For the past 9 years or so (since Ashton was born), I haven't exactly been excited to go to Stake conference. With several babies and toddlers squirming and squealing even with vigilant entertainment from me and Jared, those twice-yearly two hour-long Stake Conference meetings just haven't been very enriching. We were there because we were being obedient and I'm sure we got some points in Heaven. I'd TRY to glean what I could from the doubtless wonderful stuff the speakers were saying. But somehow, the biggest thing I usually left Stake Conference with was gratitude that it was over for another 6 months.
Sundays have been pretty darn hard for about 9 years, Stake Conference or not. Those hour-long Sunday Sacrament meetings were never a piece of cake with several little kids. Getting to church was such a crazy scramble of getting everyone ready and getting a bag packed with quiet toys and treats and bottles and diapers and wipes and pacifiers that I was already a nervous wreck by the time we got to church. There were the Sundays when Isaac would spit up all over everything, the Sundays when we were on eggshells wondering if Eliza's colic would act up and she'd be screaming non-stop, the Sundays when the twins weren't yet old enough for nursery but weren't young enough to sit or sleep through church on a lap or in their carry-car seat and I'd spend the full 3 hours of church chasing them (with an occasional "break" to go teach a class while Jared took over the chasing).
Those were hard days. I have to admit there were plenty of Sundays when I wandered the halls with babies and toddlers wondering why we even bothered going to church. But we did. We kept going. We kept trying new ways to get through and gain something. We kept gleaning whatever tidbits of strength and learning we could from the snippets of lessons and talks that we heard and grabbing whatever whisperings of the Spirit that edged into our busy brains. We went because we needed the blessings and because we were raised to go to church every Sunday. We went because as hard as church was, the alternative of skipping church and trying to get through the next week without the strength that church still somehow offered seemed much harder.
Three years ago, when the twins turned 18 months and started being able to go to nursery, Jared and I were SO excited! Now we could actually go to Sunday School together and listen! Now I could go teach Young Womens and only be occasionally interrupted by a sweet nursery teacher asking me to come change a diaper. We were definitely seeing the light at the end of the tunnel! At around the same time, my sister shared an idea that quite immediately and drastically helped our Sacrament meeting experience. Each kid starts off Sacrament meeting with 3 cookies (or three scoops of ice cream if we're not going to make cookies that afternoon). After one warning, they loose a cookie (or a scoop) each time they talk out loud, do something noisy, etc. To get their third cookie, the kids 6 and up need to be able to tell us about one thing they learned from a talk. Ever since implementing this little system of unabashed bribery, Sacrament meeting has usually been quite a pleasant experience for everyone.
About 2 years ago, we reached the milestone of generally being able to make it through 70-minute sacrament meetings most Sundays without having to take kids out. It felt so great to achieve this goal! And a couple months ago, we forgot the all-important church bag full of Friend magazines and coloring supplies and were quite delighted to find that not only did we make it through the meeting, but the kids actually seemed to be better behaved when they had less stuff to mess with or fight over. The older kids were forced to occupy themselves with listening to the talks (or zoning out) and the twins seemed to really enjoy being held on our laps and playing with my jewelry and Jared's watch and the buttons on their shirts. Maybe less is more! We still take a few things with us to church now but that huge bag that we used to stock and haul about is now history and we can go on a weekend trip without having to bring the church bag. Yeah!
Anyway, today with TWO hours of adult-focused meetings to sit through, we pulled out the old church bag and stocked it with some stuff the kids haven't used for a while. I had a seriously wonderful "mom moment" today as I was really able to listen to the excellent talks with my husband's arm around me and my kids quietly listening or coloring or playing with quiet toys on either side. Piece of Heaven right there. Certainly, there were little moments where someone had to be reminded to whisper or when the twins needed to be taken to the bathroom (SO nice to be able to send them with one of the older boys!). But miraculously, I thoroughly enjoyed Stake Conference. And after nine years, that felt really really good!
To help those who are still in the trenches of babies and toddlers and preschoolers at church, here are a few of the things we've hauled around in our church bag that have really worked for us in the past nine years:
8 and up:
The Friend - several issues. Our kids 8 and over can listen or look at the hymn book or read the Friend or the scriptures during sacrament meeting - no more toys for them. They generally do very well with this (although Isaac still seems a little unsure what a true "whisper" should sound like).
- wooden beads to thread or cheerios to thread on yarn with masking tape on one end for a "needle"
- stickers - peeling stickers and putting them on paper or on their hands is always a favorite for the little ones
- elmer's glue (this one's from my amazing grandma who always comes up with amazingly perfect but initially odd-sounding ideas for little kids). Put a couple drops on little hands, let it dry, have kids peel it off (and put the pieces on a paper or in a little bag). They LOVE doing this!
- "sewing" boards (where you "sew" with yarn on a board with pictures on it) plus they love threading cheerios like the older toddlers
- gospel picture binder (can make them with page protectors and ripped-out photos from the Friend or gospel art - need to change the pictures pretty often to keep the interest up - they're more interested if they help make the book...)
- they love the glue thing or doing stickers too
- by age 6, we found the kids enjoyed finding the right hymn in the hymn book and following the words with their fingers - good for learning hymns plus helps with music and reading skills. From 6 up, all kids are expected to do their best to sing the hymns.
- coloring books - great Bible coloring books at lots of dollar stores
- drawing pictures of scripture stories
- whispering stories of Jesus in their ears during the sacrament
- gospel picture binder (like for preschoolers but they can really help make it - can include Articles of Faith, scripture stories, photos of prophets and information about them, etc. - my mom made a book like this for each family and it's been great to have!)
- Fractiles (magnetic shapes that go on a thin metal board - can make so many fun patterns - fun at church or at home - one of my kids' very favorite toys)
That's just off the top of my head. I wish someone would have given me a list like this 9 years ago! I'm sure I missed a lot of great stuff. What works for you???