Thursday, February 11, 2010

Do noisy children belong at Mass?

So, just how noisy and disruptive does a child have to be at Mass before the parents are more or less obligated to whisk the little tyke out to the vestibule?

Provocative question? Sure, but I'm not the one bringing the topic up--Patrick Madrid is:
At our excellent parish, there are a lot of families who have a lot of kids. I'm talking counter-cultural-to-the-2nd-power lot of kids. Many of these fine and devout Catholics are adept at the art of swiftly rising from the pew and hustling a talkative, crying, screaming, or otherwise disruptive child out of Mass and out into a hallway.

This is good and pleasing in my sight.

But there are some parents, not many, who don't seem to have learned a lesson of basic courtesy that I believe should be mandatory as part of all pre-Cana and Engaged Encounter preparations, and that is, "Thou Shalt Not Irritate Everyone in the Church to the Point of Distraction By Allowing Your Disruptive Child(ren) to Remain in the Pew and Make Everyone Else Miserable Simply Because YOU WILL NOT DO THE RIGHT THING AND GET UP AND TAKE THE CHILD OUT OF CHURCH BEFORE PEOPLE'S HEADS START EXPLODING."[Emphasis in original--E.M.]


Those parents must understand that by allowing their child(ren) to make loud noise during Mass is an injustice to everyone else and is very bad form. It's inconsiderate at best. How I do wish that our pastor would direct the lectors to make one additional announcement before Mass, right after they announce that everyone should immediately turn off his cell phone before Mass starts. Just add this: Parents, if your children get fussy and noisy, please, out of charity for those around you during Mass, take your children outside until they settle down."
Read the whole thing, and also read this post which started Patrick Madrid's musings on the subject.

This is one of those issues that is a veritable minefield to discuss. On one side of the issue, you tend to have people who believe that nursing infants don't belong in church (if, that is, there is the slightest chance of their getting hungry in the hour or two they might be there), that babbling babies don't really belong in church either, and that toddlers should also not be allowed to come to Mass until they are capable of sitting perfectly upright and still without fidgeting or holding a book or rosary or doing anything that might in any way be annoying to grown-ups--but that they must come when they have reached the age of reason, at which point excruciatingly perfect behavior is mandatory. Where the child is supposed to learn this excruciatingly perfect behavior has always been a deep mystery to me--obviously they aren't supposed to be in church long enough to learn it, and call me crazy, but I don't think church nurseries, cry rooms, and the Rite of Dismissing the Children So They Can Go Color Things has ever been all that good at teaching children not to be disruptive in church.

But on the other side of the issue you have pastors like an old pastor of mine--the dear pro-life soul loved to hear babies crying or fussing or vocalizing at Mass, and would scold the congregation that there were probably lots of noisy babies in Heaven and they'd better start getting used to it now--which made trying to tiptoe out with a newborn in full-colic mode a bit embarrassing--but, believe me, completely necessary.

And there really are clueless parents, too, parents who think that a tantrum is something a parent must endure and outlast--and by extension everyone else in the vicinity (and you will find these people not only at church, but at restaurants, stores, and just about anywhere else). Then you have the parents who think that as long as the child is being quiet, it doesn't really matter what he or she is doing--even if he or she is wiggling commando-style under the next two nearest pews to get a really good look at the Cheerios (tm) a toddler from an earlier Mass spilled all over the floor, or, in total boredom, kicking his or her foot softly but effectively against the pew in front of him or her.

All of that said, though, I really can't agree with Patrick Madrid on this one.

Why? Because our society already makes it really, really hard for people with families, especially families with young children. Because an announcement like the one he suggests would end up being incredibly hurtful to a young couple trying their best to bring their small children to church week after week, and would place a terrible burden on them--making them cringe at the slightest sound their children make, and causing worry and stress at each Mass for the family. Because there are times--children are so good at this!--when the fussing begins right at a moment when it is all but impossible to leave the church building--at, say, the moment of consecration during the Canon, when the parent has to weigh the possible disruption of a fussy child against the definite disruption of carrying said child, now in full-throated "No no Dada no take me owside me be good me be good!" mode, out past the silent kneeling worshipers while Our Lord is being elevated and the bells are ringing. Because for the handful of really clueless parents such an announcement would have no effect at all--I believe that when a parent is truly unaware that their child's behavior is disruptive, that awareness will not dawn simply because of an announcement. "But my child is good--he/she is just acting his/her age," such parents would likely think, smiling fondly at the child who is capable, in church, of being a holy terror.

So what should we do? Those of us who are no longer accompanied at church by small children should remember how hard that was, be patient and cheerful, and not rush to judgment. The truly clueless parent will either get a clue from Father or a well-trained usher or--God willing!--a kindly nun in full habit who manages somehow in that beautiful sisterly way to get the message across without offense or ire. Sooner or later even the most clueless parent will either come to understand--or the child will be old enough to Go Color Things, and all will be well.


John Thayer Jensen said...

I'm sort of half and half on this.

I am very much of the view that small children do not always sit as quietly as they might, and that it's not necessarily a huge problem.

But I confess the oblivious parent rather upsets me, not only because he gives no sign that anyone else could possibly mind his child who has just found what a lovely rhythmic sound banging his toy on the bench makes - but even more because it strikes me that many of these children are being given a lesson about life: the world revolves around Me and whatever I feel like doing, it's your business to put up with it. This seems to me a form of child abuse and something the child will suffer from later in life.

I am happy to see parents making gentle signs to their children - finger on the lips - whether the children obey all that well or not. It is giving the child a signal: I love you and in this place you should be quiet.

And it seems to me an obvious and eminently proper thing for a mother to do for her baby to breast-feed her at Mass.


Kim said...

Slightly off-topic, but I just wanted to say how much I love your blog. Just love it. You are so spot-on about almost every Catholic thing I can think of, and your ideas are so finely-wrought here. ("Finely written?" Finely wrote?" Perhaps a new word is born...) :)

Kim D. from Wisconsin

Aaron said...

I don't have kids, but I love kids and especially love to see so many at our Latin Mass.

But I'm also convinced that when some people have a child, it switches off the part of their brain that feels embarrassment. That's the only way I can explain some of the things I see:

-- Handing your big ring of keys to your baby to play with--and then handing them back to him after he throws them crashing to the marble floor. (Hot Wheels are also popular in this category.)

-- Carrying a screaming child to the back of church, but instead of going into the vestibule, standing along the back wall so the wall reflects his screaming across the entire congregation even louder than before.

-- Sitting as far as possible from the door that leads to the restrooms, so your youngster who goes to the bathroom every Sunday will have to parade as far as possible to get there.

Those are the ones that make me shake my head (mentally), not the crying babies. It's not a question of whether to bring the kid or take the kid outside, but of making a few common sense decisions that will head off the worst of the distractions.

As for the crying babies, I think often the problem is that it slowly escalates, and there's no clear line where the parent can say, "Ok, obviously it's time to go." I've seen a kid fall off the kneeler and hit his head on the pew, and his mom was halfway to the vestibule with him before the crying started because she knew it was coming. But when a kid just starts fussing or messing around a little, that may stop, or it may get a little worse, and then a little more, and where exactly do you draw the line and make the walk of shame? (Although I always feel thankful to them, so they really shouldn't feel ashamed.)

I agree that a general announcement is dicey. As you say, it may go right over the heads of the oblivious parents, while hurting the feelings of the ones who are really trying and doing a good job. It's a tricky thing, and I very much appreciate the parents who do their best with it.

Anonymous said...

It's so hard being a parent. We sometimes come close to tears because we want to be in mass, but have to leave the sanctuary because of our kids. And if a wife is bearing a child every couple of years, then it might be a couple decades(!) before she can sit through mass undisturbed.

Red Cardigan said...

Kim, thanks so much!

Aaron, as a parent myself (though it has been a while since mine were small) I have to agree. Of course, one of the "strategic location" problems is that people *will* block your exit. I used to try, back in the day, to get up with a baby to let someone sit further in on the pew, only to have them glare at me and force me to slide down farther from the end--which makes that trip to the vestibule or restrooms *really* hard (juggling a fussy toddler while climbing over a dozen people is NOT fun).

Anonymous, hang in there. I know it's annoying to be told "It gets better," but it does. And I've come to believe that going to Mass as a family, struggle though it may be, is really, really important. Maybe you know a person without small children (elderly, young adult, etc.) who would come to Mass with you now and again, to help with the children and give you a little break? Just a thought.

Carmela James said...

I think that there has to be some sort of middle ground here. I don't much like the idea of an announcement. Children are not cellular phones and cannot be silenced at will.

In general, fussy children don't really bother me--their noise is almost welcome at Pro-Life Masses. Good concentration is part of prayer, though one would hope that one's concentration wouldn't be pressed too far at Mass. And it's an opportunity to learn patience.

I get annoyed when the child is screaming so loudly (for a long duration, not just a second or two) that I cannot hear the priest anymore. When the child is impeding the homily, then I think it's time to pop out for a bit. But I agree with Mr. Jensen that the problem is not necessarily the child, but the parents if they make no sort of attempt to teach the child how to behave in church. Of course the lesson won't sink in right away, but the effort is important. (And those of us without children appreciate it.)

The thing that annoys me the most is when my family expects me to make faces at/entertain/otherwise engage someone's child who's staring over the pew at me. I'm not at church to entertain someone else's kids. But that's not the parents' problem, that's my family's problem.

And sometimes children shout out the most thought-provoking things! I was once told a story from a man trying to get his daughter to be quiet during Mass. It was the end of Communion, and to get her focused on the Mass, he told her "Look, pay attention. The priest is about to go put Jesus in the pretty box." And the little girl jumped up on the pew and shouted "Don't worry, Jesus! I won't let them put you in the box!!" The father quickly tried to explain that it was all right and Jesus liked it in the tabernacle--but that right there is a good demonstration of how strong our faith needs to be. She had no question at all that Jesus was in the Host and was worried about Him being shut up in a box!

Anonymous said...

We admitted 3 babies with +RSV yesterday to the unit, and the comment was made, 'it's too quiet; I'd like to hear some crying babies.' The nursery is not Church, but a certain amount of crying and fussiness is healthy! Quite, unlike evenings we used to fill Tussionex 2 oz bottles for our ER patients; a.) not indicated for infants, b.) long-acting narcotic cough suppressant puts babies to 'sleep' for whose benefit? Coughing is a natural reflex when post-nasal drip hits the back of the throat, and how is little anesthetized baby going to cough it out?, c.) And, often abused in the parent population that asks for a knock-out drug for their kid.

Nope, we're all about a healthy, lusty cry! But, parents, please, attempt to help the little one in distress or discomfort (don't punish the baby for a natural response) as well as helping out fellow parishioners by surreptitiously stepping out in the foyer for a walkabout if necessary ...

Irenaeus said...

Mrs Irenaeus and I have one 20-month munchkin. It's hard to visit Mass, because he's mobile and active, so we sit in the back. But we've had nothing but good experiences with our neighbors -- our boy smiles at people, people smile back, he walks around, I follow him out into the narthex (foyer?), or steer him that way.

So far, so good. God spare the first person who gets in my face about it, however -- esp. as we sit in the back.

TJ said...

I'm in full agreeance with Erin. As one parish priest said at the end of a mass where my 1 year old daughter (at the time) was having a rough go of it: "The day we no longer hear children crying in church is the day the Church will have no future."

Deacon Dean said...

When my wife and I conduct baptism seminars at our parish we encourage the parents to NOT let their newborns or infants keep them away from Mass, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, we want to encourage the parents to attend Mass frequently, and it isn't always convenient for couples to attend separate services. For many couples this is an opportunity to try to reconnect with them and convert them into something more than C&E or BWF (Baptism, Wedding, Funeral)Catholics. Second, when we baptize their child, he or she is now a CATHOLIC child, and should be welcome in church. We shouldn't penalize the child for acting their age by denying them access to the Church into which they have been (re)born.

All that being said, there are times when common sense must prevail and the child should be taken outside or to the back of the church in order to minimize disruptive behavior.

All in all, I heartily agree with the priest from TJ's comment. When I'm serving at Mass, SLIGHTLY rambunctious children make me smile, do not distract me from delivering my homilies, and truly make our parish family a "family".

And if I may echo Kim's sentiments, this is one of my favorite Catholic blogs. Great work. God bless you and your family!

Oh, and since I'm from the Archdiocese of New Orleans...

WHO DAT?!?! How 'bout dem Saints!?!?

Aaron said...

I suspect it's critical for parents to bring babies to Mass, because it sets a precedent--for both parent and child. If you don't bring a baby because babies cry, it'll be easier to justify not bringing a toddler because he gets restless, or an 8-year-old because he picks on his sisters, or a 15-year-old because he's rebelling and rolling his eyes the whole time. I doubt there will ever come a time when you'll think, "Hey, it'd be a pleasure to start taking the kids this week!"

For the child: although I obviously don't remember going to Mass as a 2-year-old, I bet that experience helped prepare me for going as a 3-year-old, which helped when I was 4, etc. If you start when they're infants, they can grow into it, and it will never be new and strange to them. That's my theory, anyway.

I'd never blame the kid for being noisy or fussy; that doesn't even make sense to me. Babies cry; toddlers fuss; kids get restless. It's up to the parents to prevent what they can and deal with the rest when it comes. I also never look down on someone who gets up to carry a child outside; on the contrary, I'm thankful that they were willing to accept that minor embarrassment (assuming anyone is looking) for the sake of the people sitting around them.

Milehimama said...

I think such an announcement would be such a terrible idea. Instantly, parents will cringe at every noise their child makes, trying to determine if it's too loud. It will chase families out of Mass. And if one spouse is not Catholic, or a weak Catholic, it will create an easy excuse to not go to Mass.

Sometimes people don't realize how they put mothers between a rock and hard place. My husband isn't Catholic; often at Mass I'll have several of the children all by myself. And then the baby fusses - what to do? Hush her in the pew or feed her? Parade all of the children out? Leave half there, unattended - and hope they behave themselves?

We had a pew bump before. My 4 yo. But in order to take her out, I had to gather up the nursing baby, the 2 yo, the 5 yo, and pray the 9 and 11 yo wouldn't fight with each other in my absence (I had previously been schooled about having older children in the cry room. Somehow I am supposed to parent them from the other side of the glass through sheer force of will.)

I've had people chastise my children for not being well behaved enough (i.e., perfect. This lady got onto him DURING THE CANON for turning the pages of his missal TOO QUICKLY and not following along properly. He wasn't being too loud, just not doing what she thought he should be doing.) But a tantruming littles are a distraction to everyone.

I think fostering a sense of charity in everyone - parents, onlookers, and even children will help this issue.

eulogos said...

I also had many children in church with no other parent to help with them. I had situations in which I couldn't leave with the one causing a disturbance without gathering up the infant and several others...and worry about what the ones left in the pew would do. ( I have nine, with the first 8 all 17-22 months apart, the last about 3 1/2 years later.)
Most of the churches I was at did not have cry rooms, only vestibules with no chairs; the only place to sit was the stairs to the choir loft. Even the parish hall was accessable only by going outside through the parking lot, (or through the sanctuary! clearly not a possibility.) In fact, the only bathrooms required going outside, down a bunch of stairs, the entire length of the church through the parking lot, up some more stairs, and through the church hall. Not fun. And then how far was I from the ones left in the pew? I went to that parish for eleven years. Now I wonder how on earth I ever managed it.
I did not bring cheerios to mass-who wants to be responsible for that kind of mess? I did not bring toy cars. I tried keys for the older baby until the first time one set went crash. I tried to copy a devout Catholic family I had known in having "only for church" books (religious subjects and pictures,including pre VII children's missals) for older than toddler kids to look at, and that worked at little bit. I also tried bribery after church if they were good, but how good is good? and how bad was bad enough to be the only one not to get a treat? I don't recommend this approach, as children will be sure to do what it takes to find out the exact limits.
Older mothers of many in the parish said many sympathetic words to me, which did help, but I was always embarrassed, too, because I was sure their children could never have acted like mine.
I don't understand the person who says parents don't have shame.
It seems to me that this was my predominant feeling at Sunday mass for years.
Since my husband worked later hours, I did get to go to daily mass for quite a long time, so I did have time at mass without kids.
These days I am usually really happy to see children in church, but it has happened once in a while that one bothers me a bit. When that happens I think what mine were like and make an effort to smile at the mother.
Susan Peterson

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

It's so hard being a parent. We sometimes come close to tears because we want to be in mass, but have to leave the sanctuary because of our kids.

I think what Our Lord wants most is for us to be fulfilling the vocation that He has chosen for us. That said, we used to know a family who would attend Mass on both Saturday night and Sunday morning. Each parent took turns being in charge of the kids so that if they had to be taken out, the parent who stayed behind was still getting a complete Mass. It is always an option as well to go to Mass on your own at another time if you are feeling as if you are in need of that undisturbed connection with Our Lord.

And if a wife is bearing a child every couple of years, then it might be a couple decades(!) before she can sit through mass undisturbed.

A large family benefit is that as the oldest children get older, they provide a wonderful example for the littlest ones. Our youngest has learned much faster than the older ones did about proper Mass manners and behaviors because of the good examples he has witnessed every week.

eulogos said...

Charlotte, that might be true in a large family where both are Catholics or even where both are Christians, but if one parent, especially if that is the father, is not religious, the opposite can be true.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I love kids, but I've never had any of my own. That takes two, and I've never been married. If I do marry, all the single women my age seem to be grandmothers, and few women want a child younger than her own grandchildren. When I hear a child cry in church, I generally smile, or if I'm close enough, make a face or try to distract them a little. Parents need all the help they can get. But if the child is wailing loudly and continuously, well, there comes a time when walking them out of the sanctuary really is the right thing to do.

There have been times when I positioned myself near a large family, and simply pick up the first child that needs extra attention, while mom is dealing with two others. I can't say about mass, because I'm Protestant, but we have certain things in common: families, children, babies, noise, an esthetic desire for quiet and respect, and parents who don't want to miss the service.

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

I was quoting and responding specifically to the Anonymous poster who didn't indicate that the situation you described was their situation. Your scenario obviously presents difficulties of it's own.

Anonymous said...

Brave souls. I'd feel safer discussing SSPX, Medjugorje, or JPII's Korangate than discussing anything related to childrearing. :)

KC said...

Our wonderful priest made a point to the mothers in our parish. This was when our military installation was starting all those deployments. He told them, "I know it must've taken all you had to just make it here this morning. Don't worry too much about fussing children." That makes things so easy and relaxing for those of us who were "single" parents for a year or more. Attending mass was no longer a daunting task.

Dawn Farias said...

Rite of Dismissing the Children So They Can Go Color Things