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Why are we throwing a fit about crying rooms?

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When young children fuss in church, it gives everyone involved a needed break if babies can cry it out behind closed doors. 

Molly Jo Rose is a writer living in Indiana with her husband and son.

[Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.]

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On a scale of one to 10, my kid goes to 11. At age 4, he’s high energy, high intelligence, and often highly challenging. I love everything about my little wild man until Sunday morning comes and we’re at Mass and everyone’s staring at me like I brought an ape into the room.

My husband and I are acutely aware of our little ape’s shenanigans. We shush. We chide. We whisper heatedly into his ear. We take him to the restroom and talk to him about appropriate church behavior. We point out better-behaved children. We explain the mystery of the Mass. We offer treats and books. We threaten. We literally cover his mouth with our hands.

But none of these measures work for long because our son is little and little people aren’t that great at being quiet. And while I believe children are inherently spiritual, this doesn’t mean they have the capacity to understand the sacred nature of transubstantiation and how maybe that particular point in the Mass is not a super great time to complain loudly about how itchy their butt is.

For us, the cry room is a necessity because children are a work in progress. We need a space to turn our little ape into a Mass-trained child, an overhaul of such proportions that removal from the staid silence of the pews is often required. With all these distractions to the actual Mass, the question remains: Do cry rooms really serve parishioners? The answer is yes.

I understand the ideal. My husband and son and I are working on it, but the reality is that taking children to Mass is stressful. In a perfect world, children of every age and activity level should sit in a pew alongside the rest of the congregation. And in a perfect world, the 60-something woman in front of me at Mass would not keep turning around to glare at me with that face that says, “My children were so much better behaved than yours when they were young.” Also in a perfect world, my son would not wonder loudly why Father is bald and why his robe is green this week and why Jesus is naked and why Jesus has that “yucky owie on his belly.”

To my mind, all of my son’s questions are valid and emblematic of a child who is paying attention to the Mass. Try telling that to the Stepford family of seven two rows behind me who are all sitting like beautiful, quiet portraits, except for the youngest, who keeps tugging at her mother’s sleeve and silently pointing at my wiggly, unruly child. Okay, they are not a Stepford family. They are just expert parents who have it figured out, but I don’t and I like to tell myself I’m not alone in this. So until my son hits whatever age it is when active, little boys sit patiently while thumbing through their illustrated Baltimore catechisms, I need the cry room.

I need a space to go to for a few minutes to explain the Stations of the Cross in a way that my son won’t find overly terrifying. I need a second to come up with a way to explain that yes, Jesus died, but he’s God so he is eternal and never really died. That’s a difficult conversation to whisper, especially when my fellow whisperer doesn’t really have whispering nailed down just yet. Compounding this is the fact that churches are built to carry voices, not contain them.

I’m constantly wondering how people have Mass-trained their children. A quick study of old world architectural structures reveals the absence of any cry room plans. However, even the oldest of churches had a quieting space, an area like a vestibule, where a child could be removed to briefly while a parent calmed them down, which brings to mind an image of Our Blessed Mother holding a wiggly Jesus in the temple. Of course, Jesus probably never tried to get his mom to blow raspberries at him while gently slapping her puffed-up cheeks. And he probably didn’t even play the classic infant game of “I drop it, you catch it.” So for Our Lord there was no need, but what was available for less holy people like me and my son?

It wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s that soundproof rooms started showing up. And while the cry room solved one set of problems for exasperated parents and distracted parishioners, it introduced a whole set of new ones. For instance, would cry room inhabitants feel like we are still participating in the Mass?  Will we be able to hear the priest or will he sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher? Will there be other children running around like mad people providing just the sort of distraction my son is hoping for? Out of boredom and maybe hunger, will he eat the crushed up Cheerios and dried-out raisins on the floor? And most importantly, will the somebody-just-changed-a-serious-diaper smell of the cry room distract me from the service above and beyond everything else that’s happening in there?

On top of these concerns is the reality that not everyone agrees on what the cry room should be used for. It is not difficult to point to a laundry list of cry room abuses. There are those who treat the space like a social hour instead of a holy hour, who let children play tag or any other number of noisy, athletic activities, who check email, respond to texts, let children play on their phones, and of course, there are those there doing the bare minimum of showing up who use the removed quality of the cry room to rest their eyes. With all of these rampant problems, it’s not difficult to understand the argument against cry rooms.

Perhaps the biggest argument against the cry room is that it detracts from the unity of the Mass.  At a Mass at the Sistine Chapel in mid-January of this year, Pope Francis told his congregation: “Today the choir will sing but the most beautiful choir of all is the choir of the infants who will make a noise. Some will cry because they are not comfortable or because they are hungry,” he said. “If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice. Because they are the most important people here.“

My own priest echoes this sentiment. At our church, the median age of the parish is 30. And if there is one thing that 30-year-old Catholics do well, it’s have children. Of the cacophony of small voices crying out during Mass, our priest says, “We consider our young parents and their children as fellow parishioners. I tell them we want them here in church with the kids. We do not get too many complaints. I think our older folks may be used to it – they are hopelessly outnumbered!”

I want to believe my priest and Pope Francis. I want to believe that my child, who really isn’t as poorly behaved as I’ve painted here, is very important to the congregation. And I want to escape the purgatory of the cry room, but how can a parent who is sensitive to the prayer life of other people do this?

To those who are clamoring for the closing of cry rooms, I have this to say. I need it. Parents of all 2-and-a-half year olds who are more like little tyrants than people need it. Nursing moms need it. The real debate should focus on how the cry room should be used. A cry room should be a quieting space. Rather than a permanent storage facility for parents and their young children, a sort of purgatory for the unruly, the cry room should be a place to bring a child who is learning how to behave at Mass.

There are many ways to teach a child how to behave at Mass, and the success of this depends on both the child and the parent. A friend of mine uses the “no feet hit the ground” rule with babies, which conditions her children to understand that the cry room is not where they get to run free. Since her children behave better than mine at Mass, I can only assume this is a good rule.

But most parents have just one rule for teaching children how to behave at Mass: patience, patience, and more patience. When a child is disruptive, take them out. When they quiet down, bring them back in. Do this on repeat no matter how little sleep you had last night or how colossal the fit being thrown. While it’s difficult to ignore the not-so-quiet clucks from disapproving parishioners who have done this all so much better than I have, I know my job isn’t to make these people happy. My job is to give my son the gift of regular church practice. I wish this didn’t get in the way of other people’s church time. I really do. It weighs on me and frequently embarrasses me, but I’m doing my best.

Until I get it all figured out, I need the cry room and I’m not alone. Parenting is an incredible gift and an even more incredible challenge. It’s the best job in the world and the hardest. In trying to give our children the gift of the Mass, we need help. Parents of small children need the cry room if for no other reason than to have a little, tired cry ourselves before we return to Mass.