One of my favorite "parental paydays" came at a concert of The Orchestra at Temple Square in about 2006. We took our five children, ages 16, 14, 12, 9 and 7, the oldest a girl with her four brothers. We were excited to be at that concert because the conductor, Igor Gruppman, was a member of our Provo, UT ward, and one of the violinists, Heather Rust, was our youngest son's violin teacher. At the intermission we stood to stretch and relax; I turned around to look at the size of the audience and the woman behind us said, "You have the best behaved children I have ever seen. I'm amazed at how quiet and attentive they are."
Their behavior that night was not by chance. I, and to a lesser degree my husband, had been teaching them proper behavior since they were born. I'll share what we've done in the hopes that you'll learn and share with others so that we may all be a more reverent people.
Training our children wasn't a regimented science, but incorporated into our living as naturally as I could. It began with reading to our children as babies. I'd sit on the couch with a picture book or simple story and just read it or talk about the pictures. They would often squirm and fuss, but I held them and repeatedly engaged them by pointing out interesting things in the pictures or asking questions. A six month old can sit still and listen for a few minutes and as the baby's age increases so does their attention span. Alternating with reading I'd put on classical music and we'd sit quietly listening to the music. By eighteen months, when they are old enough for Nursery, they are able to sit and listen to a short lesson, sing songs and participate in a group setting.
I began having Family Home Evening when our oldest, Noble, was about three and Elder PW was about 18 months. I had an ulterior motive for doing so; my husband was not a member and I wanted to teach him some of the gospel basics. So I asked if we could have FHE and would he help with the children. He agreed. My motivation for beginning was also something I read in Raising Up A Family to the Lord by Elder Gene R. Cook of the Seventy. He quotes Elder A. Theodore Tuttle:
How would you , parents, if your family was isolated from the Church and had to supply all religious training? Have you become so dependent on others that you do little or nothing at home? Tell me, how much of the would your children know, if all they knew is what they had been taught at home? Ponder that. I repeat, how much of the gospel would children know if all they knew is what they had been taught at home? Remember, the Church exists Parents, the divine charge to teach has never been changed. Do not abdicate your duty.
Here is the complete text of that General Conference Address in 1979.
We would hold the children on our laps and proceed through the song, prayer, short lesson, then have a fun activity and treat. Simple, probably fifteen minutes, but they were learning to sit, listen and feel in a reverent, spiritual way.
This continued with the subsequent children, three more boys, as well.
Additionally, we used mealtimes to teach reverent behavior. We all sat at the table; we offered a blessing on the food; we taught and practiced good table manners consistently. I set the table with a cloth, china (as opposed to plastic) plates, glass glasses, and cloth napkins. I did this because I wanted my children to grow up knowing how to use these things. And in a college Cultural Anthropology class I saw a film about an indigenous tribe that allowed their toddlers to use machetes to crack open nuts because they believe their children to be capable of learning how to use adult tools without injury. I was impressed with that philosophy and adapted it to my table settings.
My husband was an active duty Marine and we lived in the Washington DC area so we taught our children about proper respect for the flag, and being respectful on our visits to National Monuments, cemeteries, museums, and such. Much of the time I was paying more attention to our children and correcting their behavior than I was to the place we were visiting. It was tiring and hard work, but I wanted to train my children young so that I could confidently take them anywhere as they grew up!
When we moved to Provo for my husband to attend BYU, I found out about the Utah Valley Symphony and purchased a family season ticket. This was the next step in training. The Symphony performed in the historic Provo Tabernacle, which was the same building in which we attended Stake Conference. I insisted that we all dress in "date clothes", which meant dresses for girls, and slacks and button down shirts for the boys. This was to help them feel the dignity of the occasion. I was silently disgusted at the many who showed up in worn out jeans and t-shirts, but I kept up with mine in their date clothes. They protested and I insisted. They also HAD to go, there wasn't a choice. I made it as fun as I could with a stop for ice cream at the BYU Creamery on Ninth.
All of this was taking place outside of church. Remember reverent behavior is taught at home!
Now for what we did at church to reinforce what we taught at home.
With babies: we did not allow them to crawl around the floor or wander down the aisle and up onto the stand, etc. They sat on our laps or on the bench; standing on the bench was allowed if the person behind was mature and not encouraging our babies to be noisy. When we had three children I asked my (non-member) husband to attend Sacrament Meeting with me as I had only two hands and three children. He did so and we made it through. After he joined the church he struggled with staying active and there were many months and years when I attended alone with all five children.
We kept the "entertainment" to a minimum in Sacrament Meetings. I brought water and some non-sugary cereal or crackers for toddlers but if a child is old enough for Primary, he/she is old enough to get through the meeting without eating. I brought a sport top bottle of water for anyone who thought they needed a drink, thus keeping them in the meeting. Anyone past potty training, was taken to the bathroom before the meeting and not allowed to go during. You get to know your children and can discern their needs. We have one who we could believe when he said "I need to go." I also taught and insisted on the children cleaning any mess we made. I encouraged them to live the things they learned in scouting--leave a place better than you find it. This was also something that TopDad imparted from his Marine Corps training.
I had three or four SILENT toys that stayed in the Sunday bag for babies to play with. I rotated a few books that could be looked at. For children between three and eight I had paper and pencil to draw or write with. After baptism they were expected to listen to the talks and pay attention. Were they perfect. Oh heavens no. Are you kidding? But, children rise to the level of expectation and I could and still can control their behavior in church with just a look or touch to the shoulder or knee. They know what is expected and they do their best to behave.
The most effective book I ever had was a Reverence Book I made for them. It is a small photo album that I have filled with artwork depicting events from the Savior's life. On the right side is the picture and on the left is the scripture that tells the event.
I began with a dozen or so pictures and scriptures and have added more over the years. When my sister was cleaning out her stuff she sent me postcards of the Arnold Friberg Book of Mormon artwork and I added those. This is a book that even helps me to keep my mind focused during the Sacrament service. I highly recommend making a simple book of the Savior. There are plenty of pictures available even if you just cut up old church magazines or pamphlets. If you ever get to BYU, go to the bookstore and there you will find a treasure trove of artwork for your reverence book.
By the time our children reach the teenage years they know how to behave, not that they always want to, but they know how to. We sit together as a family, I keep poking the boys to keep them awake, cell-phones are off and in the pocket (actually that's been a problem for only JET who has a phone, the younger two don't have their own yet), and they know to get out the hymn book and sing. I totally embarrassed one son by taking a hymn book to him as he sat at the Sacrament Table but wasn't singing. After that he made a point of holding the book high enough for me to see that he was participating in the hymn. It only takes once!
I love my children and all of this training has paid off; I feel confident of their ability to feel and recognize spiritual feelings because they know how to be reverent, that is still, quiet and respectful, whether they are in Sacrament Meeting, at a concert, at a cemetery, or any other solemn occasion. My heart swells with pleasure when I'm complimented on their behavior and maturity. I shed tears of joy and gratitude when they themselves thank me for all I have taught them. (That's the two oldest who are adults and gone from home) When they were younger and we lived in Virginia we even had people pay for our dinner at restaurants because they were so impressed with our children! Now that's a payday!
I believe the keys are to practice at home, be consistent, have high expectations and endure to the end.
Our daughter was a nanny to three children, two were four year old twins, boy and girl. She came home after the first day and said "I'm so thankful you were my mother. You raised us right." She was aghast that this family, members of our ward, didn't have any books in their home, and these four year olds didn't know how to sit still. (They were terrors at church and the dad spent most of his time out in the hall, where he let them run wild anyway.) After working with those children for four months they had improved slightly, but what a struggle. This was interesting to me--Noble was not allowed to let the children watch movies or TV, she had to play with them, read to them, etc. She'd come home exhausted; and then tell me about how the parents would come home and immediately turn on a movie for the children to watch so they wouldn't have to deal with them (the children) after a tiring day at work. Noble could see exactly why those children were the way they were. Absolutely no training. She thanked me over and over for all the work I had done to train her and her brothers.
If it sounds like I'm tooting my own horn, I am, no one else will! Raising children is hard work, but it is the most important work we can do in this life. Plus, I have learned more about my Heavenly Father from being a parent than any other way, thing or lesson.
One final note. General Conference is coming up. We began when the children were small to attend General Conference. It drove TopDad crazy to try to keep them quiet and occupied for two hours at a time. I never gave up! If you want your teens to enjoy General Conference you need to begin when they are little children; or as soon as you join the church or come back into activity. Begin today! We were so grateful when we could get conference on cable TV, I'd call on the Monday before conference and sign up for the service and then the Monday after conference I'd call them to disconnect. After a few times they got to know me and it was no big deal. I'd cook special meals and treats for Conference weekend so it was a spiritual and physical feast. I used all the helps from The Friend magazine to get the children engaged with the speakers. They could play silently with Legos or similar, but once they reached twelve they had to listen and take notes. Extra treats were given for notes taken. After a few years of this expectation there are no more questions, they know what happens on Conference weekend. They even put in orders for special foods. It is a joyful time and we look forward to seeing our children establish these habits in their own families in the coming years.
Start now! Have high expectations (like Heavenly Father has for us)! Persevere and Endure to the End!
P.S. If you happen to see a mother who is struggling alone, please help her by either sitting by her children or taking one of them to sit with you, instead of giving her dirty looks or making snide comments. She is probably doing the best she can and would appreciate a grandma/pa or aunt/uncle or cousin to help with the children. I know I went home in tears many times when I struggled alone with our five and would have kissed the feet of someone who helped me.