US Catholic Faith in Real Life

And lead us not into temper tantrums

It takes a parish to make a family with rambunctious toddlers feel welcome.

By Heidi Schlumpf | Print this pagePrint |

The angelic little tot, so cute in her Sunday best, is letting out some not-so-cute cries from the pew behind you. Do you: a) smile sweetly to yourself, realizing baby Jesus probably made a few peeps at temple, too? Or: b) silently curse the wailing little cherub for interfering with your comprehension of the first reading?

Now her older brother is kicking the back of the pew. Dad tries to placate the pair with some Cheerios. One lands in your hair. A few more find their way under your shoe—crrrunnnch. Do you: a) pray God gives you patience to endure the little devils for an hour? Or: b) pray those parents start disciplining their kids before you do?

What’s that smell? Someone has a dirty diaper. And she’s not the only one. “I have to go potty,” her brother announces to the entire congregation, already straining to hear Father’s homily through the Romper Room din. Do you: a) offer to help the mother, remembering this is the family Mass, after all? Or: b) offer to head up a committee to get rid of the family Mass for good?

Not long ago I was tempted to answer “b” to scenarios like these. Now I’m the mom with two toddlers, constantly chasing, shushing, and apologizing for my kids’ “spirited” (pardon the pun) behavior during Mass.

I could use some help—not just from priests and parish staff, but from all those curmudgeon Catholics out there glaring at our 2-year-old for acting, well, like a 2-year-old.

Take last Christmas Eve: Despite extensive discussions with our children about the meaning of Jesus’ birthday, church was just a new place to wreak havoc. The child-inclusive ritual of placing pieces of hay in the life-sized manger gave our 2- and 3-year-old children the idea that it was OK to play in the sanctuary. And who gives kids candles at the beginning of Mass? Mock swordfights ensued—when they weren’t racing down the aisle toward “Jesus’ bed.”

Believe me, I was not reflecting on the miracle of the incarnation during the prayer after communion. Nor, I bet, were those sitting around us.

What’s a parent of young children to do? Take turns going to Mass alone, while your spouse stays home? Skip Mass until the kids are developmentally able to sit still for an hour? Arm yourself with religious-themed board books, snacks, and sippy cups, and spend the entire service trying to keep your kids from disrupting it?

My husband and I have tried all of those options but now attend a more casual, family-friendly Mass in our parish gym, where there’s room for kids to play with cars and coloring books on the floor. Even there, I find myself apologizing to our pastor for our children’s boisterous “reactions” to his homily. To his credit, he insists that screaming children don’t distract him and always thanks us for coming and bringing the kids.

What a saint.

Or is he? Isn’t that what Catholic communities should be doing: not only tolerating young families, but encouraging them and helping with the challenges of maintaining a spiritual life during the diaper years and beyond? Doesn’t this count as a pro-life issue?

While it is primarily the parents’ responsibility to keep their children from misbehaving and disrupting Mass, I believe parishes—and parishioners—could do more to help these already sleep-deprived moms and dads make the weekly celebration of the Eucharist a family-friendly experience.

Even simple things can make a world of difference. Make some room in the back for strollers and car seats. Realize that having to ask an usher for a key to the restroom can be disastrous for a recently potty-trained toddler. Maybe even provide some books or other supplies for parents who might have forgotten to fully stock the diaper bag in the mad rush to get to Mass before the gospel.

Sunday school for preschoolers or a parish nursery can be a godsend, allowing parents time to recharge spiritually without having to pay $10 an hour for a babysitter.

Not all parishes offer this option, nor is it the best one for every child. A 6-month-old cannot craft Noah’s ark out of Popsicle sticks. And it’s either too expensive to hire an employee or impossible to find enough volunteers to offer childcare for five Masses a week. Perhaps that is why the cry room was invented.

Forget women’s ordination or the new translation of the missal: The most controversial issue among Catholics today is cry rooms.

Cry room supporters argue that other parishioners deserve a chance for prayer and meditation without the interruptions of a hungry newborn’s cries or inappropriate discussions of bodily functions right at the moment of consecration. Mommies and daddies can relax in cry rooms, they say, and avoid the guilt of knowing their progeny are disturbing their fellow Christians.

Cry room opponents say that relegating parents and small children to a crowded, chaotic room with a lousy speaker system makes them want to cry—or just stay home. And it sends the wrong message that children and young families are a problem to be shuttered away, rather than a part of the community to be accommodated, even celebrated.

On the other hand, modern cry rooms with large plate-glass windows and better speaker systems allow families to feel that they are part of the congregation and prevent parents from having to seek refuge in echoing choir lofts, drafty vestibules, or even outdoors when their kids need a diaper change or a break from the pew.

It may be a bit of a “progressive-traditional” issue. Cry room proponents tend to emphasize the need for a respectful atmosphere at Mass so that adult Catholics can give proper reverence to God. Cry room opponents have a different view of liturgy: It’s not about private prayer; it’s a community celebration, and kids are part of that community.

I tend to side with the latter group. While I experience Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist, I also see God in the ragtag group of folks who gather weekly at Mass to encourage one another to be better Christians. Some of those who inspire me most are parents—immigrant parents who could not bring all their children to this country, parents of adopted or foster children, parents who have lost a child, parents struggling to teach their children faith and countercultural values against all the odds. I also am inspired by seeing the face of God in a child.

When I want a “me and Jesus” moment, I seek it elsewhere, perhaps at a weeknight Taizé service or with devotional reading after the kids have gone to bed.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions—both for parents and for those without young kids.

Moms and dads, treat church as you would any mixed-age gathering. This is not Chuck E. Cheese, “where a kid can be a kid.” Leave the talking action figures and loud rattles at home. Don’t drag kids to a Mass that overlaps with naptime.

As children grow older, involve them in saying prayers, singing, and kneeling during Mass. Even young ones can benefit from explanations about what’s going on “up there.” Sometimes the more “smells and bells,” the better. Sit in the front pew so they can see.

Monitor your kids, but don’t spend the entire hour shushing and berating them. Sometimes I think my constant threats of “time out” are more distracting than my misbehaving kids.

And to parishioners who think clicking their tongues in disapproval is the Christian response to a struggling parent, remember that no one—maybe not even Mary and Joseph—achieves Holy Family perfection every day. Empty-nesters’ now-grown kids probably weren’t as well behaved as they remember. And the future children of parents-to-be will not be as perfect as they imagine. I speak from experience on that one.

Instead of adding to a parent’s guilt, how about helping to alleviate some of it? Smile understandingly. Say, “Thanks for bringing your kids to church.” Even offer to show a child the statues or stained glass windows while Mommy talks to someone after Mass. I’m grateful that others have done these things for me.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says parents “must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons.” So should parishes and all Catholics. One way to do that is to welcome them—cries, poopy diapers, and all—at Mass.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matt. 19:14).

I think he also said, “Whatsoever you do to the most harried parent, that you do unto me.” Or something like that. 

"And the survey says..."

1. Parents with young children who cannot sit quietly for an hour-long Mass should:

56% - Bring the kids to Mass. Kids will be kids, and other parishioners should recognize that.
49% - Bring the kids to Mass, but be prepared to leave if it seems like they’re disturbing other parishioners.
12% - Hire a babysitter or alternate Masses with their spouse so someone can stay home with the kids.
6% - Be excused from the obligation to attend weekly Mass.
20% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“You might have to leave if kids are too disruptive, but parishioners need to be tolerant of normal, age-related behavior.”

2. My parish serves small children and their parents by:

55% - Offering a children’s liturgy of the word during at least one of the Sunday Masses.
45% - Offering a cry room.
32% - Creating an overall child-friendly atmosphere at Mass.
25% - Holding Sunday School/Catechism during one of the Masses so parents can attend Mass in peace.
18% - Holding a family Mass every Sunday.
14% - Other

3. As a parishioner without small children, my feelings about cry rooms are:

58% - They should be provided for parents who want them, but I don’t mind kids at Mass.
22% - I wish more parents would use them, as their crying children are a distraction.
8% - They send the wrong message that children are not part of the community at Mass.
12% - Other

4. As a parent, my feelings about cry rooms are:

33% - I like to have that option when needed, but prefer to feel like part of the congregation.
13% - I hate them. I feel like a second-class Catholic banished to the cheap seats.
13% - They’re OK for those who want them, but I don’t like the glares if I choose not to use it.
7% - Using one is better than trying to feed a baby in the bathroom.
5% - I love them and use them regularly.
29% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“I don’t like them, because they give children the idea it is OK to whatever they want in Mass. Even though my kids aren’t behaving, I want them to see that everyone around them is.”

This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 8, pages 27-31).

Image: William Petersen