I used to be a bit of a snob about children at Mass. I wasn’t one of those people who stared you down if your baby was crying, but I generally found childish antics distracting and I assumed that something could always be “done” about them. And I know I wasn’t alone in this sentiment.
Irritation with children at Mass is the reason we have cry rooms and the reason so many parents drop their kids in CCD, in place of Mass, or the nursery.
But this is a problem. It’s a problem, quite simply, because if Mass is what it is and children are what they are then children need to be at Mass.
Almost two years ago, God blessed me with the wildest baby I’ve ever met. It obviously drastically changed my perspective on children at Mass. So I don’t have all the answers to every aspect of the problem, but I’ve come to some clear conclusions over the last two years:
1. Children are children. And sometimes there really is nothing to be done to keep a very young child still or quiet. Oftentimes the only way to ensure that yours does not move around is to impose physical restraint. This is sometimes necessary but it often results in uncontrollable and loud crying– something I’m sure no church-goer wants to hear. So when you see that wriggling 10-month-old, understand that if they weren’t wriggling they would probably be screaming.
2. We must deal with children. Many people of our modern era promote the mentality that children are a lifestyle choice– much like biking or golfing or belonging to a club. Therefore, they conclude, the rest of the world should not have to deal with the difficulties and inconveniences that come with them.
But the truth is while having your own children may be a lifestyle choice, dealing with children in the world and in most public places is not. Given that all humans start as children, if we have any sort of love for humanity we absolutely have to love children. We have to accept that babies wriggle and drool and cry and fuss and do all sorts of things that aren’t always pleasant. And we, as a community, have to learn to deal with that just like the parents do.
3. Children don’t have to be so distracting. When you start to accept said unpleasantries of children, you may find that they begin to fade into background noise. Just as we may hear coughs and sneezes throughout Mass and still manage to stay relatively focused, the murmurings of children are the same way. Of course, there are the extreme circumstances like tantrums. And just as we would leave the church for a severe coughing spell, a parent ought to take a child out during a tantrum. But the hum of babbling babies does not have to be severely distracting.
I have found that I am often more distracted by my own thoughts anyway. As a culture, we are used to secluding children in cry rooms and with babysitters so much so that the hum has become unfamiliar. This is how I once scoffed at it– I was not used to it. But we have to be used to it if we are human beings and especially if we are Christians. Babbling babies and wiggly, whispering toddlers– they are a part of who we are and who all of us once were.
4. Children need to be challenged, believed in, and given a chance to learn. When young children are automatically ostracized on account of their possible or past bad behavior, they are actually robbed of any incentive against such behavior. When the assumption is that the only children who should sit in the pews are those who do not move or make any noise at all, almost all young children end up in the cry room or the narthex. But then how will those children ever learn the virtues required to sit still and pay attention?
So much of learning is making mistakes and being corrected. We rob children and parents of the opportunity to gently teach these things when we scare them away from going through the successes and mistakes that accompany the natural learning process.
5. Children need empathy. Memories are not infallible. I’ve heard it time and time again from older mothers: “You remember the good stuff more than the bad stuff.” You remember the rocking and the sweet smiles and the first words more than you remember those sleepless nights.
Similarly, I believe that people often forget how difficult and obnoxious their own children were. They forget what it was like to be that parent of a two-year-old and, most of all, they forget what it was like to be a two-year-old. We all forget it. But love demands that we try to remember. Empathy is not a feeling. It is a choice, and it is a choice expected of us. There is sometimes a time and place for healthy criticism or advice, but first there must always be empathy.
6. Children and their families need advocates. I am so grateful to the many priests and lay people who have recognized this problem and spoken out against it. I have had multiple priests tell me upfront to keep my baby in the pew even when he’s being, well, a baby. I cannot thank you-all enough for your understanding and love for children.
Here is my only suggestion: I have never heard this topic spoken about in a homily. I have never heard it spoken about directly to those without young children. So often parents of young children feel welcomed by the priest but not by the congregation. This has no chance of changing unless the congregation is directly addressed. A priest can encourage a family as much as he wants, but that family isn’t going to stay in the pews if everyone around them is glaring. So I wonder what would happen if a homily was started off with, “all you families in the cry room, come on in.”
6. Children, exactly as they are, belong in Mass. Mass does not equal private meditation time. We are not asked to be zen masters. We are asked to be children of God. Mass is a sacrifice, a celebration, a feast– it is many things, but it is not private and it is not guaranteed to be silent or meditative. Moreover, Mass is not legitimate according to how much we “get out of it.” It is legitimate by its very nature.
We come to be nourished, but that doesn’t mean we always feel the nourishment. We come to be fed, but that doesn’t mean we always like the food. We come to pray and grow closer to God, but that doesn’t mean we always feel prayerful. The sooner we can all realize this, the less the murmurings of children will bother us and even, perhaps, the more they will begin to sound appropriate, fitting, and even beautiful.
Now I am not saying Mass is some sort of free-for-all. I’m not saying that the way we conduct ourselves– from the music we sing and play to the way we dress to the way we discipline our children — doesn’t matter. It matters greatly. But what also matters, perhaps just as much, is our ability to embrace the earthliness of it all; to embrace the imperfections and to forgive the things we cannot change. And we cannot change the nature of children.
Whether we like their nature or not, these children are the treasures of our humanity. If anyone is to be front row and center at Mass, it is our children. They deserve the places of honor; Jesus himself said so. And I think it is when we give it to them that we better understand his absurd command that we actually “be like them.”