One question people ask me all the time is, “How do you get your children to behave so well at church?”
I’ve never had an answer for this. I’ve looked at these children and wondered, what one thing of all the things we do and believe as parents is the thing that causes them to sit still and quiet for an hour each week? Is there a single thing? Could it be only one thing? Or is it just the totality of our lifestyle and what we expect from them?
Someone happened to ask while my sister was visiting recently, and so I asked her what she thought. She had noticed that our children have very long attention spans, the ability to focus and work on one thing for an extended period of time, while hers tended to flit from activity to activity. “That’s something we need to work on,” she said.
And so I pondered some more. What is it that we do that has developed this quality in our children? It turns out to be something incredibly simple:
I read aloud to the children almost every day, for at least thirty minutes, but often as long as an hour, and I do not allow them to interrupt.
That last part is the key, and it’s something I’ve felt badly about when I hear other mothers’ happy children interjecting their remarks and thoughts into the narrative flow of a tale. But I’ve always disliked being interrupted, being pulled out of the world created by author and illustrator to hear a child’s sometimes relevant but often silly comments. Whatever she has to say can wait till the end of the chapter. If I hear so much as a whisper while I’m reading to them, the story is over, prayers are said, and children are put to bed.
This carries over to the rest of our lives, as well. If I am speaking to another adult, I expect the children to remain quiet, unless they need urgent medical attention or they have something relevant to add to the conversation, which does actually happen fairly often when children live in an adult-focused world, rather than a child-centered one. They do not interrupt or make undue noise during telephone conversations, either, even terribly long ones involving my sisters. If they should need food or assistance during these calls, they indicate their needs by signs and pantomime.
By teaching them not to interrupt, using story-time as our training ground, they have learned that they are not the center around which the whole universe revolves, that other people have needs and rights, too, and that we sometimes must sacrifice our own desires for the good of the others around us. They have learned to wait, that questions don’t always need immediate answers, that anticipation is often half the fun, and that it’s okay to wonder and speculate until tomorrow’s chapter. They have learned to listen, closely and carefully, and for extended periods of time, lest they miss some key element of the tale – or be sent to bed early.
This is the one thing I do that happens, inadvertently, to teach my children the self control they need to sit quietly through an hour of Mass. I told you it was simple. Read aloud to your children, but don’t let them interrupt.
It’s just one of the many benefits of family story time.