Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The sippy-cup wars

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.


L. said...

This issue comes up in other religions, too -- here's a link to another blog I read sometimes:


MacBeth Derham said...

The real issue is not about Mass, but about food. Is there ever a situation where a child is without a drink or food for an hour during the day? Are these children filter-feeding barnacles who cannot go without?

LeeAnn Balbirona said...

My youngest is 4 and has long outgrown needing food and drink during Mass, but the main reason I ever gave it him was to keep him quiet. If I gave him a small toy it was much louder and encouraged a lot of rambunctious behavior. Whereas a small baggie of cereal or (heaven forbid) M&Ms entertained him quietly for a good half hour. In fact, the best time to give a snack was at the beginning of the homily when the action of the Mass quiets down.

However, I understand the frustration with folks who never seem to grow out of this stage or who bring in an excessive amount of distractions for their child.

I'll never forget how lovely one of my children was looking as she wandered to the back of the church to look up at St. Joseph and Mary during the homily...only to be mortified moments later as a giant crash sounded from dozens of coins hitting the wooden floor as my clever child had managed to unlatch the coin box on the votive candlestand. Aaaaaagh!

freddy said...

It's not always about being "without food or drink for an hour of the day," is it? Some families drive long hours to get to Mass and some of those get car sick and can't eat in the car. Mass times sometimes play havoc with small children's eating schedules, and of course, small children sometimes go through odd little periods in which they seem to need strange things. For example, right now my 3 year old is unhappy, restless and cranky if he doesn't eat 6 crackers before night prayers -- no matter how big his dinner was. So, a little more charity, please!

Liz said...

We certainly went through both the nursing in church phase and the "goldfish" in church phase when my kids were really little. We didn't have a long drive to church, but what we had was an hour and a half of Sunday School before church. Our youngest always seemed to fall apart a few minutes into the church service (we were Protestants at the time) until her daddy started bringing her a sandwich to eat between Sunday School and church. She was a tiny mite with a tiny appetite, and this one action on his part resulted in a little girl who happily sat through church with dot to dot books (she was only 3, but very precocious about things like letters and numbers). I'll admit to being somewhat critical of the pastor's wife who brought play dough for her son to have during church, but I will also admit that she never allowed him to make a mess with it. Both of those kids grew up to be faithful church attenders and my daughter no longer needed either snacks or dot to dot books by the time she was 6.

I think that so long as the kids are not making a mess, and are reasonably quiet that the people around them would do well to simply practice custody of the eyes rather than being critical. As long as you aren't getting hit with a flying sippy cup what does it matter that the mother in front of you is using one as a tool to help her child transition into being an active participant at Mass? If the kids are making a mess or assaulting you with their sippy cups, it's time enough to take it up with their parents.

Dymphna said...

Maybe one reason why kids are so fat today is because parents bribe them with food. I also never had food or drink in church when I was little. My mother gave me two choices. Be quiet or go to the ladies room and get a spanking. I figured it out pretty quickly.

Alice said...

I tend to be fairly nice to the actual people in church because I'm a mother and I get desperate too. Plus, unless I know the family, I don't know the situation. Sometimes what looks to be a 5 year old is actually a big 2 year old or what looks like a child breaking the Communion fast is a child who has diabetes and his insulin monitor said he needed something RIGHT NOW.

On the other hand, Danielle says she's doing this because he's her baby. Maybe another mother should try to "keep her eyes on her own work", but when that mother has to drag her oldest child out of church because a "baby" older than him gets things he doesn't need in church, it's somewhat difficult. I try to keep my distance from other families for this very reason.

Anonymous said...

Hahaha ha!

All these different points of view about, things to consider in why its best to avoid a black and white policy.

In the olden days we didn't eat from the night before early Mass on Sunday at 8:00, and the service was usually took 1.5 hrs at the minimum, and it took sometimes 30-90 minutes to drive to Mass depending on the road conditions and whether we had to go to town or the mission church was open.

Inevitably in the winter months with our winter jackets, scarves, sweaters, long-johns, and the church heating up from the furnace kicking in, the crowd of church-goers, or the 'excitement' of the sermon, someone would pass out.

Not the least of the reasons being that we'd not eaten since the night before. (Enough to come to the conclusion at an early age that was why doughnuts after Mass had been instituted.)

Whether or not we're too fat because of eating before the fast before Mass (why not fast for 5 days before Sunday morning?), or get ticked off from our elderly neighbors religiously clicking away on their beads during Mass (and, don't bother to lend their mellifluous tones to the village choir), or because we feel the need to lean over to tell the children in the front of us to sit down so they don't fall off the pew and hit their little noggins on the kneelers, it is ALL good. (Just so long as corporal punishment and violence are not part of the Catholic game plan!)

Having an opinion is good for all of us, as it is indicative of input from others, avoids 'set in stone complex' and keeps us on our toesies. Love this!

Rebecca in CA said...

Right on, Red. My kids are usually out of the sippy cup stage by around 3 but I have no problem with seeing little ones with things to keep them busy in Church. If it's going to be a real production, like a bag of cheerios, it's nice to try to keep it to the back pews. Anyway, I always like to remind people that St. Therese did not attend Mass until she was seven, and that was typical. We're in a different situation now.

Dymphna, if you think your mom's methods were effective, that's one thing, but please don't judge those of us who prefer to let our children grow more gradually into being able to sit quietly through Mass. I have four children, ten down to two, and usually I'm having to take the little ones out once or twice when they become very restless, but by the time they're five, they can handle it. I also don't choose to train my children to sit through an opera by taking them out and spanking them if they become restless--I'd rather let them grow into that, too.

Anonymous said...

I mainly object to the trail of ants left from the mess makers. It is distracting to say the least when kneeling to have the scout ant crawl up your leg! Take your children outside for a snack.

The Cottage Child said...

I think a little of keeping our eyes on our own paper is in order...surely on Sunday mornings we can set aside comparisons, judgments, and my mom NEVER's (because I guarantee, someone, somewhere had something to say about the way she did things that might surprise you).

Dymphna - I hear you - that made me giggle.

priest's wife said...

great post- but PLEASE nice old people- stop giving my toddler chocking hazard peppermint candies behind my back!!!!!!!!!

scotch meg said...

In memory of all the nice old ladies who smiled at me even though my kids fussed, I now try to sit at the other end of the pew from families whose toddlers are seeking the ESCAPE DOWN THE AISLE, but who are afraid of crawling past me. Other people's attitudes make such a difference!
After about age two, I didn't provide cheerios during Mass, but I did give them "Mass candy" (our parish didn't do donuts) if they behaved. My mother had "nickel day" at the supermarket - we earned a nickel for a candy bar if we behaved - and I figured I'd rather fight the supermarket octopi and have good behavior at Mass. Mass candy ended at about age ten or so. My husband must have gotten the "Dymphna's mother" treatment, because standards for earning Mass candy were MUCH harder to meet when Dad was with us (he was a resident during many of those years and couldn't always make it to Mass with us).

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Danielle has to grow a thicker skin; disagreeble feedback is to be expected on the internet.  If you want to volitionally write about intimate details of your own kids, life and personal choices, then you are going to get varying opinions, most of which, imo, weren't all that contentious.  It obviously distressed her enough to post about those reactions at Faith & Family where she knew she'd get all kinds of warm fuzzies from the rc-bots.
(FWIW, I have no problem with her sippy cup for her 4 year old, but neither do I have a problem with someone questioning the wisdom of that choice. It's part of the package)

When Erin used to sub for Rod Dreher, she handled hard-nosed objections, slings, arrows, insults, ad hominems as well as any professional writer; I respect that, very much. 

Much of Danielle's writing can be boiled down to: isn't my life messy, crazy, insane, but after all, aren't we all really blessed and I wouldn't have it any other way?!   She isn't writing on a private blog but instead wants a wide readership; don't look for a syrupy echo chamber there.  

MightyMighty said...

This is something I've only been dealing with for a little while, as my son is only 2 (No possible snack foods for the first 9 months anyway.)

Sometimes I do wonder--is it okay for him to have a snack or a sippy cup? But people have made great points about how children used to stay home until a relatively advanced age. As far as nursing babies go, anytime, any place is appropriate.

We do need to be more compassionate toward people we find irritating, but maybe we should also say something when things are out of control? I went to a country parish where a single mom with 4 kids, ranging from 3-12 let them make so much noise that it was actually impossible to hear the readings/homily (and the church didn't actually have missalettes). My husband said it would be too "pointed" for us to switch pews, but looking back, I wish we had. Why should I miss out on mass because your NINE-year-old is grabbing my ankles? Seriously, these were the worst kids I have ever seen in public. The 12-year-old wasn't misbehaving, but when I mentioned the experience at the farm where we were staying, everyone rolled their eyes. "The 12-year-old was a little devil until last year." I guess kids grow out of it...but that parish has been beleaguered by this awful family for 12 years. The pastor should say something like, "This is not developmentally normal behavior. I will not give communion to any child who cannot behave." Either the child is ready for the Eucharist, or he's not. If he's ready for the Eucharist, he's probably also ready to not play video games in mass. The mom sat there and did nothing. Nothing.

Deirdre Mundy said...

We're very strict about NO FOOD once the nurse on demand stage has passed.

For me, it's easier to set the standards early than to try to change them later. (i.e. "Now you're 4, so no more cheerios, even though the 2 year old still gets them!) Of course, we also don't eat in elevators, at the bank, at the symphony, in the locker room at the Y, or at the library.

I figure my kids ought behave at LEAST as well for Mass as they do at storytime! On the other hand, we don't go to a parish that demands absolute and total silence from the toddler....

As for thin-skinned authors-- The right-wing Catholic blogoshpere seems to have several cranky old ladies of the 'no kids at Mass until they're 7' variety. I think there are really only about 5 of them, but they post in EVERY SINGLE DISCUSSION about kids and Mass. If you post about kids at Mass, you should just expect the cranks-- it's just life.

Actually, I was curious about one thing--- does the food at Mass/ no food at Mass thing break down along lay-movement lines? Because it seems like the Latin Mass folks I know, and the Opus folks, are very strict about NEVER EATING IN THE SANCTUARY.


Oh, one last thing - (scatterbrained tonight!)-- I wonder if allowing cheerios in Mass sends the wrong message to kids-- if you see Church as a place for snacking, are you more likely to treat the Eucharist as a 'snack'?

LeeAnn Balbirona said...

Deirdre wrote: "Oh, one last thing - (scatterbrained tonight!)-- I wonder if allowing cheerios in Mass sends the wrong message to kids-- if you see Church as a place for snacking, are you more likely to treat the Eucharist as a 'snack'?"

Holy moly, Deirdre, I sincerely doubt my son at age 7+ is going to remember that he used to get a few raisins or cheerios as a toddler to keep him quiet during Mass, back when he was 2 or 3 years old, and thereby come up with the idea that receiving the Eucharist is equivalent to snack time. Only an adult would think of that, I think!

A little tolerance, please!

At 39, I am not a "cranky old lady" (yet) but this thread is starting to make me feel like one!

Ellie said...

1)Whatever your mother did, whatever you do, whatever the relative merits of different child-raising methods, there is zero reason to criticize another mother. There is one circumstance in which we are to point out another's failings: admonish the sinner. Like, actual, willed, sin; not a mistake, not a weakness, not simply a different way of handling your kids. There's a difference between saying "I find it really distracting when people act in this way at Mass, and would appreciate attention to these matters." It is a totally other thing to say "Huh. You haven't weaned your child from snacks yet. Obviously doesn't get spanked enough. Wuss"
Danielle sharing stories of her life to encourage and uplift other mothers. I am not rc, and I am not a robot-- but yeah, I do think it's more helpful to try to build each other up and save our ire for the big stuff.
I remember St. Louis De Montefort wrote a beautiful chapter on avoiding criticsm. Wish I could find it.

Charlotte said...

I agree (although not necessarily about a sippy cup at mass) that there used to be the good old days when a parent could take a misbehaving child into the bathroom at church for a spanking.

However, those days are gone and replaced with the child discipline police. In fact, I'm going to be writing about that subject on my blog today because I am experiencing massive frustration right now concerning child discipline in public places.

So, yeah, a spanking might be in order, but no, can't do it anymore unless you want someone narking on you.

Oh, and to the anonymous who observed about the syrupy commenters over at Faith and Family Live! - EXACTLY.

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

My children are 9, 7, 5, and 22 months.

Our policy is no kid-snacks at mass. At our (very traditional) parish, I don't see other parents providing these either.

Our reason for this is simple -- they don't work to keep the kids quiet! Especially in that the older kids tend to complain that they didn't get some, too.