Parenting for the Perplexed: Teaching 3-year-old how to act in shul takes time, patience

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via [email protected].

Our 3-year-old loves going to shul, but over the past months we have realized this love does not flow from his deeply religious nature but from the chance to run wild with “The Gang of Four” — a small group of 4-year-old boys.

Our shul is very kid-friendly and has a kids’ program for part of the service, but recently we (along with the other parents of this group) have been asked to keep our kids quietly at our side. When we tell our son he has to stay with us, he throws a huge tantrum. We are on the verge of a moratorium on Shabbat at shul, but A) we don’t want to miss it (we love shul too!), and B) we don’t want to give him that kind of power. What shall we do? L.D. in San Jose

Dear L.D.: As you have seen, neither parents nor God will trump a group of 4-year-old boys in the heart of a 3-year-old. That said, you want to harness his passion in the service of fostering a lifelong love for shul and Shabbat. The question is how to allow enough of the “4-year-old joy of mayhem” to motivate him while keeping his behavior within reasonable bounds.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that many members of the shul probably are thankful that someone intervened. As the parents of adorable babies and toddlers, we sometimes forget how others may see them and their antics. Consider coordinating with the other parents of this group to provide a longer children’s program, with the parents helping to supervise.

That said, it is important to have your son join you for at least a portion of the service, so he can gradually master both the prayers and appropriate decorum. Start by practicing at home till he has memorized a certain section in the service — say 10 minutes — including words, melodies, and the getting up and sitting down.

Next, bring him in for that portion and then let him go out to play — preferably with some of his friends. After 20 minutes of play, have him rest for a bit and then come back in for another 10 minutes of focused participation with appropriate behavior.

Praise (in moderation) and breaks for outside play will gradually help him build his stamina. Remember that he is likely to need a snack well before the Kiddush (but you knew that, right?).

Swift reaction if he throws a tantrum is key, whether you are inside in the midst of the service or outside during playtime. Immediately pick him up and walk out/away. Keep conversation to a minimum, e.g., “This is not OK!” or “No yelling in shul.” Find a quiet spot (far enough so people inside won’t be bothered by continued screaming) to sit and talk him down.

You probably know by now what works with your son. Some kids react well if you speak to them in a calm, firm voice: “You need to stop screaming. Then we can talk about it” or “I can see how upset you are, but you can’t scream like that in shul. When you calm down we can go back in.” Other children escalate with each comment you make, so just hold them and wait it out.

With the tantrum over, focus on simple “problem-solving” for re-entering shul: “If you are ready to go back in, we can. But remember, you have to stay quietly with Mommy and Daddy.” Go in gingerly (I suggest the back rows for this “training” period), holding your child in your arms or kneeling down to his level. Whisper in his ear, “You are doing a good job being quiet. Very nice.”

After about 10 minutes, check with him if he wants to stay longer or needs a break. Your goal is a successful period of appropriate behavior inside, even if it’s only a few minutes. It’s much easier to build up from brief successes than undo the negative impact of longer periods that end in meltdowns.

Consistency, firm but undramatic responses to tantrums, and a modicum of praise for good behavior will help your child improve his behavior quickly. And since you are in shul … you might as well add prayer.

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale, an Israeli native, is a Bay Area Jewish community professional and author.