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Thursday, August 01, 2013

Ask the Matriarch -- Coffee, Collisions, and Conniptions...

We have a question -- one of those weekly niggles that I suspect we all know, and I hope some of us have found a solution forJust when you think that the weekly liturgy is safely in the bag -- the challenges of the Intergenerational Coffee Hour!!!  Our enquirer is anonymous.  Here you go:
Dear Matriarchs,

I am the pastor of a 75 member church.  We hold our fellowship  hour in a large hall. We have several members over the age of 70 who use canes, walkers, etc for stability.  We also are blessed to have several children under the age of 8 who delight in running around full speed during fellowship hour.  Parents and grandparents are present but don't instruct their children not to run or scream.   Occasionally I will say "Don't run,"  and have intervened when a child is running with a toy in his mouth or directly towards a fan but feel uncomfortable disciplining a child when their parent or grandparent is present.  A child ran into me while I was holding a cup of coffee and some spilled on his head, fortunately he has thick hair and wasn't burnt. My concern is that sooner or later one of the children is going to knock down one of our seniors and someone will be seriously hurt.  We have one activity going on for children during coffee hour-they gather in a section to practice singing but it is hard for them to focus for more than 10 minutes.  Occasionally a few older members have complained about the screaming that goes on but no one else has raised any concerns about safety.  

I have thought of a few alternatives-establishing an outdoor play area for warmer months and clearing out a room adjacent to the fellowship hall to create a play area, or perhaps designating a parlor as a place for those who want quiet conversation.  The potential spot for an outdoor play area is far away from the fellowship hall and would require families to take a fairly long walk.  I do not have children of my own so I would appreciate the perspective from matriarchs who have raised or are raising children in the church.  I want us to have an environment that is safe and enjoyable for both children and seniors.


Our first response this week is from an old friend -- much food for thought here !!
Dear Anonymous,
Is it only in churches that a blessing can so easily become a curse? Many churches despair over having few young families, then respond negatively when children are actually among them. This is in part because the code of childhood public behavior has changed drastically in the past 30 years, and the place where it collides with other human expectations most dramatically seems to be in church. In our faith communities, the head-on conflict is simply this: older generations still view church as something one must do, while middle and younger generations view church as something one might do from time to time as a fully elective activity. If those of us who view church as required set up too many rules and barriers for those who elect church, they will elect (a) other churches or (b) Sunday brunch at the IHoP or (c) Pajama Day for the whole family.
I resist the idea that segregating the children at Coffee Hour is the answer. One of the gifts of a multi-generational church is just that; church is one of the few places you have a chance to bring children together with a wide range of other ages in a world where most of us don't live near our extended families. Knowing dear, older people and being loved by them has been a gift to my children who have a paucity of grandparents. In one church I served as an interim, the ladies who put on the coffee hour, by their kindness to her week in and week out, helped my then middle school-aged daughter to believe she really was an attractive human being. In another church, the constant encouragement for a similarly-aged musician supported his desire to make music his career. He also learned important skills such as making palm crosses. All three of my children learned how to have a conversation with a non-related adult, as well as the crucial spiritual value that people of other generations matter to God just as much as their (appropriate developmental narcissism be d@#*ed) own selves. 
Careening around, however, endangers everyone. It may be time to administer a gentle corrective. Please consider the word "gentle" as if in all caps for its importance but note that is is not in all caps because that would suggest an approach less than polite and loving. Struwwelpeter cautionary tales will never do in this enlightened age. ( We must try, instead, an approach that is both developmentally and socially appropriate for the context, which is to say applying the concept broadly enough that no one feels accused of bad behavior at the same time everyone feels commissioned to good behavior. I would recommend a Children's Moment about the ways we greet one another in Christian love. Give the children a formula for greeting the older folks, Commission them to say hello to someone at Coffee. Commission their parents to oversee the interaction if they prefer to do so. Commission the older folks to look around for a young person coming to greet them. 
In other words, get them all looking around for each other as conversation partners rather than hazards. Follow this up with a newsletter article or email item (whichever is better-used in your context) that repeats the formula and once again encourages the greetings be given. Children who are occupied at Coffee Hour will be less likely to endanger others (however well-meaningly). 
Blessings to all involved,
Martha   blogging at Reflectionary

One more response this week from a slightly different angle -- with our thanks -- 
I have never had children but I believe that is incumbent on the pastor/priest to set the tone of the church when it comes to safety.  Perhaps a coffee hour in which parents and oldsters can talk about this might help.  But I have no problem in correcting children in the church.  It is my job!  Children need to be taught by the whole community and parents need to know that.  

In one parish we had a very rough little 4 year old who ran everywhere and when he pushed a senior man just home from surgery, it was not only time to speak to the boy but for him to understand that he had hurt Mr. ____.  The boy just needed to learn.  The Church is certainly the place where we want our children to learn.  Often our parents have not been parented enough to know how to correct their children in ways that won't damage them, but teach them respect.  It is part of the Church's job to be that village where children can know what is expected of them.

Muthah+ blogging at Stone of Witness

Thank you "all both" for your responses  -- and now --

Ok, one and all -- what have you tried?  what works?  I am still chuckling over "appropriate developmental narcissism"...and trying to remember the aphorism about how a problem is never solved at the same level at which it is occurring, but at a higher and more comprehensive level--does anybody remember the source, or the precise wording?

We look forward to your observations -- and solutions -- and, of course, your further questions about our most peculiar calling.  Please address them to

Peace and plenty, y'all!


  1. Sounds potentially dangerous. I would definately want to ban running in the room where the coffee is. And ban shouting indoors. Can you also provide seating so at least you're not worried about people being knocked over ?

    I'm a mum, and also responsible for the children's work in our church. Basically I gave up years ago on having any scruples about reigning the kids in when they get out of hand, even if the parents are there. As pastor, I definately think you can claim similar priviledges (indeed some parents/grandparents might be waiting for you to take the lead).

    One practical idea. Is there a time when you can sit down with the kids and basically say "look guys we have a problem, lets see if we can come up with a solution together". They're usually pretty used to coming up with "classroom rules" and "club rules" so getting them to decide "No running in the coffee room" "No yelling" would be good. If your seniors were also involved and could add "no criticising", that might also help. I don't know if you could do this as part of your service, but maybe you could do it as an activity at Fellowship Time.

    You don't specify, but I'm assuming this is after church coffee - in which case the kids have probably been putting a lot of effort into sitting still and listening, and naturally need to blow off steam. Is there any way to build this in somehow. (I've been known to send ours outside to run round the building 5 times when they are particularly boisterous. You dress it up as a game of course...)

    One of my mantras is "kids, we need you to make a special effort to be calm, grown-ups we need you to make a special effort to be tolerant."

  2. Thank you, friend! lots of stimulus for thought here!

  3. A couple of thoughts:
    I'm a mama to two young children (ages 5 and 3), and I would have NO problem with the pastor (or any other adult, really) gently asking my children not to run. Something like..."please remember to walk...look, there is Mrs. Smith, we wouldn't want her to stumble and fall down, right?" That method is what I use with my own kids and great-grandma.

    The other thought, that would work with a little bit older children, is to commission them as waiters and waitresses. It's more than a bit difficult to manage a walker and a cup of coffee, so why couldn't the kids help out by carrying the coffee to a table/chair for the person? Or maybe even take orders for seated people. That occupies the children, gives them something real and helpful to do, keeps the walker crowd safer. And I think the walker crowd would be charmed by a child delivering their coffee, where they might not be as willing to accept help from another adult.

    1. Love the waitering idea for the older ones. Even little ones could walk round with a plate of cookies to share ! or some sugar in a bowl perhaps ?

    2. or napkins for the littlest ones. Begins to develop relationships between the youngest and the oldest, and once they care about each other, then they are less likely to careen about.

    3. I like it, esperanza, I like it very much indeed!

  4. For us, small tables and chairs serve two purposes: a safe place for the more fragile folk to sit and enjoy their coffee and snacks (after all, it's hard for anyone to juggle a cuppa and a little plate), and a way to create sort of a barrier-maze where kids don't feel comfortable running. We also have a room immediately adjacent to the main parish hall, where there is a small table and chairs (and puzzles and such) - this is a place where kids can go to play while they're waiting for mom and dad to finish their coffee. They are welcome in the main parish hall, of course, but offering kid-friendly alternatives including our playground just outside the nursery/creche seems to help. I'm not shy about telling a child "inside voice here, please!" or "I'll bet it would be more fun to race your little brother out in the hallway rather than in the midst of all these people standing around."

    I've also made it a point to talk about the role of children in worship and in fellowship in Adult Forum. It's a good opportunity for our seniors to talk about how different things are around here, and to discuss what we all agree are acceptable norms (old Mrs. Crotchety yelling "You little brats ought to get out of here!" is usually shouted down by others in the room, TBTG!)

    This approach works pretty well for us, but of course YMMV...blessings, sister!

    1. Thank you! I know parishes who have set up "secret grannies" relationships as well -- as a means of making connections between the generations -- with connection comes a sense of responsibility (one hopes), and so forth!

  5. Thanks everyone for these great suggestions!

  6. Something else to consider--if the fellowship hall is large and has no visual barriers, it's going to invite running and yelling. Creating "zones" (e.g. a small "cafe" area of tables set up near the coffee area; a soft corner with children's books/games/quiet toys and a rocking chair or two so elders can read/be with children; an intergenerational invitation to create--putting out a thousand piece puzzle for folks to work on as they desire during this time, large sheets of paper and markers/crayons) can also be a helpful way to break up the race track of the fellowship hall.


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