It had been another one of those nightmarish services when I wondered why on earth I had even bothered to come to church. Not that the service itself was bad. It was probably very good, though I honestly couldn't have told you either way because I had spent 90% of it trekking back and forth between my pew and the church nursery with a toddler I could not control to save my life.
My second-born daughter had been an angelic baby, sleeping through the night from the time she was a few days old and always easily entertained by her older sister and brightly colored toys and ceiling fans. She was sweet and serene and easy to amuse. God had blessed me with one of those contented, compliant children.
Or so I thought. At about 10 or 12 months old, things began to change. With greater mobility came a greater sense of adventure and, it seemed to me, discontent. Though she was still a happy child, mostly, she was a poor communicator, barely talking at all before her third birthday and using only a few basic signs. For the better part of the three years that would follow it was as if she had all the energy of five toddlers bottled up in this tiny body, and no way to express her feelings and emotions but through wild activity and loud, unexpected outbursts. And those she expressed all the time.
Eating out was miserable for us, to the point we just stopped trying. Quiet small group meetings or assemblies were out of the question. Church was particularly awful for me because my husband is both a minister and a musician, so it seemed he was always taking part in one aspect of the service or another, which meant he was almost never free to help me. I had no family in the church and up to that point my daughter had refused to take up with anyone else in the congregation, though a few brave souls seemed to feel sorry enough for me they were trying to win her over. The rest were scared of her. And with good reason.
Years later, after dealing with learning struggles, we would find out my daughter was both dyslexic and struggled with an LPD, (language processing disorder,) which suddenly put all those toddler battles in a whole new light. Her comprehension of language and instructions was poor, very poor, especially in those toddler years, and particularly in the distracting environment of a church service where there were so many other people and sights and sounds. No wonder she struggled! And no wonder I was so exhausted all the time in dealing with her.
But back to that particularly nightmarish church service. Relief poured over me as I heard the dismissal prayer and I started easing back into the sanctuary, anxious to hand my darling little tornado to her daddy so I could go sit somewhere, nurse my wounds, and maybe indulge in a minute or two of adult conversation.
On my way up the center aisle I was stopped by a very elderly woman with an always-sour expression. I don't know that she had ever spoken to me before of her own volition, which is probably a good thing, but her tone was both stern and snide. "I once knew some people who had a little girl like that and they had her prayed for," she told me. "The preacher laid hands on her and prayed and she never acted like that again."
Okay, I believe in the power of prayer. And maybe that woman meant well. Maybe she didn't mean to be so cold and sound so condemning and maybe that was her way of offering help and showing compassion.
(I don't really believe that, but bear with me here as I try to sound objective.)
But as an exhausted, stressed-out, encouragement-starved young mother, what I heard was, "Your kid is a brat and she needs the devil cast out of her."
Thanks for that. Thanks for making me feel like my two-year old is demon possessed and I am a miserable, miserable mother.
Now. I was so hesitant to say some of the things I'm about to say because I know how easily they can be misconstrued. I never want to be perceived as condoning the bad behavior of a child during a church service. And let me add, too, that I realize there's a world of difference between a two-year old behaving badly and an 8 or 10 or 12-year old doing so, especially when it's happening on a consistent basis. *Except in the case of a special needs child, of course.
I will make no excuse for a mom who allows a child to cry and disrupt without any consideration for those around her. Others have the right to come and sit and hear God's word without the distraction of my unruly child, no matter how exhausting it may be sometimes for me to intervene.
I also realize we live in a day and age when discipline is very lacking. Sometimes even Christian parents are neglectful and lazy and hyper-sensitive about their children to the point they'll totally disregard others.
That's wrong. And it's bad parenting.
But all of that said, I have tremendous compassion for the mom of the 'bad kid' at church, that little one with the reputation for fits and outbursts and mid-sermon meltdowns, because I was once there myself. Until my daughter was at least five, she was so difficult to deal with so much of the time I probably left church in tears more often than I left encouraged.
So why didn't your church have a nursery program? you ask. Wouldn't that have resolved the problem?
Now there's an issue I'm torn on. It might have been easier for moms in the day when extended families all lived in the same area and all went to church together, so exhausted moms usually had some help from others very familiar to the children. Those days are gone and now moms may be lucky to even live in the same community as extended family, let alone go to church with them!
I just know there were many times, probably with all of my children, I would have given anything to be able to go into a church service and listen and participate in worship without the distraction of my kids. Sometimes I came to church feeling absolutely starved for spiritual help, so I can certainly see what a tremendous blessing a nursery program could be to a church's young mothers.
At the same time, I don't know how kids learn to behave in church if they're never in church. The earlier you start them in regular church services, in the singing of hymns and the preaching of God's word and in prayer with other saints, the better!
But in my situation as it was, I was doing all I knew to do. And my daughter was still awful in church.
That's why when I come across all these articles with titles like, "How I Taught My Children to Be Good in Church", (and there are a lot of them out there with similar names,) I find myself chuckling. Or rolling my eyes.
Let me just say that some of these are very good articles meant to share practical advice for the mom struggling with littles in church.
Others I've read, however, are written in such a smug, even self-righteous tone that they might as well say something to the effect of, "If your kids are acting badly in church, it's because you're a bad parent. Be an awesome parent like me and your kids will be angels, too."
Sorry, but that's not helpful. Had I stumbled across some of these when my daughter was little, I would have found them so discouraging. Because while the same basic methods offered in these articles worked just fine for 3/4 of my kids, they were practically futile with the other 1/4.
I don't care what anybody says, all kids are not the same. Those of us who are homeschoolers probably tout that idea more than most. I mean, it's part of why we celebrate homeschooling: We can offer our children an education tailored specifically to them with both their strengths and weaknesses in mind, because kids grow and mature and learn at different rates.
And yet we want to assume that with the proper methods and discipline, all kids will mature and grow and learn good behavior at the same rate.
Somebody tell me how that works.
Oh wait. It doesn't!
If kids learn to read or do their multiplication tables at different rates, isn't it reasonable to assume they may learn to sit still and listen and "be good" in church at different rates as well?
If anything helped me during the chaos of those years, it was Dr. James Dobson's book, The Strong-Willed Child. Though my daughter's struggles had more to do with her LPD than with a strong will, I didn't know any difference at the time, and that book helped me so much to understand that all kids are not created equal. I found real comfort in that.
Because I would look at other moms with their tiny little children sitting calmly, angelically at their sides. Never making a peep. Never disturbing. Content to flip through board books or sit contentedly like a miniature adult, all while my little monster was clawing all over me and the church pew and screeching and crying and continuously plotting her escape from me if I dared look away.
The best I could tell, I did all the things the other moms did! And this is what I got.
But Dr. Dobson helped me understand that, for whatever reason, some families are blessed with all compliant children. Others may be blessed with all strong-willed, more difficult to mold and train ones. Why God doles kids out the way He does is a mystery to me, but it should make us cautious how we judge other moms and dads who may very well be doing the best they can with the child God has given them.
Every mom seems to think she has at least one strong-willed child, but it just isn't true. So often I've seen parents who thought #1 was a problem-child, until they had #2 or 3, and suddenly they realized #1 was a saint! Like it or lump it, parenting may actually be easier for some moms because they've been given more compliant children. That's a blessing. However, strong-willed kids, if pointed in the right direction, often make amazing leaders and strong, determined Christians.
It's all in how you look at it. Moms of the "bad kids" should never be envious of moms with compliant children. Moms of compliant children shouldn't be so hard on moms of strong-willed or difficult ones. And all of us should try to do more to help young moms we see struggling to manage children in church. Thank God they're there! They're trying! And they should be commended for it.
And a final word of encouragement to you, the moms of the "bad kids" at church: Keep your chin up, sweet Christian mama. Don't be discouraged. You're doing the right thing by trying to be faithful to God's house and taking those little ones with you. God will bless your efforts, even in those times when you really wonder if all the work it takes to get to church and the wrestling and the crying and the 34 trips to the nursery are worth it. Keep doing your best and know that God will honor it and will provide you the grace you need for every day.
Trust me. I know this from experience.
And just in case you're wondering, that boisterous little girl who gave me such fits is now 11. Obviously I don't have her raised yet, and I can't take credit for any good I see in her. That's God's doing.
But, truly, of all my kids, she is probably the most spiritually sensitive. She literally grieves at times because she's a child, which she thinks limits her ability to do something for God. She's forever going on personal "fasts" from videos or video games lest those things become more important to her than praying and reading her Bible. She's so tender-hearted that, if I was to let her, the child would literally give away everything she owns to the less-fortunate.
I'm not saying she's perfect, but she's come a long way from those random outbursts and mid-sermon meltdowns. A LONG way. So long, in fact, that people who didn't know her back then don't want to believe what a difficult child she once was.
The "bad kid" wasn't really so bad after all. And, thank heavens, maybe that means I wasn't the "bad mom" I thought myself to be either. Or if I was, there was a merciful God always there filling in the gaps I was leaving behind.
That's how His grace works. And I'm so thankful for it.
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