Before my elder daughter’s first major dance competition, the heads of the studio called in the dance parents, sat us down, and went over expectations. We were told when to be there, what “being ready” actually means, and reminded about the problems of food in the dressing rooms. We were admonished to practice gluing on the false eyelashes before the day of competition to avoid frustration and fits the day of.
Then, we had a word from the studio head about behavior: “Now, you will see all kinds of things at these competitions. People going in and out of the auditorium and wandering around at all times. When groups come on, you’ll hear all kinds of shouting and things like ‘Go, Keisha, shake your — well, you know what people say…’”
She paused for a moment before continuing.
“We don’t do that here. Our girls don’t do it, and our parents don’t do it. We go into the auditorium only between dances. When our groups come on stage, we applaud — we don’t shout. That’s just how we do things.”
I found this chat very helpful. Knowing what is appropriate in a given situation is not an innate ability; it is a skill learned socially. We are either told how to behave (or how not to behave!) by someone with authority or experience, or else we figure it out from the people around us. As we grow up, we gain a set of social templates that help us recognize cues that guide what behaviors are ok in a given setting.
Kids don’t have this. They have to learn it.
Obviously, school is a central place where they learn this. Activities are another. My girls dance, play strings, and swim. What’s appropriate changes from place to place: if they’re not yelling and screaming when their friends are racing in the pool — they’re not doing it right. Conversely, when the concertmaster takes the stage, one does not yell, “Go, Keisha, shake your — well, you know what people say…”
As the head of our studio pointed out, sometimes observing how those around you behave is not sufficient for knowing how to behave appropriately and respectfully; rather, the group we are in — whether that’s a dance troupe or a family unit — brings its own set of expectations which are intimately tied to our group identity.
Here’s the bottom line for me: exposure to a wide variety of situations, how you behave in them, and how you learn the cues is an important part of being socialized. The fundamental principles of how we show respect to the people around us are likewise formed in this process. Exposing our children to these situations and clarifying expectations gives them a handy social toolset with utility across a host of social situations.
And, yes, church is one of these situations.
My wife and I set clear expectations for how our children behave in church. These expectations have changed and grown as the girls have. Our principle has been a simple one: set expectations to make sure that we’re respecting the people around us, then give the girls complete freedom within those boundaries. (The second point is an important necessary corollary — important enough that it will get its own separate piece later on.)
Thus, when my elder was sixteen months old and terrorizing the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Theological Seminary, my expectations were very simple and decibel-based: do whatever you want to do as long as it’s moderately quiet. Wander up the length of the pew? Fine. Talk to yourself? Fine. Chat with me? Fine. Try to join in with mommy while she’s singing the anthem with the choir? Maybe not.
Now, as tweens, I expect them to behave as they would at an orchestra concert: pay attention, be respectful, participate. Whispered commentary on the sermon is fine; giggling when you realize that the name of church looks like St. Bananas — not so much. There’s plenty of time to enjoy this discovery after the service.
Different church communities have different implicit standards about how kids should behave in the space. There are definitely some child-friendly places as well as some child-unfriendly communities—and this may be an important factor in selecting a parish where you feel comfortable.
Despite these external norms, what are your expectations? Where do you as a family draw these lines of what is appropriate and not and how do these lines tie into modeling and learning respect? Because it’s not just about what our kids do for one hour of the week: it’s about respect, it’s about how we live out our call to recognize the dignity of others. I have a lot of respect for respect because, at the end of the day, it’s not just a social virtue — it’s a theological virtue too.
*This is the second post in a series. Don’t miss the First Secret of a Pew Whisperer.
[Photo credit: Derek Gleeson, via Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0)]
How do you teach children appropriate respect in worship?