This month The Great Children In Mass debate was reopened across Catholic Internet Land. I believe it all began with Tommy Tighe’s “Letter To The Lady Annoyed By My Kids At Mass.” Boom. The Internet exploded. Having slogged through the various articles and, more distressingly, the comments beneath, I think there is a certain disconnect going on to defeat good discourse.
Simcha Fisher writes, “So How DO You Make Kids Behave At Mass?” and it was as if people had in fact people read: “Let Your Children Run Wild At Mass! Extra Points If They Yell During the Consecration.”
Is there a mythical parish where roving packs of feral children wreak havoc while their parents look on adoringly? If so, we’re all in agreement that’s a really big problem.
It isn’t what anybody who brings their children to Mass is advocating. Rather, the argument is that children, as baptized members of the body of Christ, have a right to attend the Mass and that in fact attending Mass is the best way to teach them to behave there. When children misbehave, they should be promptly corrected or removed. After proper correction the child will learn how to behave. It will be embarrassing and unfortunate when the child misbehaves but, within reason, it is a fairly unavoidable step along the road to sitting still and paying attention.
“But our parents NEVER let us do x in church!” I don’t really remember what my parents did and did not do to teach us to behave in Mass. I have a vague idea but I was busy being the child that needed training, not taking notes for when I had one of my own. Of course I remember we weren’t allowed to misbehave. Why? Because I remember being punished for misbehaving. That means I did it at least once while we were at church.
So the question, once you remove the hyperbole, seems to come down to this: Should children be allowed at the Mass in this training phase or not until they can remain still and silent at all times? Do we allow children the time to learn in our churches or not? The sides seem firmly entrenched.
However, the whole debate has been focused on the children and something occurred to me as I observed my own children at Mass this week. Somehow, I realized, having all four of my kids at Mass made them all better behaved than when the first two were alone. The reason? Perhaps their Mom has learned a lot in the eight years since I first carried a three day old infant into a Sunday Mass.
This question isn’t just about kids. It’s about their parents, and these parents need to hear that, not only can we be patient with their children while they grow, we can do the same for Mom and Dad. The truth is, newborn infants need time to learn and newborn parents do too.
Kids don’t come fully trained and neither do their folks. I live in a generation with a whole pile of new expectations and rules about parenting to sort through. There is no universally accepted societal standard for parenting anymore. Just millions and millions of contradictory opinions all delivered with absolute certainty. Our peers may not attend church at all. Our families often live far away. We are hurting for contemporary examples and support.
We are overwhelmed, lost, sometimes terrified, and believe me, painfully aware of all the ways we are failing.
With my first son we went to Mass armed to the teeth. Drinks! Snacks! Books! Toys! A full bag of tricks, literally, to which I clung like somehow the contents could make up for everything I didn’t know yet. Can I nurse in here? Was that much noise too much noise? How about now? Is passing the fussy baby back and forth between parents more or less distracting than exiting? Oh no, I’m sitting in the middle of the pew I’m going to have to squeeze past 5 total strangers. Wow these shoes make a lot of noise walking up the aisle. We were, I think, THAT FAMILY, that some commentators are so very angry about. We were clumsy and green and trying really hard.
Somewhere along the line I stopped bringing the giant bag of supplies to Mass. For one thing, in our family, it proved to be more trouble than it was worth at the best of times and at worst it was just counter-productive (it was filled with near occasions of Loud Thudding when some toy was dropped and made the kids whiny for the three course meal they would expect in Mass). This isn’t really about the bag by the way. Some families use one to great effect. But in our family, that bag was my security blanket more than the children’s and I didn’t need it anymore. Over time I was a more confident authority figure.
I knew how to fit a whole lot of correction into a raised eyebrow. I also had experience. I could think: This happened two babies ago, this is what worked and this is what didn’t. Now I can roll in with four kids, husband out of town, one diaper, one small pack of wipes, and the keys to the car in a little purse. Sometimes we still end up in the back of the church if we’ve got a kid at the complicated age where they make noise but can’t learn much about not making noise. Otherwise they sit neatly in a little row, the younger two squirming a little within the well recognized acceptable range of squirm. They’ve learned. But more importantly I have.
Nowadays I’m pretty sure we are that family the commentators point at and say “SEE those parents control their children!” I’m very happy to have reached that stage. But the point is, I did not start here. I think we probably distracted more than a few parishioners in our early, fumbling attempts at Catholic parenthood. We were trying with all sincerity but we were young and inexperienced; babies just like our children. Thank goodness those men and women were forgiving and encouraging. Not just of my children but of me. Thank goodness they welcomed me to stay in the church and learn. . .
If I’d had the misfortune to sit next to some of the people living in the comments section, my oldest would have to wait to be old enough to behave in church. But maybe we wouldn’t be there to see it. After all, I wouldn’t be able to bring him, because I’d have a new pesky toddler whose mom still hadn’t been given the chance to become good at this.
Of course, no article is going to be able to convince everyone. But I worry about those parents who are trying but struggling and who may have read so much negativity this week.
I want to tell the moms and dad who are feeling humiliated in the pews that half of it is all in their head and the other half will get better. Sadly, I also hear parents talk about how they have stopped going to Mass “until baby is older”. I hope they do come back. But for some, spending years out of the habit of going to Mass means they’ll find it impossible to make it back.
When they do return the church may seem a strange, foreign, and repressive place to children who have never had to learn to sit still and look forward for an hour. The parents may have simply delayed the problem. I don’t want any of those parents still sticking it out in the pews to give up because they don’t have it all figured out just yet.
So to all newly minted parents: your children are welcome here even if they aren’t perfect, yet. And so are you. None of us are perfect, yet. Just hang in there and down the line you will be so proud of them, and of yourself.