The Young and the Childless

February 12, 2014 | 11 comments

Reports are in from the Catholic mommy blogs: There is a cold war settling in at parishes throughout the land.

On one side of the aisle are parents with small children, struggling mightily to fulfill their Sunday obligation while caring for their wee ones. Reports are imprecise as to how many children; this is one area of Catholic life where the numbers of offspring each family has to heroically manage routinely swell to Duggar-sized proportions.

On the other side of the aisle are the childless, who reportedly spend Mass time shooting ice-coated glares and grimaces at the parents for allowing their children to be children. What "being children" means is equally imprecise, but usually has to do with making noise that breaks the tomb-like silence the childless are said to unreasonably expect at Mass.

(Nota bene: For the sake of simplicity, I will concede to the common assumption that those who are shooting glares at families with children are themselves childless. In truth, this is an unfounded assumption. I have heard from many veteran parents who have raised broods of their own and complain of the noise level at Mass. Just because someone is not currently surrounded by a herd of preschoolers does not necessarily mean that person has no experience raising children.)

These reports at the mommy blogs are met with a flood of comments from other parents crouched down in the trenches at Mass. All have horror stories to tell: The little old lady who shushed a six-week-old babe in arms; the middle-aged bachelor who started a petition to create a height requirement for admittance to the sanctuary; the usher who bounced a single mom and her toddler quintuplets from the pew, thereby leaving the family no choice but to stay away from Mass until the quintuplets graduated college.

There are heroes whose valor on the front lines is lauded. Usually Our Heroes are the priests and deacons who plead with families to bring the little children to Jesus, and who scold the rest of the parishioners to suffer those children to be brought to Jesus and to forbid them not—for to them belongs not just the kingdom of heaven but the future of the Church.

Problematic "Solutions"

Soon enough, discussion turns to how to end the cold war. The solutions offered generally fit into one of three categories:

Preaching: Bible verses are collected, always including the one about suffering the little children. Clergy are importuned to give a homily on this topic every year on Respect Life Sunday.

Shaming: Everyone is reminded just how hard it is to be a parent these days, and how unreasonable it is for the childless, presumed to know nothing about children because they have none, to suppose that small children can be taught to act appropriately at Mass.

Moralizing: The childless are the reason why we have a culture of death. If it were not for them, Catholic parents would throw away their NFP charts, and go forth and multiply. You can't be both pro-life and expect quiet at Mass!

Perhaps it will not surprise you to hear that these solutions have yet to produce a lasting change in the hearts and minds of the childless. So perhaps it is time for a new strategy. I make no guarantees as to its ultimate success, but hey, if nothing else has worked so far then why not try?

To Be Resolved . . .

Here then are my suggestions to all parties in this war. If agreement is reached, the peace accords will be signed at next Sunday's after-Mass coffee-and-doughnut klatsch at your local parish.

For the Clergy: Clergy shall agree to stop taking sides in this dispute and to search for solutions that meet the needs of all parishioners. Clergy shall remember that all parishioners have an equal claim upon the pastoral concern of their fathers in Christ, and so shall resolve not to make special pleas to one segment of their congregation at the expense of any other segment. They shall also remember that the Scripture verse about Jesus telling his disciples to suffer little children has been flogged to the point that mention of it will only elicit exasperation from those parishioners bringing concerns about noise to Father's attention.

(Nota bene: It is worth noting that Matthew 19:14 should not be interpreted as a divine mandate to raise up holy terrors. Encouraging parents to bring children to Jesus does not exclude an expectation that those children will be taught how to behave while in the presence of Jesus.)

If a parish has a cry room, clergy shall do what is possible to make it as useful and comfortable as possible. Cry rooms have a bad reputation, but that reputation could be improved if attention was given to making a cry room more than just the parish juvenile detention center. If a parish has a nursery, clergy shall make regular appeals to all parishioners to contribute to its upkeep. If several pews can be set aside for families with older special-needs children near the front of the sanctuary (where the children can see better and thus participate more readily in the Mass), those pews shall be roped off and marked for the use of families who need them. Clergy may then suggest to the easily distracted that they choose seats far enough away from the designated family sections for their own comfort and spiritual peace.

For the Parents: Parents shall remember that the number-one duty of a parent is to teach his child how to interact appropriately with the larger world; likewise, they shall remember that it is not their duty to teach the world how to treat their children. Parents shall also remember that no one is going to care as much as they do about how difficult parenthood is for them.

With those principles in mind, parents shall resolve to treat their fellow congregants with all of the consideration and courtesy that they would like to be shown. All amenities offered by a parish to accommodate families shall be gratefully accepted, including the Church's allowance of childcare as a justifiable excuse to miss Mass on days of obligation when a child is ill or experiencing a complete meltdown.

Glares from fellow congregants when one must stay in one's pew may be met with a sympathetic smile and a quiet apology. Bonus points if a brief explanation can be given. Not many people, even the childless among us, are hardhearted enough not to be moved by an apologetic appeal along the lines of, "I'm so sorry; he needs a nap," or "I wish I could take her outside, but I can't leave my other children unsupervised."

If all reasonable attempts to show consideration for others are met only with continued glares, parents shall resolve to ignore the sulky faces of fellow congregants and not construe such reactions to be a personal affront or insult. Prepare for the teenage years early! Practice now how to let the unreasonable and pouty to have their bad moods as long as they do so in silence. In short, be the mom, not just to your own children but to anyone else who acts childishly.

For the Childless: I have saved addressing the childless for last, mainly because they are my people. But I too must not play favorites, and so I now turn my attention to them.

The childless shall resolve to remember that it can indeed be a task of herculean proportions to shepherd little children to and from Mass week in and week out. Those parents who also make the effort to take their children to daily Mass on a regular basis surely have gold stars by their names in the Book of Life. We do not want to hear the King someday say to us, "Depart from me, you cursed, for I was a stranger chasing after small children at Mass and you did not help me."

The childless shall support any and all amenities a parish offers for families—not just in spirit but with time, talent, and treasure. If a nursery is short of volunteers, a childless person shall volunteer to help occasionally. The childless shall also support parents at Mass with prayer, with minding their own business, and (where possible and appropriate) with offers to supervise children whose parents need to leave the sanctuary to feed, diaper, or soothe a sibling in distress.

The childless also shall resolve to avoid glaring, and to speak to a parent only on those occasions when a child's misbehavior is directly affecting others (e.g., kicking seats, scattering food or toys, loudly and interminably wailing). If something must be said, they will remember that a polite offer of help usually will be more readily welcomed than a scolding.

The Path Forward

In his classic book on people skills, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie observed that people become the most cooperative when you make your appeal to their interests and needs, rather than to your own interests and needs. If you can meet their needs, they will become more willing to help you meet yours. As an analogy to illustrate his point, Carnegie noted:

Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn't think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn't bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: "Wouldn't you like to have that?"

Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?

Clergy, parents, and childless congregants have a common goal: To be able to worship Christ at Mass. Where they differ is in the challenges they face to reach that goal. Clergy must shepherd all congregants without playing favorites. Parents must teach their children the importance of both attending and participating in the Mass on days of obligation. The childless must step outside their comfort zone and accept that some distractions during worship are inevitable and can be occasions to grow in heroic virtue.

If all sides take into account not just their own challenges but the challenges of others, resolving not just to solve their own challenges but to assist others in solving theirs, then perhaps we can help each other to heaven and fulfill the two great commandments of Christ:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:37–40).


Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers. You can visit her personal blog or contact her online through Facebook.
MP3 - Life-Giving Love
Life-Giving Love, is a crash course in the theology and biology of human sexuality, guaranteed to teach you something you didn’t know about God’s design for married love and procreation.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Tomas Kmet - Calgary, Alberta

Super cool! Loved it!
God bless!

February 12, 2014 at 10:37 am PST
#2  Paul Sadek - Excelsior, Minnesota

Good post, Michelle.

But anyone who laments "...the usher who bounced a single mom and her toddler quintuplets from the pew, thereby leaving the family no choice but to stay away from Mass until the quintuplets graduated college," needs to seriously consider whether it must take high school and four years of college for his/her children to learn how to behave appropriately at mass.

Myself, I make a point of NOT looking ANYWHERE, regardless of how loud and prolonged the noise may be; because someone is SURE to accuse me of "glaring."

But there is another side to "glaring": I recall one mass where a small child was making occasional "happy" sounds, which did not seem to be distracting to anyone...except the priest: Each time the child made a sound, the priest would stop, mid-sentence, give an "evil eye" to the child, and begin his sentence again. The actions of this priest were FAR more distracting than ANY noise from children that I have ever experienced.

And then there is the priest who doesn't believe in crying rooms. How many times have you heard Father say, "Oh, the sound of the children crying is like sweet music!"

It's really a matter of common sense: It is simply not realistic to expect three-year-olds to be totally silent and still for an hour; and their shuffling and occasional chatter is no problem. But extended wailing is what crying rooms are for; and I would far prefer that such rooms exist, and that parents make use of them--than to either, a) subject the entire congregation to a temper tantrum; or, b) feel that they must leave the church altogether.

February 12, 2014 at 12:05 pm PST
#3  Michelle Arnold - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Paul, there was quite a bit of satire in this blog post, which over-the-top exaggerations like the toddler quintuplets was supposed to indicate.

February 12, 2014 at 12:25 pm PST
#4  Joan Baird - Ballinger, Texas

As the mother of eight and grandmother of 18, I feel I have met the qualifications of an expert on children's behavior during Mass. Luckily, we live in a rural area, so our children's attendance and behavior at Mass was rarely frowned upon---except by us. Most of the churches we attended while our children were small did not even have a cry room.

Let me offer some suggestions: my perfect answer is one I am now witnessing at one of these small rural churches. Before the readings begin, all the children are asked to come forward for a blessing. They then go to a classroom with a volunteer couple (a different couple each week, allowing everyone the opportunity to share) who teach the children's lesson, while the adults listen to the readings and homily. As the homily ends, the children are escorted back into the sanctuary to be present during the Consecration. This method allows the children to receive instruction at their level, the parents and other adults to listen to the homily, and everyone be present during the sacrifice of the Mass.

Other suggestions that help, are sitting close to the front so small children can see what is happening, bringing religious books to share as the Mass progresses, and as a last resort, taking the offending child outside for a stern visit! How awesome it would be to have help from childless friends who can assist with the others left behind in the pew.

If we don't take our children to Mass, how do we expect them to learn to behave.

February 12, 2014 at 2:04 pm PST
#5  Mark Scott - Sugar Land, Texas

I can definitely relate! We normally sit in the back or in the cry room, but one Sunday we were offering a Mass for my late Father-in-law and decided to sit in front. My 2-year old boy was behaving better than usual (as he is naturally very energetic) and making 2-year old noises while he played with a toy before Mass. We have to be careful to know when to correct a 2-year old since meltdowns are often only a "No" away. He was shushed by an older gentlemen, followed by a woman next to him letting out a sarcastic, "Thank you." I apologized and reiterated that he needed to quiet down. Two seconds later he continued making the same noises (being a 2-year old) so I stayed in the back of the church for the rest of Mass. What bothers me is how "un-evangelical" this is. What if I were a non-Catholic thinking of joining the Church? Or worse yet, what if I were a nominal Catholic eyeing the more welcoming Baptist church next door? I am all for quiet Churches, but on Sundays that just isn't possible if we're living our vocation as parents. I believe Sunday Mass is not so much about what God can do for us but what we (as community) can do to worship Him and give Him thanks. Thank you for this article.

February 12, 2014 at 8:11 pm PST
#6  Mark Schumacher - Littleton, Colorado

As a parent of two, an amazingly compliant girl who is now 9, and a rambunctious boy who just turned 5, we have struggled immensely with this problem with our boy. We found that providing some snacks helps, and at a certain age, religious activity books also helped. But we are very strict with the kids, and have zero tolerance for any behavior that could possibly disrupt our neighbor's prayers or contemplation. My wife performs yeomen's work during Mass, often sacrificing her own focus on the readings and the sermon to attend to, and engage our children. As they grow older, the expectations go up. Now, both of our children are expected to face forward at all times (whereas before we'd let them sit on the kneeler and color in a book placed on the seat), and are increasingly asked to pray at key moments of the Mass (prior to and after Communion, for example).

I honestly think it starts with setting high expectations, and then equipping the kids with whatever they need to meet them. This is not unlike how our Father treats us. A for my wife, I know that Jesus grants her many graces for her sacrifice for the benefit of others, and it gives her and I a chance to talk about the readings and sermon afterward, since she's always asking me "what did he just say?".

February 13, 2014 at 8:15 am PST
#7  Mark Schumacher - Littleton, Colorado

One last parting thought - we've lived in different parts of the country, and have attended Mass where the children are lead out for a time to be taught the lesson and then brought back. I really didn't like it. Mass to me is communion, of family, and it starts with my nuclear family, and through Holy Communion, extends to my family in the Holy Spirit. We would not be attending a Mass where our kids left us for a period of time, we would find another church (Catholic, of course).

February 13, 2014 at 8:17 am PST
#8  Alexa Wilson - Spring, Texas

Thank you for this article - well written! I think that the fundamental issue is not about children behaving like children, but rather people not being able to focus on the Mass and getting upset at the stimulus instead of working on themselves. If it is not a child's behavior that is distracting a parishioner, then it is going to be someone's cough or eccentric outfit, etc. Instead of getting irritated by the distraction, we should try and use it as an opportunity to more finely tune our own self discipline and focus. There is nothing wrong with expecting certain behavior during Mass, but when those expectations turn into demands, we alienate the people we should be showing the most charity to. The Mass is the gathering of our Catholic family, and God wants us all there regardless of anything or anyone.

February 13, 2014 at 8:39 am PST
#9  Mike Abboud - omaha, Nebraska

my wife and I split up, i take one of the kids and she watches the baby, then we swap. We would rather go as a family but it isnt possible till the baby is a bit older. I wish other couples would do something similar. My older ones have sat quietly since about 2-3. A childs behavior is distracting, it is the parents responsibility to curtail it. I want to focus on the mass, those around me want the same thing. If you have to bring toys or feed your child he isnt ready and you need a work around. Theres nothing wrong with that, whats wrong is infliciting him on others.

February 13, 2014 at 9:04 pm PST
#10  Justin Niebergall - Edgewood, Washington

Kids will be kids and I'd hate to see them left out of the mass. If more churches would just use reader boards and new technologies like Dragon Naturally Speaking then we could just tune out the children.

It should part of ones practice to tune out unwanted noises and to meditate in the words being spoken, just so long as we can read the words being spoken, either after the mass or on a reader board.

I mean it's been 2000 years now, can't we all just get along?

February 14, 2014 at 1:28 am PST
#11  Joseph Klapatch - APO, Armed Forces Europe

I wonder how much the problem of noise at mass stems from, not the children, but the adults. I'm a childless adult so my perspective may not be as valid as one with children, however, kids tend to follow the example of those around them. I'm not saying a 2 year old can't be challenging at mass, my wife and I have friends with children and we see the challenges they face and pray for them. However, I recall the first time my wife and I went to the noon mass filled mostly with families at a new parish and one of the gentlemen, a delightful Serbian father of 4, asked what I thought of the mass. I gave him a bit of a chagrined look and I said I thought it was a little loud. He asked, "Is it the kids?" I said absolutely not, Christ tell us to let the children come to him. They belong there, he wants their noises, smells and all. I went on to tell him what bothered me was the behavior of all the adults. Before mass started it was more like preparation for a football match. People were talking about everything they did this week, how are you, how is the family, etc… They didn't stop until the entrance chimes rang. What type of example is that setting for kids? Recently my wife and I moved to Omaha and last weekend I attended a Latin Mass Church (I'm not a traditionalist by any means, but I do love the beauty so occasionally I go). What surprised me most was that the church was full of families. A notional ratio of under 15s to adults was probably 60 percent under 15 and 40 percent over. Yet other than the occasionally, coo or cry from newborn, or the whispered question or gripe from a toddler, you could hear a pin drop. I don't think it is a matter of children. I think it is a matter of adults. Upon entering mass each of the parents that day was quiet, reverent and prayerful. They set an example. I used to go to a non-Latin Mass parish in Alexandria Va and the same thing was there. The adults entered reverently. They were quiet and prayerful leading up to Mass and the children were very much the same. If we are reverent before and during the Mass, the kids will be too. From my perspective and observation, it's rarely about the kids, and its very much about the adults.

February 14, 2014 at 8:38 am PST

You are not logged in. Login or register to leave a comment.