on church training strategy for toddlers...

>> Sunday, October 31, 2010

Almost exactly 6 months ago, I wrote a post here about giving kids the gift of learning how to sit still. Some readers heartily agreed, others thought the idea outrageous. Some assumed that I must just have an unusually calm baby. Others emphatically expressed that my naive expectations would change as soon as my kid grew old enough to motor himself around.

So, now that Little Dude has celebrated his first birthday and is a fully energetic, enthusiastic, into-everything-every-second-of-the-day little boy... it's time for an update on the subject.

I'll admit, until about 8.5 months old, Little Dude was typically an angel whenever we were out and about - including church. People can think what they like, but we largely attributed that to keeping him well-rested, fed on time, and lots of snuggling and reassuring time with mommy and daddy.

Then he learned to crawl. 

Naps went out the window... for several weeks. Our perfect sleeper was suddenly a tyrant. It took nearly two months to get his naps back on track once he'd discovered the joys of tooling around in his crib instead of lying down. Mommy was going crazy. Which made Daddy a little crazy by proxy.

Church suffered the same fate. From 8.5 to 10.5 months, Little Dude and I spent most of every sermon trotting back and forth from our pew to the outside. He wouldn't sit. He wouldn't stand. He wouldn't play with his toys. And he stopped napping during the service. I'm a huge believer that good sleep makes happy kids. So I'm certain part of the problem was the poor little guy's exhaustion from fighting his naps all week long.

At this point, lots of parents give up totally, and just start taking their kids home before church is over. Or they spend the next three years in the Parent's Room, starving for some spiritual food while their kids run around.

If this is you, please don't go leaving anonymous hating comments. I'm not writing this post in judgment to all the parents who make that choice. I'm just sharing what we've chosen to do. Your kids are your kids, I respect your right to give up your next several years of adult church if that's what you want to do. Please respect our right to teach our kids to sit in church without being disruptive. (Perhaps I'll share the reasoning for this choice in another post - comment below if you'd like to know why.)

Back to the update...

Then we found out about Baby Bumblebee. While I'd been halfheartedly realizing I was going to have to do something to change the banshee-in-church trend, I suddenly had some real motivation. In just a few months, I am going to have TWO kids with me in church. I'm going to be back and forth from the lounge area for breastfeeding and splurty diaper changes. I'm going to have an itty-bitty one that needs holding, and a strapping 17-month-old who'll be too young to command himself and too big to always share mama's lap. 

I have exactly 6 months to get Little Dude ready for this life-changing reality.

So, about three weeks ago, we started "church training" every day at home. I don't think it's fair to any little kid, no matter their age, to expect them to pleasantly do something once a week without giving them a chance to practice ahead of time. Actually, we see that as the philosophical difference between discipline and training. (Again, material for another post...) As much as possible, we'd rather train than discipline.

We began practicing how to sit still every day at home. We started by sitting Little Dude on our laps, gently but firmly, and telling him that we were going to "sit still" now. The first time, he screamed and kicked and hollered for about 45 minutes. Since it was a training session, we anticipated this reaction. That made it pretty easy to stay calm and pleasant. No getting mad. No irritated parental commands. Just quietly and repetitively insisting that "We are going to sit still until Mommy/Daddy says you can go play."

By the time he quit pitching a fit and realized we meant what we said, we only kept him sitting there for perhaps 1 minute. The point was to get him to cooperate and introduce him to the idea. Nothing more.

The next day, around the same time, we repeated the training. Again, calmly and gently, just making sure we didn't quit before he had decided to cooperate with the concept. More outlasting him than anything else. This time, it only took about 25 or 30 minutes before he quieted down. And we kept him there, talking and praising him for 2 or 3 minutes this time.

For a week, we did this every day. Each day his fighting time got shorter, and each day we lengthened the sitting still time after he calmed down, adding a couple extra minutes a day.

After a few days, we got the bright idea to put some stories on his iPod and play them while had to sit still. After all, church is a lot about listening, so having something to listen to helped distract him without entertaining him. The point is to help him be able to sit still even when there isn't something to watch or do.

I should add here, that we don't feel we're setting unrealistic expectations. We don't expect him to sit perfectly still for the entire church service at age 1. We know he's a normal, wiggly, energetic out-going little boy. What we DO want is for him to be able to make it through an entire service without being disruptive. For us, that means that much of the time we want him to be capable of sitting quietly, and the rest of the time he can stand by the pew or play on a blanket at my feet and entertain himself with toys from his Sabbath Bag (more on that in a later post... really racking up the "later posts" in this one!)

That first weekend however, he was a total mess in church. It was his worst series of outbursts yet. I wondered why I was even bothering. I was tense and frustrated, he was tense and irritable. It would be so much EASIER to just take him out and let him happily do his thing. But we decided not to give up just yet.

The second week, we altered the strategy a bit. Instead of having him sit on our laps, we sat him beside us each day. (Part of the reason is because I'm rapidly growing outward, and there won't be much comfortable lap room pretty soon.) Then I got the brilliant idea to put him in his Bumbo seat. Just enough confinement to remind him that he's got to be still, not so much that he's overly restricted. AND, a way to keep some consistency in the whole sitting still experience - since we can take the seat with us to church.

We started with sitting in his seat for 5 minutes after he quit fussing about it. In a couple days, he realized this was getting to be normal, and the fussing began to disappear. Then we lengthened it to 10 minutes, then 12 minutes, etc. Each time we sweetly but firmly told him that he "had to sit still for a little bit, until Mommy says you can go play".

The second weekend, he lasted until the last 5 minutes of the sermon without being disruptive. No, he didn't sit still the whole time - but I didn't expect him to. He probably made it about 25 minutes sitting. Then he played on his blanket on the floor and wiggled around and drank his milk. But - no screaming, fussing, or cranky outbursts. Yay for progress.

The third week, we kept the training up almost every day. (I'll admit, we missed a couple days.) On Friday though, he sat on the floor in his little seat without me next to him and played with his favorite animal and a book. While I picked up and cleaned up and folded laundry in the same room.

For FORTY-FIVE minutes.

Twice he crawled out of his seat before I'd told him he could go play, and both times I put him back in the seat, telling him that he didn't have permission to play yet, and he had to wait until mommy said he could go. He whimpered a bit and then gave in.

This past weekend, he made it through the entire church service. We didn't have to get up and leave even once. I'm especially proud of him because it was a super long service at the Romanian church. Something like 2 hours long instead of one. And sure, he wiggled around and cycled more than once through the half dozen "quiet toys" I'd packed for him to play with one by one. But he made it!

I'm glad I didn't give up after that first hellish weekend!

We're going to keep on practicing at home for a while longer, just to make sure he's really got it down. And I'm sure there'll be weekends that relapse into old habits. But we've seen enough progress to make us believers in the process.

You don't have to beat a child, or bribe them, or plead with them to get results. Just be consistent. No means no. Yes means yes. Sit still means sit still. Mostly, I think, it takes being just stubborn enough and just patient enough to stick to your parental expectations. 

In the meantime, you'll be giving them the gift of knowing where their boundaries start and stop. And that you can be trusted to mean what you say. The security that brings to their world is huge.


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Frank Lawrence,  October 31, 2010 at 1:27 PM  

my parents practiced having church with my twin brother and I during the week. It helped out our behavior I'm told.

Heather Cummings,  October 31, 2010 at 4:09 PM  

Great job! I'm glad that you had a good experience with this technique. We'll definitely do this when we have kids. Thanks for sharing your success!

Rachel October 31, 2010 at 6:14 PM  

GO Sara! Good JOB! You sound like the book, "Raising Godly Tomatoes."
I'd like to know the reason behind not being disruptive in church =)

Shannon Lozano Armantrout,  October 31, 2010 at 7:03 PM  

Fantastic!! We have done the same with Malachi to some degree and he does well but we could use some training to make it even better! Thanks!!! You're doing a fabulous job! :)

Roger Cox,  October 31, 2010 at 7:21 PM  

Way to go Sarah!!! ... maybe I should say way to go little guy???

Esther Farley,  October 31, 2010 at 7:25 PM  

Train your first one well to train the others... I don't think I could squeeze out that much one-on-one time with #3 or #4....

Penny Gallant,  October 31, 2010 at 8:59 PM  


Helen Thompson,  October 31, 2010 at 9:03 PM  

Good for you. Takes time, patient and consistency but it pays off.

Anonymous,  November 1, 2010 at 4:34 AM  

So sweet and cute post. Loved it. Thanks for sharing.

Take the test Caring For Toddlers and find out how good are you at caring for toddlers.

Katie Grant,  November 2, 2010 at 9:29 AM  

I am impressed! I remember learning to sit quietly during church :)

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