We had a plan, and it was beautiful: wake up early Easter morning, get dressed and ready before the kids were up. Sip some coffee. And then wake up the three kids ages 5 and under, throw on their Easter outfits and shuffle them out the door (with a donut in their bellies) for the early service. The early service! We were going to make it, on time, and nothing could stop us.
Except, perhaps, the kindergartener having a meltdown about going to church.
“But it’s SOOOO boring! I’m NOT going to go! I’m going to stay RIGHT. HERE!” she sat and yelled, refusing to put on her dress, arms crossed and absolutely terrifying. This was not in the cards, not in the schedule, and was going to make us late.
These types of meltdowns aren’t entirely unexpected, especially because the early service doesn’t have kid’s programming for kindergarteners. But with the clock ticking and our patience running out, it was important to remember a few keys for helping motivate our young kids to go to church when they’re throwing a fit.
Don’t Fight With Your Back Against the Wall
Anti-church outbursts are big deals, and we need to be careful in how we respond. But take a breath as well. Even on a regular basis, these responses in our young kids are not deal breakers. Elementary children not wanting to go to church does not mean they’re going to walk away from Christ, meddle in dark witchcraft or start a secret anti-Jesus cult during Sunday School.
To be honest, I’d be more confused by a kid who consistently does want to go to church and sit through an adult service than one who occasionally, emotionally (and just after waking up) expresses frustrations.
Point Out the Group Identity
Whenever we help kids process through their involvement in church, we need to be careful to help them see church as something they’re part of, not just something they go to. This will help them understand their importance, the value of their presence and continue to reinforce a Biblical notion of church (I Cor 12:12–31). So, work with phrases like, “Remember, sweetie, that we’re part of church on Sunday mornings because it’s good to be with other Christians!” Or, “The church is something we’re apart of! We get together with other believers to worship together — this is something that’s good!”
Both of those phrases are more helpful — especially in the long term — than, “No, honey, this is something we need to go to.” Or, especially, “God wants you to go to church.”
While the first two phrases are unlikely to motivate your 2nd grader to hop up excitedly and change his attitude on the spot, over time they’ll help reinforce a positive, Biblical notion of what church is and help establish sound guardrails against the, “Ugh-I-hated-going-to-church-and-only-went-because-my-parents-made-me” mentality.
Provide Space with Boundaries
I’m a fairly strong believer that kids with invested parents will usually make the right choice if given a) the opportunity to make the right choice and b) the space to move past their emotions. The battle we need to avoid is the emotional one — the arguing or the parent-child Thunderdome. So, establish some clear boundaries and expectations, and then get out of the room to allow the child to process their emotions and make their own decision.
For our part, this looked like me making eye contact with my daughter and saying, “Look, I understand that you don’t want to go, but it’s important and we’re going as a family. I would love for you to finish getting ready, and then come down for a donut. You have five minutes. I’m going to leave and give you that time, but if you’re not down the stairs in five minutes, I’ll get you dressed and we’re going to leave.” Establishing the clear boundary, “We are leaving in five minutes” helped give her the space to process through her emotions and the act. As I walked out the door, she was muttering along the lines of, “This is boring!” and “This isn’t fair!”
But she was down the stairs in five, and the emotions passed.