When Can I let My Kids Roam The Synagogue?

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Dear Miriam,

How old and/or what behaviors should kids have before they can walk around the synagogue independently during services?


Mini Members of the Minyan


Dear Mini,

The answer to this question depends greatly on the norms and expectations in any particular synagogue, and I don’t think it’s possible to give a blanket answer that can be applied uniformly across communities. So, my first suggestion here is to pay attention to how other families in your community handle this, and see what you can learn from them. You should also pay attention to what happens during services when kids wander away from their parents alone and how other members of the community respond. High fives and lollipops? Great! Exasperated looks and shushing? Go get your kid.

Depending on the age of your child, you can gradually give them more leeway and see how it goes. Does your toddler walk a few feet in front of you and then come running back to your arms, or do they barrel away from you shrieking? If it’s the first case, you don’t have to worry about giving too much freedom because you know they won’t stray too far. If it’s the second case, you may want to consider staying nearby to help with both safety and noise disruptions, and try again for more freedom in a few more weeks or months.

Can your elementary-aged child be trusted to respect people and property if they’re out of your line of vision? Can they reliably follow rules about where they can and can’t go and when to report back to you? If your child of any age is away from you, would they be able to communicate to other adults if they need help, including being able to share their own name, your name, and even where you are sitting in the sanctuary? 

I’m primarily addressing this from a place of appropriate synagogue behavior, but you should be thinking about how security is handled in your congregation and who else your child may encounter in the building while they’re away from you. You should also consider the difference between a regular Saturday morning with “regular” attendees and something like, for example, Purim, when the atmosphere is very different, likely more overwhelming, and probably harder to navigate for both children and adults. 

If you have any hesitation at all about whether your child is ready for this kind of freedom, it’s better to err on the side of keeping them with you (or, realistically, you following them) for longer. If you’re not already seeking out things like Tot Shabbat or childcare during services if you have those options, see if you can add those to your routine, which will provide some structure beyond simply letting the kid wander free because they’re bored. Of course, quiet activities are a must to bring with you, as well as snacks, both of which will prolong the time when your kid (and you) can stay in your seats.

Some communities also have an eager supply of older kids who are happy to be responsible for younger children in short spurts during services. I recommend talking to the older kids’ parents before putting them in charge of your kids, though, and also making sure you’re not overutilitizing this to the point of taking advantage of free childcare. 

But, like I started with, since so many of these subtleties vary between synagogues, your best information will come from observing and asking explicitly how other people handle this situation. Then, you can take that information and do what makes the most sense for your child.

Be well,