So, Catholic blogging powerhouse Danielle Bean wrote a post for Inside Catholic the other day in which she humorously talked about paying her kids to do various chores. I didn't let my girls read it; they might find out that the going rates for going above and beyond the call of daily chore duty are higher in the Northeast than in Texas.
But I was surprised to read Danielle's follow up, in which she revealed that some of her most negative comments to that piece came--because she admitted to letting her four-year-old take a sippy cup to Mass. The whole question of if, whether, and when to bring a snack, juice, or both to keep a toddler busy in Church is as divisive as ever, it seems, with some people lining up on the side of "no sustenance, ever, and preferably no young children at Mass" side of things, and others shrugging and saying, "Hey, so long as you don't start making breakfast burritos in the pew, it's all good," and, naturally, a whole lot of positions in between these extremes.
Just like the questions of bringing babies and young children to Mass, and the duty to remove said children when their behavior is too loud and disruptive to be ignored, the conversations about whether it's okay to bring a little snack or some juice/water/milk for the youngest member(s) of the family can get people a little heated. I think there are a few main reasons for this:
1. There is a tendency to compare, sometimes unfairly, the past with the present. I hear a lot of older Catholics talking about how their parents never brought food into Church, and how nobody would ever have dreamed of feeding even a soda cracker to a toddler during Mass. What you don't hear is that a) their parents attended split Masses until the oldest children were driving; b) at Mass all the school children were required to sit with their school class under the watchful eye of Sister (which was true for my mom) leaving Mom with only the youngest member of the family to look after; c) it was possible for Mom and baby/babies to go to the shortest Sunday Mass, which might be half an hour or so, instead of having to go to a Mass that lasts at least one hour; d) it was perfectly acceptable for Mom to skip Mass until baby was old enough to be civilized, and e) there were so many Masses on a Sunday that no one would bring a toddler to Mass right in the middle of his/her ordinary meal time. How this relates to a situation in which a mother of, say, three children ages 2.5, 1.5, and newborn, who lives in a rural area and thus has a choice between a Mass a half-hour's drive away at 9 a.m. (the parish's only Sunday Mass) or a Mass at 10:30 a.m. which is one hour and fifteen minutes' drive away is difficult to see; lest you think that situation is too ridiculous even to be a hypothetical, I just mention that it was my situation the year our youngest was born, and for the following year, until we moved to Texas when the girls were aged 3.5, 2.5, and 1. Our usual plan of action was to bring the snacks in the car, and leave them there--but I'm not going to say food never ended up in the Church. I don't honestly remember; I just remember getting glared at by elderly parishioners for not sitting in the cry room or for letting our oldest hold a plastic rosary (I guess the problem was that she wasn't actually praying it, but just piling the beads in her hand?).
2. There is a tendency to assume that everyone's situation is just like one's own. I highly doubt any of the people in our old parish had any idea we were driving over an hour each way with our three little ones. I also think that parents of "good eater" toddlers who diligently eat breakfast at seven a.m. sharp and lunch at noon sharp and who thus are fine at an 11 a.m. Sunday Mass don't realize what it's like to have a child who simply won't eat more than a handful of food on any occasion. On the other hand, the parents who routinely hand each child younger than seven a bag of Cheerios (tm) and a sippy cup as Mass begins may not realize how frustrating that is to the parents in the next pew who are trying to "wean" their toddler from such comforts by telling him those things are "just for babies." There's nothing quite like a dirty look from a disgusted three-year-old who informs his mom, "Hey, those kids aren't babies, and they have juice."
3. There is a tendency to forget that these temporary measures will end. This is true both for the snackers and the anti-snackers; both forget that children grow up all too quickly, and that what seems annoying on the one hand, or vital on the other, will quickly fade away. The goal for all parents is to get their children to behave at Mass and then to participate in it through prayer and active listening and contemplation. When you are sitting in the pew surrounded by toddlers, it feels as though that will never happen; when your former littles lead the Psalm at Mass together you wonder where all the years in between went.
4. There is a tendency to judge. This needs little explanation, but I'd like to recount a story that I think is illustrative: when I was expecting Kitten, I read a newspaper article about a toddler who'd been injured--not seriously, thank goodness--because his parents had momentarily allowed him to play with a coat hanger. "What kind of idiot parent hands his child a coat hanger to play with?" I asked rhetorically.
A couple of years later after a particularly exhausting day, I reminded Thad of that incident, and said, "Okay, now I know. Now I know exactly what kind of parent hands her child a coat hanger to play with. And I know why, too. Because when you're exhausted and it's late and they're all whining at you at once for something that part of your brain that actually stops and thinks, 'Oh, hey, coat hanger, bad idea,' is just gone..."
That's an exaggeration, of course, but here's the thing: if you think four is too old for a sippy cup, but you see the mom of a four-year-old handing her son one at Mass--why not trust her to figure it out sooner or later? I mean, it's not like she's still going to be giving him sippy cups when he's twelve (barring a special-needs situation, of course, but that should go without saying). Somewhere along the line, she'll decide that it's time to retire that particular Mass habit--and chances are she'll do it in such a way that you'll never even see the behind-the-scenes struggle for change, which all children innately hate.
I think those are the main reasons why people get bent out of shape over the issue of bringing food or drinks into Mass for young children. But there is a fifth reason, one that ought to be mentioned:
5. There is a tendency for some people to exploit these situations. Here I refer to the family who comes in to Mass, opens multiple bags of cereal, crackers, candy, and other enticing choices for the child or children, allows the child or children to spill these all over the pew and floor, further allows the youngest child to engage in the game of make-the-people-behind-me-retrieve-my-sippy-cup-seven-or-eight-times, and otherwise cause a huge distraction and leave behind a huge mess, while the parents remain clueless to the effect this is having on everyone around them. There is, in my mind, a big difference between allowing a hungry child an occasional quiet in-church snack, only when this is absolutely necessary and all other distractions have failed, and treating the pew as if it were a booth at a local fast-food restaurant. But because nearly everyone has encountered at least one of these sorts of families, the parents who really do resort to the sippy-cup only when it's most needed will get raised eyebrows, frowns, and criticism, as they get lumped in with the sort of clueless parents I described above.
A little patience and understanding for each other will go a long way, in these perennial parenting questions. But a little politeness and awareness on the side of those who do bring snacks will also go a long way. Like most parental fights, the sippy-cup wars would best be won with a peaceful truce and a plan for compromise.