Proper Etiquette for Young Children in the Church

Mother’s of Orthodox Preschooler’s posted this last month. This is from one of Presbytera Cownie’s books. If you’ve never read one of her books (I believe there are 2) you’re missing out on a LOT of great information. My favorite is the book she co-wrote with Father David Cownie entitled A Guide To Orthodox Life: Some Beliefs, Customs and Traditions of the Church It’s basically an Orthodox Etiquette book covering subjects from proper etiquette when attending Church to how to address clergy in correspondence, etc. I would definitely get my hands on a copy of these books!

Here is an excerpt from her book Young Children in the Orthodox Church: Some Basic Guidelines

Children should be taught from earliest childhood how to reverence icons properly. Their first act upon entering an Orthodox Church should be to reverence the icons in an orderly and pious fashion as they have seen the adults do. Parents should help very small children by holding their hands and going through the motions of making the sign of the Cross with them until they are able to do it by themselves. Small children should be watched carefully and guided as they reverence the icons. If he/she cannot or will not obey, the parent should take the child’s hand and guide them through the proper motions.

Toddlers can be especially trying because they become easily frustrated when their movements are restricted. At first, we may be able only to keep them within arm’s reach and quiet their louder outbursts. While we have to allow them a certain latitude, we must very clearly define specific boundaries to their movements and their behavior. All children (including toddlers) need and crave such boundaries. This defines their world and gives them a sense of security. If no boundaries are defined, a child will ultimately wander aimlessly throughout the church until somebody stops him. This is natural. However, this aimless wandering is unsettling for a child because he has no secure place where he can feel he belongs. So we set the boundary for the child close to us, within arm’s reach, so that we can effectively enforce the boundary. The boundary will be tested, we can be assured of that. The child needs to test his limits to verify that they are real. Expect any limit set to be tested many times. Because of this, consistency is essential. As many times as the child tries to wander, we must bring him back. Any time the child makes a loud disturbance, we must insist he be quiet. If he chooses to persist or become even louder, we must immediately take him outside and discipline him in such a way that he will connect going outside with something unpleasant. We should take note that rebellion does not always manifest itself in a noisy way. Silent sobbing and sullen disobedience are just as indicative of self-will as tantrums and just as spiritually destructive if not corrected immediately.

Food should never be brought into the church in the form of snacks and drinks to keep small children quiet. For one thing, it is uncanonical. The only food consumed in the church is Holy Communion, Antidoron, and the Artos. The eggs for Pascha and grapes for Transfiguration are brought in only to be blessed. Other foods are forbidden by the canons. Besides, it is just not a good idea to bribe children with snacks. This teaches the child an unhealthy attitude toward food which can promote obesity and creates a bad habit which is very difficult to break. Imagine how difficult it will be to teach such a child how to fast for Communion and Antidoron when he is of age.

Babies and toddlers should, of course, commune every Sunday and Feast Day and they require no particular preparation beforehand. By their demeanor, however, the parents convey their personal sense of reverence for the Mysteries to the child. As the child matures, the parents’ responsibility increases. When the parents and the Priest feel that the child is articulate enough and able to understand right from wrong, it is time to have the child go to Confession. There is no specified age when this should occur. Some local churches have arbitrarily chosen the age of seven, but this is merely a guideline and should not be considered absolute. Some children are able to confess at a very early age, while others may need more time. The same holds true for fasting before Communion. The parents should accustom their child to the idea, first of all, by their example. When the parents observe that the child does not seem to require food as frequently (for example, the child is able to play all morning without showing interest in food), they should help the child understand that we do not eat or drink in the morning before we commune. Again, this is a matter of parental discretion but our goal is to strive to teach the child to put off gratification of physical appetites in favor of a higher, spiritual good.

There is no reason to be afraid to set high standards for our children.

When we have high expectations, children not only gain self-esteem by meeting those expectations, but they come to love and respect those who set them. Children want the House of God to be a place of awe and mystery. Though young children may have difficulty being attentive during long services or understanding what these services mean, they yearn to be taught and naturally seek to understand anything for which their parents show a deep reverence.

11 thoughts on “Proper Etiquette for Young Children in the Church

  1. Looks like a good book. My kids are 11 and 10 now, but they began their church careers up in the choir loft with us. In retrospect, I don’t think this is a great idea, because the kids were able to be quite squirmy and distract themselves while my husband and I sang. Now we all sit together in the pews to emphasize the importance of attentiveness during liturgy. On the good side, my kids know quite a few hymns by heart.

  2. I JUST bought this book at our bookstore on sunday afternoon! Though she and I do not agree in the area of discipline, I can appreciate the point she is trying to make. Out side of that, so far, so good!

  3. I totally agree with what she writes…this is great! I wish more parents would read this…Gosh, I wish we could be part of that MOOPS playgroup in Falls Church, VA. We went to MOPS last year, it a Christian-centered organization, but not Orthodox, so no big deal, Olivia’s ballet class were at the same time and we stopped going.

  4. Josephus,No you did not miss the video, our video camera ‘expired’ and we are God willing getting a new one within the next few weeks. Once that happens the first thing I am going to do is the prayer rope video. Once posted, I will keep a link to it on my sidebar for permanent access. So you didn’t miss it!

  5. How timely. We are having some issues with children at his moment in our church. It’s a real bummer. I am a pretty strict disciplinarian especially in church and I must admit my kids are well behaved ( I have three 6, 4 and 21 months). For sure we have our moments, but by and large they are good. They eat and drink a small amount before liturgy and they go to the restroom before service, so there is none of that to deal with. I allow nothing to come in to the church with us-not even a book. With my first child I allowed books and a baby, etc. I found with the next two those things just kept them from paying attention to the service. Also, we stand right up front two feet from the ambo. Yes, I have to take the baby out occasionally, but she’s getting the idea-it’s no fun to have to go out of church…This is such a sensitive topic I have found. I do realize that not everyone agrees on how to discipline children I feel, however, that everyone should agree on the fact that church services, especially the Divine Liturgy should be taken very seriously and children should come to understand this ASAP. I have read the book on children in church and I loved it. I will get the other one you suggested. Thanks!Matushka Michelle

  6. Did the person you were trying to send a message to read this? Did she (presumably) reply to it? Did it have its intended effect?

  7. I went to a church a while ago where a little girl, about 3 or 4, was riding her tricycle around during vespers. I suppose it was slightly better than the time I went to the liturgy and she ran around shrieking and giggling the entire time… but not much 🙁

  8. I think there is a delicate line (which varies from child to child) where strict boundaries actually help the child enjoy the services and obediences more. I hope I am able to walk that line as my girl gets older.

  9. I completely agree with this. My daughter is 6 right now and enjoys trying to read things, so as soon as we get to church she gets out the book to follow along. When it comes to the hymns she can pretty much sing them all, even some that are sang in Greek. I have always been very strict with her in church and now she understands that she has to be good and pay attention, she has also told me that she enjoys listening to the ‘music’ as she calls it.

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