age, when is it appropriate?”

    Nobody expects a 6-week-old to understand that her cries are affecting anyone around her. She’s not capable of that. Even at 28 years old, I am not always aware of the needs or feelings of others – it’s a slow process, and that’s okay.

    I completely agree that the talks are incredibly boring. Occasionally, one of the primary teachers of the children I care for will be a speaker, and they’ll whisper to me about how they love their teacher or primary, and maybe pick up the topic. The sacrament portion, though – the whole first 25 minutes – is full of music and prayer, and people walking around, and everybody else being still and quiet. The 3-year-old isn’t ready to notice the pattern, but the 5- and 7-year-olds understand that it’s time to think about Jesus. We whisper about what the sacrament tokens mean, and thoughts about Jesus. The 5-year-old last week asked me if Jesus loves Satan, and decided that he must, because it’s not fair if Jesus doesn’t love bad guys. Children can have profound spiritual experiences when their needs are being met.

  22. Nobody You Know says:

    I’m so tired of the phrase “The Sabbath is a Delight”. My husband, helpful and hands-on as he is, holds a heavy calling and has meetings/responsibilities before, during, and after church. I get our children to and from church alone and usually sit with them alone during Sacrament meeting. I’m expected to maintain a reverent sabbath atmosphere for myself and my kids (ages 12-3) and my home and somehow find it restful and renewing and “delightful”.

    You want to know for whom the Sabbath is a “delight”? The guys who sit on the stands and get to listen to the talks and get to ponder/pray during the sacrament because they aren’t refereeing crayon wars or shushing giggled conversations or keeping a watchful eye on a toddler who has a history of grabbing a whole fistful of Sacrament bread and grazing on it for the rest of the meeting. They get to sit quietly in full appreciation of the meeting and then heap more guilt on the heads of young families by preaching about Sabbath observance and reverence while their wives *literally make it possible for them to enjoy the Sabbath in the “ideal” way*.

  23. Nobody You Know, I can assure you that the guys on the stands aren’t actually delighted by the Sabbath at all, because they have meetings before, during, and after church, and on weeknights.

    There is so much make-work in the Church sometimes, it seems.

  24. Nobody You Know says:

    APM–fair enough. This has been a sore spot this week and I should have counted to 10 before I hit post. Alas, no way to delete. My apologies. Back to your regularly scheduled comments :D

  25. Nobody You Know, I can delete your first comment if you like, but I believe you make an important contribution in highlighting the price some pay to maintain the quiet in the pews that allows others to worship.

  26. Children can have profound spiritual experiences when their needs are being met.

    Yes!

  27. Unconditional Parenting is the only parenting book I revere. I am so glad you referenced it. My question for everyone who bemoans the inevitable noise and chaos during a normal ward sacrament meeting is this: if this ordinance was meant to take place in a setting like the temple (quiet, adult only, no distractions) why isn’t it a temple only ordinance? I think there is a reason we participate in the sacrament as a community of saints, in a fairly mundane chapel, with teenage boys administering the ordinance. I’m not sure what that reason is, precisely, although I have a few theories.

  28. Rather than attempting to micromanage speakers’ topics for Sacrament Meetings, it seems that ward councils should be discussing the issues raised here. Scrap the old paradigms, and ask: What, after all, must we do in Sacrament meetings? And what flexibility do we have to do things differently? Why must the entire bishopric sit on the stand? Why do we need anybody to “conduct” the meeting? Why do we waste time making announcements, which nobody pays attention to anyway? How can we engage the congregation more actively in worship? If the Book of Mormon says that the priest administering the sacrament “did kneel down with the church” why can’t we do that? Why not have the sacrament last, and keep people wondering what’s going on? Why don’t ward and branch councils use their imaginations and get out of the rut? Can’t use visual aids in your talk? Then send a slideshow to the whole ward and let them pull it up on their phones/other devices. Better they use the phones for that rather than checking with their bookies about the latest line on the football games.

  29. Minerva, I was so worried for a second! I thought you were going to bemoan all the noisy, active children in primary and prescribe more stillness and quiet. They need movement! If they have to be here for three hours, and we don’t want that to be in sacrament meeting, let’s do it in primary?

  30. Also, when I attend the family ward with them, it’s a 1:1 adult:child situation (except while their mother conducts hymns). It’s still hard. Anyone who cares for more than one child at a time during sacrament meeting deserves some extra delight in their sabbath.

  31. Thanks for the post and comments. I was given the chance to perform with an Episcopalian choir, and so I often only go to sacrament meetings with my LDS congregation. I often wish that we had more music, period, but especially more children’s praise hymns, which are well known to the choir, organist and congregation, and can be thrown in for 120 seconds of sanctioned wiggle and noisy time, without any loss of spirit or reverence. (Many times I have seen it restored.) I hope that we keep talking about how to make meetings better for everyone.

  32. Exactly, oleablossom. More movement in Primary!