Recently I had the opportunity to hear from a young mom who had grown up in the church, spent some time away after she got married, and was now looking to bring her children back to faith in the church. Among many valid critiques about why church was becoming a frustrating experience for her as she tried week after week to find a place that would be good for her children was something that’s so easy for congregations to fix: the stink eye. Ah the “stink eye.” You know what that is, right? It’s that look of disapproval that comes darting over the glasses or sideways. It’s a look that says “shape up” or “shhhhhhhhh” or “those children are too wiggly.”
The stink eye is subtle and obvious all at the same time. You know it when you see it.
The stink eye is one reason young families don’t come to your church anymore. (Note: I didn’t say it’s the reason, there are lots of reasons for this, but I promise you, the stink eye is on the list.) Families who get the stink eye in a church don’t just get turned off from a church, they get turned off from church in general. Even if your church isn’t a stink eye church, you need to be aware of it, because you’ll have to work that much harder to compensate for all the stinky eyed churches out there. Trust me. The woman I heard from a few weeks ago was not the only one who has told me about the stink eye. It’s pervasive. The bad news about the stink eye is that it’s contagious: if your church has a (spoken or unspoken) rule that it’s okay to tell young families to “shape up” or “shhhhhhh” or “those children are too wiggly,” this rule will be enforced by the stink eye. The good news is that the stink eye is easily counterbalanced and shut down by easy ways to help young families feel welcome.
- Offer a reassuring comment that lets the parents and the children know they’re welcome just as they are. My favorite is “We just love noisy and wiggly children in our sanctuary. It helps us all to hear their lively energy and to know they are present!” or “It’s hard to be still and quiet for a long time in church. You’re doing a great job.” If you are old enough to have raised children in the church you know it can be a challenge. A simple smile with the words “I remember what it was like when my children were small” says more than enough.
- Smile. A warm genuine smile that says “No worries. We’ve got your back here.”
- Engage the family or children. Some churches have worship bags or coloring sheets or even a Prayground for children to enjoy. If you’ve got these resources… show them off!
- Resist the urge to correct or judge. Parenting styles range from very strict to very free range and every parent I know is just doing the best they can with the resources they have. What is appropriate guidance to one is “helicopter parenting” to another. What is helping a child develop independence to one is “laissez faire” to another. Parents are bombarded all the time by people telling us what to do and how to do it. What would it look like if churches were free of this type of judgment?
What would happen if your sanctuary was known for being a stink eye free zone? What if, instead of the stink eye, parents received smiles, reassuring comments, and full acceptance when they visited your church? I’ll tell you what would happen: they’d come back.