The Third Rail of the Catholic Blogosphere, Part II: Crying Kids at Mass
A couple of years ago I tackled a topic (modesty in dress for women) that had become a “third rail” of the Catholic blogosphere — a topic that had a tendency to burn any St. Blogger who touched it due to the intensity of the resultant combox war.
Recently it seems an even more highly charged topic has come up at several blogs: whether or not infants and toddlers belong at Sunday Mass, given their propensity to squirm, bounce, giggle, cry, scream and otherwise do things adults find distracting.
In general, commenters on this issue fall into two camps: the “Bring The Kids” camp who believe children of all ages should attend Mass regularly from birth if possible, and the “Leave Them Home” camp who prefer that parents not bring children to Mass regularly until they are old enough to sit still, pay attention and maintain appropriate behavior for a reasonable length of time.
As with most combox wars, each side seems to believe the worst of the other. The Bring The Kids faction accuses the Leave Them Home crowd of buying into the secular anti-life mentality that treats children as spoilers of adult peace and contentment. Meanwhile, the Leave Them Home camp accuses the Bring The Kids camp of placing unreasonable expectations upon their children and others, and selfishly interfering with the ability of other parishioners to worship in peace.
Which side is right? Actually, I think they both can be, depending on the situation. Children below the age of reason (traditionally, about 7 years old) are not obligated to attend Sunday Mass, so parents can choose to bring them or not, provided they do not neglect their own Mass obligation (or that of older children) in the process. Attending Mass as a family, with all children present regardless of age, is praiseworthy and to be encouraged. But there is no Church law that requires all members of a family to attend the same Mass at all times. As long as the parents and older children fulfill their Mass obligations and instruct their younger children in the faith, how they do so is up to them.
Some other points I would like to emphasize are:
— What worked for you, your parents, or your kids does not necessarily work for everyone. This is probably the biggest reason the debate has become so heated — those who embrace one approach or the other insist that everyone else should do the same. If the “Leave Them Home” DRE who commented at The Deacon’s Bench blog had simply said “This is what worked for my family,” or “Here’s a suggestion I think might be helpful,” far fewer readers would have been shocked or taken offense. What really sparked the combox firestorm, apparently, was her disparaging comments regarding those who Bring The Kids:
Yes, parents have a duty to raise up their children in the faith. But, before they (children) have the ability to participate in the Mass & have a basic understanding of what the Mass is about, they belong at home. It isn’t fair to expect them to behave beyond their age level…. after sacrificing for so many years, I feel like I’ve paid my dues & am entitled to be at Mass without being forced to leave or not come because of the crying & screaming.
Some Bring The Kids proponents, meanwhile, also take a “my way or the highway” approach:
While I respect the intention behind it, a parent who leaves a child at home “until they are old enough” is being unjust regarding the child’s religious education…. Robbing a child of that early sensual experience of God and His Church is a very serious impediment to future catechesis and spiritual development.
I beg to differ, for reasons that are explained below.
— A decision to follow one approach or the other is not irrevocable. Two-parent families are free to decide — on a week-by-week basis if necessary — whether to bring the little ones along (one-parent families, however, generally have no choice but to Bring The Kids). If they or the child has hit a particularly rough patch and one or both parents really needs a break from spending the entire Mass on high alert for misbehavior, they should not feel guilty if they leave the child at home for a week (or two, or more) until they are ready to bring him or her back. (This may be an issue for children on the autism spectrum, whose condition tends to manifest itself around age 18-24 months and causes them to become extremely sensitive to sounds, visuals, and other stimuli “normal” children and adults can overlook.) Likewise, parents who opt to leave young children at home until a certain age can “experiment” with bringing them to a Sunday or even a weekday Mass at an earlier age. Parents can also adopt different approaches for different children based on their temperament and abilities.
— Infants and toddlers do “get something” out of being present at Mass. They get the chance to be in the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and they get a chance to immerse themselves in Catholic piety and culture so that it becomes second nature to them when they are older. If they are baptized, they have a “right” to be present, even if they are not yet receiving the Eucharist or capable of fully understanding what it means. (The same applies to older children or adults who are mentally handicapped or experiencing dementia.) I brought my own daughter (now 17) to Mass from birth and have never regretted doing so. That said…
— Waiting until the child is older doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will “never learn” how to behave in church. My own parents waited until my older brother and I were each about 5 years old to take us to Mass (they went separately in the meantime). Both of us had no trouble at all learning how to conduct ourselves in church, and both of us have faithfully attended Mass ever since. So it did not, as far as I can tell, impede our catechesis or spiritual development in any way.
Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux and sainthood candidates themselves, didn’t bring Therese to Mass for the first time until she was 4. You may know of other Catholic families who took the Leave Them Home approach (which apparently was more common prior to Vatican II) and their kids turned out just fine. Again, it depends on the child, the parents, and their temperament, and on how the parents prepare their child for attending Mass — if they present it as a “big boy/girl” privilege and something to be excited about, the child will probably approach it with a good attitude and have little trouble adjusting.
— It is not always possible to predict when sporadic cries, yells, giggles, etc. will deterioriate into a full-blown meltdown or tantrum. Sometimes the disturbance passes quickly or can be resolved with just a brief word or gesture. Other times, nothing the parent does seems to help and their only recourse is to head for the vestibule or cry room, or even the parking lot. Some parents will wait longer to take action than others, because they do not want the child to develop the habit of wheedling his or her way out of church by misbehaving. Or a parent attending alone with several children may not want to disturb other children who are behaving appropriately until he or she absolutely has to. Bystanders may wrongly interpret this as the parent “ignoring” the child’s disruption.
— The size, layout and acoustics of the church may mitigate or aggravate the annoyance level caused by baby/child noise. If several crying babies or fussy toddlers are spread out in a huge cathedral with 800 to 1,000 seats, a high vaulted ceiling and an excellent sound system, chances are they will be less disruptive than if they were crammed in a tiny country church with only 150-200 seats and no cry room, or in a 1970s-style “church in the round” with low ceilings and a poor sound system.
– Cry rooms are optional, not mandatory. The mere presence of a cry room does not require every parent present to use it. Some find that the noise and chaos level in the cry room is worse than it is outside; others see it as an “easy out” for parents who don’t want to make the effort to teach children how to behave in church. Still others, however, regard cry rooms as lifesavers and if they were not available might be tempted not to bother attending Mass at all.
— Crying/screaming babies are more of a collective problem than an individual one. Some Bring the Kids proponents wonder where all the complaints about constantly screaming babies “ruining” Mass are coming from, since neither they nor any other parent they know allows their children to make noise for more than 30 seconds, or a minute tops, before taking them out. It may be that the problem rarely comes from one or two babies; it comes from multiple babies who cry at different times throughout the Mass. Even if each individual parent acts promptly to quell their child’s noise, repeated interruptions may still occur. If this happens, a non-parent whose noise tolerance level reaches its limit may decide to vent their frustration, in the form of a dirty look or disparaging remark, on the family of the baby or toddler who happens to be closest to them at that moment. The results, needless to say, are never good, and with that in mind….
— If the kids making noise at Mass aren’t yours, and you can’t say something nice about them, it’s best to say nothing at all. I don’t care how tempted you are to scowl at that couple in front of you with the shrieking baby, or to give a piece of your mind to the woman who is letting her 2-year-old bang his toy against the pew, don’t do it! It is much more likely to do harm than good.
Let’s suppose, for a moment, that the parent(s) in question really are as stupid, oblivious or inconsiderate as you think they are, and deserve to be corrected. If that’s the case, how likely is it that they will contritely listen to you and promise to do better in the future? Nope, they will probably just go away thinking you are a mean, judgmental old biddy and tune out whatever advice you offer. However, if they are generally good and conscientious parents who are having a bad day, or whose response to an incipient meltdown, crying jag, etc. is slower than you would prefer, all you will accomplish is to make them feel embarrassed and unwelcome. At worst, you may end up being the “last straw” that persuades them to leave your parish, stop attending Mass altogether, or join a Protestant church that is “more welcoming” toward their children. The risks far outweigh any potential benefits, in my opinion.
On the other hand, if you see a parent struggling with a crying baby or restless toddler and think “Yes, I’ve been there,” by all means, give her a smile or kind word at the Sign of Peace, or after Mass if you bump into her. If you have something nice to say about the child, say it — it will make Mom or Dad’s day, or week, or year.
Finally, whatever approach you choose, refrain from passing judgment on those who choose differently. If you are a firm believer in Bringing The Kids, great — but don’t assume that anyone who doesn’t bring their babies or toddlers every week is a covert child-hater, not “really pro-life,” or remiss in their duty to teach the faith to their children. They may simply be trying to be considerate of others. Likewise, if you take the Leave Them Home approach, don’t assume that those who do bring their babies and toddlers are being inconsiderate or selfish. As explained above, if there is more than one small child present at Mass, noise is likely to occur throughout the Mass no matter how well parents attempt to keep their own children under control. The only way to completely prevent disturbances would be to ban small children completely, and that is not an option!
This is where we should all listen to the advice St. Paul gave in Romans 14 regarding another contentious issue that allowed for different approaches:
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. 14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.…15 If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat (or the presence/non-presence of children at Mass), you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating (or noise tolerance level) destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking (or of personal comfort level), but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food (or of convienience).