Should Parents Be Allowed In Church?

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.

Caitlin Marchand

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Caitlin Marchand is a home schooling mother of 4 and a graduate of Christendom College. She enjoys writing in her spare time and blogs at theunrepeatables.wordpress.com

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  • cececole

    “Is there a mythical parish where roving packs of feral children wreak havoc while their parents look on adoringly?” Exactly. We are a large parish (3,000+ families) and our Masses have lots of kids of all ages. I just don’t see this as a major problem. Parents, on the whole (because in every crowd in life you will find an exception) are going their best to have their kids learn how to attend Mass and I do not find a problem with disruptive children. Yes, there are always a few families with toddling toddlers and cranky babies in the narthex (where they can hear Mass via sound system) but I didn’t even hear a disruption that caused the parents to go out to there. Also, our priests are very supportive of all families even if there is the occaisional disruption. A major “outbreak” of crying baby? Father will acknowledge that from the altar before dismissal as a ‘that is the future of the Church, its great they are here’ and last year our pastor wrote a very strong note in the parish bulletin about some who were unwelcoming regarding special needs (we have several autistic teens who regularly come to Mass with their parents and have some verbal outbursts). All really are welcome.

  • I hope Caitlin has some kind of tenure here on C.E. She’s legit.

  • ginanakagawa

    I am sure that when Jesus delivered the sermon on the mount and the sermon on the plane that there were scads of little ones running around making a lot of noise. That is fine. I do not mind little, little ones being restless and crying. That is beautiful music. It means the parents care about their children’s souls and are introducing them to the wonders of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

    I remember when I was small the only thing I could do other than pay attention was sleep. If I got noisy and out of line, it meant reminders delivered by my grandmother’s finger nail jabs. Now I don’t recommend that technique, but after the age of four or five children need to begin being told what the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is all about, and why we are there.

    I don’t recommend removing children from the Church. What they learn is that they can train their parents to get up and leave when they have decided that they have had enough by shrieking loudly. This is not a good lesson at all.

    What has bothered me for the last 50 plus years or so is the behavior of adults at Mass. It has become the “Jesus Show” rather than a time for communal adoration. People come dressed in dirty clothing with dirty sneakers, and I don’t mean people who are poverty stricken with nothing better to wear. No, I mean people who actually say that they “like to be comfortable.” I mean people who talk their way through Mass, read bulletins, husband and wives who take an opportunity to smooch, not just give a peck on the cheek to a spouse at the “sign of peace.” I believe that the accepted sign is supposed to be a hand shake although I admit that I feel really ridiculous shaking the hand of my husband of forty-six years. I mean people who bolt from the church right after Holy Communion or the moment the priest says the “Ite Missa est” (go you are dismissed). It does bother me when the “Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion” slop alcohol over their hands and then shake hands at the bottom of the altar steps or slap each other on the back. The horrible “music” bothers me. Yep, many things about behavior at Mass bother me a great deal. However they are all perpetrated by adults, and the sound of the cries of infants and toddlers is definitely *not* one of them.

  • Giacomo

    I can barely remember (being five years old) coming out of a trance (after the homily) where I had been uttering unintelligible chant which echoed throughout, but I sure remember Dad’s raised eyebrow which stopped the other six snickering. That’s all it took. He knew the necessity of discipline, that it is done in love, and not cruelty. We learned in CCD and what Mass was about at home, and Liturgy of Word was a time to hear God in our very soul, words that convict but also bring great joy. And we learned to not project onto others. I think this is the main problem I’ve observed on internet in this, the age of human respect, where so many seem eager to take offense where none is intended and then accuse and make excuses to justify themselves, ready to injure others for what is, in reality, a self inflicted wound.
    Of course bring children to Mass, being considerate of others, thus teaching by exapmle. Let the little children come to me (that’s all of us)… do not hinder them. This is just my general observation, though I’m nobody. God bless all

  • Bill Guentner

    I find it disconcerting and distracting to have noisy children at mass. When we had young children I would go to mass, say at 10:00 AM and my wife would go to her Pentecostal service at noon. Or, we would do the reverse. Not too difficult.

  • Caitlin Marchand

    Although splitting up mass is something we definitely do on occasion it is not all that simple for many people. For example my husband is deployed 6 months out of the year. Because of being military we live far from family. It’s me and all the kids myself or no mass at all. There are other families where a spouse is obliged to work much of Sunday and only one mass time is available. Other families have single parents for a myriad of reasons. Also, I know for my family, attending the mass on Sunday together is an important source of grace and strength in a world where keeping God as the center of family life can be quite difficult. All that said, I do think there are certain phases where this can be the best option, if it is a possible option. Around a year old it is very hard to keep children quiet and it is probably best to start out at the back because you know you’ll end up there or spend a few weekends staggering mass times.

  • Suzanne Graf Slupesky Beck

    Thanks for this article. I too was simply appalled at the firestorm of comments on some of these articles. Most were so uncharitable, I would have thought I should see them in the confession line!! So thanks for addressing this. And as to Tommy’s original article…we are fellow parishioners with the Tighe’s and let me tell you, they are INCREDIBLE parents and the kids ARE well behaved. 🙂

  • Caitlin Marchand

    I figured. Lot of Tighe’s description of himself and his kids was tongue in cheek. But nobody seems to have any humor radar these days!

  • Peter

    Awesome viewpoint! As the oldest of eight with my newest baby brother due in May, I can recognize so much of what you described in my own parents. We have always been THAT family who sat in the front pew and whose mom left occasionally with a screaming infant. I know we annoyed some people and we definitely embarrassed ourselves a few times, but we have ended up in that place where stressed young parents and kindly grandparents compliment my mom and dad on our wonderfully well-behaved family: not only that, I and all of my siblings have an understanding of and appreciation for the Sacrifice of the Mass that ONLY comes from physical exposure to the Sacred Mysteries. We are blessed, and that blessing comes through my parent’s sacrifices and courageous decisions, not through worrying about who was offended if a baby whimpered. Thank you for your article and God bless your family!

  • RW in VTA

    Amen to this POV. We’re lucky to have a pretty tolerant community at the Latin Mass we attend. I’m sure we are noticed on occasion for the mis-deeds of the kids, but accepted and forgiven nonetheless. Being, usually, a high mass, the choir’s beautiful singing often covers a multitude of little distracting noises to those not in the immediate pews.

  • pnyikos

    Unfortunately, a choir’s beautiful singing can be drowned out by a loud child in the front pew whose parents do nothing, nothing at all, about the child’s fussing. I will never forget a Christmas eve Mass where the choir had prepared a beautiful song and I couldn’t even hear half of it because I was too close to this threesome, but not close enough to tap one of them on the shoulder and request that they take they child out into the narthex.

    Unfortunately, no one else, including the ushers, did anything about it either. In another church we have attended, the priest himself would have ordered the parents to take the child out. Which ties right into the title of the article on which we are commenting.

  • pnyikos

    The autistic are welcome, yes, but where? The narthex, the cry room, or in the main part of the church?

  • Peggy

    I was one of those parents who quit going to church with my 4 preschoolers because of the looks I got. It was the biggest mistake of my life. Now I pray each day that my children will come back to the faith. Parents, don’t let anyone take away your right and duty to take your children to church. When I look around the congregation at the church I go to, I realize I am part of the reason we have so few young people at mass. What will happen to our parish when all of the old people are gone? There are very few young people to to keep it going. We need young families. Based on Jesus’ sayings, to bring me the children, I think he wants them in church too.

  • cececole

    The nave (the main part of the church). No question of that in our parish.

  • andia

    Yes, I have seen parents look on while their children ran wild…It wasn’t pretty and they took offense when I removed my purse from their child’s face. ( Child literally flung herself face first over the pew back and into my purse. Parents took MAJOR offense that I would not allow her to rifle through my purse face first. ) HOWEVER- I have often seen adults talk through Mass, or get pissed because some kid made a tad too much noise. Look- you want consideration you give , no matter what side of this equation you are on. If you can’t do that, you need to get over yourself.

  • David

    I feel bad for those that look down on (or comment badly on) a family at Church. How is a parent to teach a child to honor the Second Commandment if those children aren’t at Mass? It is embarrassing for those that get upset at a family whose children are having a difficult time. We are talking about Mass – the most important hour (or half-hour for daily Mass) of the week or someone’s day. So, for someone in the congregation to say anything negative or talk negatively on a family, they are literally (and I mean that how it is defined) being un-Catholic during Mass. Where is the charity for the children and the parents? What did Jesus say about denying Him his children? Mass doesn’t need to be stuffy. It needs to be reverent and focused on Christ. Parents (even from our friend pnyikos) are almost never just ignoring their children, but they may not be as sensitive to it as some of the unforgiving people (who must never have been parents) that are in the congregation. If it is truly bothering you, pray for the kids and the family and offer up your suffering as a Cross. The last thing we should be encouraging is for families not to come to Church (are we trying to kill the future of our Church) or for them to take their kids out into the Narthex or Crying Room (those should be removed from all Churches). The kids will learn; the family will get better; most importantly, the Church will be better off with all the families we can get at Mass.
    Like a couple of the others here, my Church and the Priests recognize this and have given some excoriating messages to those that are forgetting they are Catholic. I have three kids of my own. We sit in the first couple pews every Sunday and whenever we can attend Daily Mass. My kids behave well enough to get compliments, but it’s come over time and by forcing them to do it every Sunday. Most importantly, my two older children talk all the time about their faith and being a priest or a nun. I firmly believe sitting in the Narthex or a Crying Room (our Church doesn’t have one) would stifle that love they naturally have for God!

  • pnyikos

    So what happens when they have the verbal outbursts of which you wrote?

  • K. Jacobson

    Perhaps when this happens, the congregation can learn to exercise love for them in the unlovable times, in the hard times. It sure is easy to love an autistic child when he’s being kissed or blessed by Pope Francis over the TV or in a newspaper article, isn’t it? How about loving them when they are being a disruption and distraction in Mass. God can deal with it. At the sacrifice which the Mass is a real participation, there was plenty of noise and distraction. The participation need not be an artificially perfect event.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Great points, K. Jacobson. And I don’t weigh in on the comments to often, but one of the first things that attracted me about Catholicism was how the parish I went to was very welcoming to the kinds of folks that might usually disrupt folks. I’m talking about the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled. There was a small group in my original parish of adult men who were developmentally disabled who were, for the most part, just a part of the parish and you’d have trouble realizing they were there. But, yeah, every once in a while there’d be a scene and someone would have to help them. I thought it was a beautiful testament to the idea of all life mattering and that everyone does indeed need to be in the Church.

    And believe me, this patience is not something I’ve learned easily and I still struggle. I actually love the silence of Mass and I have such a short attention span that anything can distract me. When I first entered the Church, I was even annoyed at having kids at Mass. However, I’ve come to see that a parish is a family and, like all families, the gatherings are rarely as picture perfect as we’d like. And, hey, that’s okay. As Chesterton said, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. 🙂

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