Ah, the age old question of church-going mothers! From the time our babies are old enough to go out, we carry them into service in their infant carriers, give them bottles and toys--and carry them back out again when they start to cry. At that point being able to sit through the service is sometimes an impossibility. I personally spent many an hour nursing behind the mirrored window at the back of our sanctuary. That was a sacrifice I accepted, but as time went on and my kids got a little older and no longer had to be fed during the service, I wanted to remain with the adults, and I wanted to have my children in church with me, so I began the timeless struggle: teaching my children to sit still.
I can't pretend it's easy. It's an on-going process, and we have to modify our methods as our children change and grow older. It's extra annoying when your neighbor's kids sit like perfect angels, while yours won't stop squirming and trying to climb under the pew.
Little bodies are full of energy, and they have a hard time sitting through a long quiet service. Little minds are active and impatient, and don't listen easily to sermons and prayers. But it's important that as Christians we train our children to respect the house of God and others, and to learn self-discipline and patience. And although nurseries and Children's Church can provide a break for all of you, it is important that at some point you have your children in church with you, together as a family.
In the end, it comes down, like so many other things in family life, to patience, persistence, firmness and discipline. No parent wants to have to carry his or her recalcitrant three year old out the back door to administer discipline, but sometimes it is unavoidable. It is, after all, a matter of obedience. If your children learn that there are no consequences for misbehaving in church, they will have no reason not to repeat the behavior every time they get bored.
That being said, a little assistance is not out of order, and here are some the best suggestions I have heard and tried for both teaching children to sit, and for occupying them children in a quiet way:
1) Practice at home while they're still very young. Play "church" where you sit on your dining room chairs arranged in a line. Try to see who can sit quiet the longest and give small rewards.
2) Pack a special bag with "just for church" toys or coloring books. Toys should be small and quiet, something they can work with their fingers, and not having too many loose parts. My advice is to pack only a few crayons, otherwise they tend to end up all over the floor--just like the loose parts!
3) When your children get old enough to be able to start listening to the sermon, you can help them concentrate by giving them a clip board with a certain word written on it--i.e. "holy," or "salvation," and have them make a check mark every time they hear that word.
4) Encourage your children to draw pictures of things they hear the pastor talking about, especially if it's a Bible story being covered.
5) When your children graduate from the nursery or from Children's Church, buy them a new, age-appropriate Bible, and make a big deal about how special it is that they get to sit in "big church." You can even ask your pastor if he will make a special announcement from the pulpit that your child has come to big church for the first time. Help them to find the story that's being taught in their Bible, and to follow along as much as possible.
I don't know any parent who hasn't had at least one embarrassing moment--and most of us have had far more--inflicted at the hands of our adorable little wrigglers. Do not despair! It will get easier as they get older and their attention spans and control over their own bodies increases. By starting at a young age you will teach your children that church is important, that it is worthy of time and effort and respect, and you will also be teaching them larger lessons about patience and self-control; about the times it's appropriate to be loud and the times it's not.
Hopefully your pastor and pew-neighbors are understanding. If you get a dirty look or two just shrug, smile apologetically, and if necessary, carry that little one out, knowing that you will be back to try again next week.