Q: "Things have gotten out of hand with some children at my church, which has thousands of members and multiple services.
Some children as young as 4 are left alone while their parents serve at the altar, and they behave like bullies toward their siblings or other children sitting with them." - a reader in Atlanta.
A: Wear kid gloves to address this dicey issue. Otherwise, young families will be alienated.
"When children are obviously alone due to parents' lending a hand elsewhere, I quietly move up to sit or stand with the children and then depart when the parents return," says Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz of Atlanta, a children's author and educator.
Often, just the presence of an adult has proven suffi-cient to help the children, she says.
"Then there are times when I have put a finger to my lips to remind of the need for silence," Hajdusiewicz says. "I do believe it takes a village to rear children. I don't see it as meddling. When the intent is to offer kind help, the receiver can feel helped and not reprimanded."
Sandra Montague, mini- ster to families and children at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, says a senior pastor needs to set a welcoming tone.
"It takes parents and the church working together," she says. "It is a challenge, though. People give that look that says, 'Can't you control your kids?' "
Her church, a mixed-age group with about 2,500 members:
-- Mails a booklet when children start kindergarten and begin attending services, with tips on how to make worshipping as a family positive for each child.
-- Provides packets each week that include "listening sheets" to fill in with words or drawings, and incentives to turn in the sheets the next Sun- day.
-- Has teams of adults who will sit with children near the front of the church while their parents sing in the choir or otherwise volunteer.
The Rev. N. DeLiza Spang-ler, dean and rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Buffalo, N.Y., has been a priest for 30 years. Known as Mother Liza, she says it's a blessing to have children in a church.
"It is important that children learn to be quiet," she says. "But congregations need to be understanding and not give parents and their children a dirty look. To have children attending church is a wonderful gift."
She agrees that observers need to put their thoughts in the context of:
"We're in this together," instead of, "We do not want your child in church."
Some parents can pull off making helpful comments by saying such things as: "My children used to drive me crazy and this is what helped." But it's a delicate situation.
At St. Paul's before each service, children get to pick up a cloth bag with an interactive soft toy, such as a Noah's Ark, a book and coloring book with a small box of crayons.
Even though they are playing with something, they are still listening, Spangler says.
Other ways to involve your kids: Teach them some of the short responses, and sit up front so your children can see what's going on, she suggests.
Stephanie Barnard of Wilson, N.C., who served on the Children's Council of her Methodist church for six years, says these programs have helped:
-- Children's bulletins and crayon packs in the church's narthex.
-- Children's church for K/1st kids: parents and other volunteers help teach a lesson each Sunday on how to behave in church, and what all the rituals mean in the adjacent chapel during the church hour.
-- Adult volunteers to oversee the children when they sit alone, prior to singing during the service.
An annoyed churchgoer could talk to one of the ministers on ways to help families, such as pairing children with adult mentors.
Then, volunteer to help with this ministry. Or help create a tips guide on how to prepare your child for worship.
"Parents can offer advice in a kind, nonjudgmental way," Barnard says.
Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, N.C., teaches preschool and is the mother of a teenage son. Reach her at email@example.com.