One of the hallmarks of our parish is the openness to families with small children. Parents often remark on how welcome they feel and how they don’t feel horrible when their kids cry at mass. Our pastor never chastises parents if their kids aren’t able to get through mass without crying to his credit. There’s nothing worse than a parent getting a guilt trip because of a cranky baby who doesn’t know any better and is just reacting naturally.
But this story in Canada’s National Post gave me some pause:
Years ago I asked a close friend why she dragged her children to Mass every Sunday. Children in church always look as if they are in the midst of slow-motion fits. They squirm, they stretch, they fall over and lay down on the kneelers, then they drool when they fall into a bored stupor. They try to be quiet but you can see it is a form of torture. All their little instincts scream, “Run!” “Yell!” “Play!” and “Get me out of here!”
Then, when they get really cranky, their mothers and fathers pick them up and walk them around the church to keep them distracted.
One young boy I know used to keep track of the length of the sermon just to pass the time. When the priest was done with his homily, the boy would whisper, “32 minutes,” and smile.
Now let me make a good distinction here. There’s a huge difference between a baby (0-2), a toddler (3-5) and a child (5-12). I think all parish staff members have to be patient with children who are not of “reading” age –meaning the babies and the toddlers. These are the kids that we can expect parents to have to occupy their time with keeping them somewhat “entertained” so that they’ll not disturb others.
However, school age children being rambunctious at mass are another matter. If those kids are allowed to remain misbehaving at mass, I place the blame on mom and dad. A 6 year old knows how to sit quietly and doesn’t need a coloring book and shouldn’t be allowed to play with the kneelers.
Now it’s easy for me to say. I don’t have children of my own and my nieces and nephew aren’t Catholic. So when I’m around children at mass, I’m usually devoid of any responsibility for them.
But I began to think back on my own experience as a child and what my mom and dad would do with the likes of me when we went to church. I’ll share three experiences from their wisdom.
The first is that they made going to church sound exciting. It never seemed like obligation or something that we had to do, even though I grew up in a fairly traditional Catholic environment where that attitude was prevalent. Mom would get me dressed up appropriately for mass and then would tell me a bit about the stories “from the Bible” that we were going to hear. Usually the upcoming Gospel for that Sunday but occasionally it would be something from the Hebrew scriptures if that was appropriate. I had my own children’s bible and my mom would say “When we get to church you’re going to hear the grown up version of this story. Try to pay attention and I’ll help you follow along.”
That indeed is my second piece of advice. Help your child to follow along with mass. Heck, if nothing else it’s an opportunity to help your child READ at a higher level–to hear grown up words and to see them in a missalette (where you can find the readings for mass as well as the Order of mass in most parishes). Liturgists often say that we shouldn’t use missalettes and I’ve always found that troubling as a high “sensor” on the Myers-Briggs. I like to read along and thankfully there’s a solution or two for those who may not have access to missalettes. One is simply to buy Magnificat magazine which not only includes those mass readings but also has morning and evening prayer. The other is to use iMissal on your iPhone which I do each week. Simply point to the parts of mass that are going on or maybe even whisper the words into their ear. I think when my mom did that with me and would “correct” me and tell me to pay attention to what was going on–it gave me the idea that indeed, something important was going on. I got a love for mass that I don’t think I would have if not for my mom and dad’s “instruction.”
The last thing was one of the big mistakes that my dad and sister made. At communion time once when I think I was about 5 I didn’t really understand what was going on. When my mom was with me she’d either stay with me until dad and Kathy (my sister) would come back from communion and then she’d go up when they returned (which is also why she always sat on the aisle) or she’d simply walk up with me. When she was unable to attend mass one Sunday, (she was hospitalized) my dad and sister simply asked me, “Michael, will you be OK to sit here by yourself? We’re going up to communion but we’ll be right back.” I nervously said “OK” but of course once they got out of my view, I cried. Loudly.
Never, ever leave a child alone at mass! For weeks I didn’t want to go back to church after that.
Far too often I have seen children who should know better playing with kneelers, laying down in pews, coloring, playing with toys or sitting in another room altogether and left to their own devices.
We’re not passing the faith along by doing any of this. And while it’s inconvenient and while it may not let us concentrate on the liturgy in the ways we might be most comfortable with, we still have a responsibility to the children.
So parents, what do you think? Am I being unreasonable?