“Just another guy with a blog.  No big whoop.”

February 9, 2010

Suffer the little children

In Matthew 19:14, the Lord says to His meddlesome disciples, “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is for such.”

This verse came to mind as I read these interesting and insightful comments by a Catholic blogger named Amy, a “20-something” mother of two. Seems she was party to a spat in the back of a Catholic Church recently, in which an older woman was vehemently rebuking a younger woman for permitting the noisy distraction the latter's young children caused the former during Mass. The young mom, God bless her, stuck up for herself and for her buckaroos, and Amy found herself drawn into the squabble, coming down on Young Mom's side. I believe I would have done the same, had I been there.

Yes, I can relate to Young Mom and to Amy. But I have to admit that I can also see where Older Woman is coming from and can sympathize with her exasperated reaction to the commotion during Mass. People on each side of this hot-button issue need to be charitable and understanding toward each other.

As the father of a large family myself, I know from experience how, at times, kids can be awfully irritating to those around them with their noise and fidgeting and such during Mass. And although all my children are now either adults or well on their way to being so, I have a great sympathy for young families who are just starting out and learning (hopefully, they are learning) how to control and shush their children when they need to.

A few times, though not very many, as I remember, Nancy and I have been on the receiving end of some cranky remarks and pinch-mouthed scowls from older pew-mates who were irked because one or more of our kids made noise during Mass. It happens. Comes with the territory. Get used to it.

But in truth, I must admit that I also have some sympathy for the cranky scowlmouths who are irked by unduly noisy kids at Mass. Even so, they are greatly in need of practicing patience and forbearance toward those noisy families who, whether through neglect or simply being overwhelmed do not do enough to keep the kiddos in line.

There's room for improvement on both sides of the divide.

On a personal note, our family attends an absolutely wonderful, traditional, Dominican-run, parish — one of the very best parishes in the country, I'm convinced. After having cris-crossed the U.S. and Canada for over 22 years now, speaking at Catholic parishes by the hundreds, possibly over a thousand by now, I have seen the best of the best and even a few of the worst of the worst, and everything in between. (Thankfully, the parishes that have me in to speak are heavily skewed toward the far end of the good side of the good/bad meter).

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."


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."

I think that's reasonable, don't you? And if this were routinely done in Catholic parishes, while never neglecting to welcome, embrace, encourage, and support large and rambunctious Catholic families (like mine) — they are an important part of the future of the Church, after all — the scowlers wouldn't be so pinch-mouthed, the young parents of fidgety kids wouldn't feel so put upon, and nice ladies like Amy would be able to pray their post-Mass thanksgiving prayers in peace without being drawn into squabbles like the one she described.


  1. As a mom of seven (now grown) children ... I can definitely relate ... to both sides of this question. But a caution to ALL of us, most of all our priests needs to be added. Be very CHARITABLE to the parents of these sometimes noisy little ones. Give the parents the chance to shush the child! We have witnessed young families leave their church (permanently) because their children and they were made to feel unwelcome. How sad.

  2. Great post!
    There really are 3 competing issues here:

    1. The importance and necessity of bringing small children to Mass.
    2. The importance of properly disciplining our children from a young age.
    3. The importance of learning how to humbly deal with members of the community who have a very low tolerance for the presence of children pretty much anywhere.

    I will never forget my shock when one of my children threw a floor-hugging fit in the middle of Mass for the first time. My pride suffered a severe blow as I became one of THOSE mothers. Compassionate smiles were no longer forthcoming. I'm a huge fan of booking out of church at the first sign that things are going downhill quickly. I am also a huge fan of people who smile compassionately instead of frowning:).

    In fairness to mothers who don't seem to understand the need to get noisy children out, I think we are all just trying to do our best and often don't have a clue what we really aught to do. We spend the better part of the homily trying to make up our minds about a discipline issue and often get it wrong. I've learned to leave quickly but it took me a few years to get the timing right.

    In fairness to cranky ladies who yell at young mothers, I have met a number of them and have noticed that they usually had far fewer children than I have; they may have difficulty empathizing.

    I recently blogged about attending Mass with small children. Skim my ramblings if you wish but definitely follow the link at the bottom of the article to an excellent piece by Kate Wicker at InsideCatholic.

  3. I definitely think it's reasonable Pat. I have 10 children and I understand the difficulty but agree there needs to be a balance of charity on all sides.

  4. I don't think there is ever really a legitimate excuse for those old ladies to scowl at anyone. Scowling is not polite and its mean spirited. Its arrogant and judgemental. Its very unforgiving and unchristian. If such people have such problems with children they should move their seats. I have been scowled at many times myself and all it does is make me want to never come back again! I know many families that do stay away and eventually never come back due to these old ladies. How can a church that asks us to have families be critical when we do actually come with our children?

    I personally have never been bothered by any other children's noise at mass. But I have been bothered by those scowlers.

  5. As a new Catholic (2008) and grandparent who finds herself raising a rambunctious child who had never seen the inside of a church before age 5, I have to side with the young blogger and the young families. My grandson was five when he came to live with me and "wild Indian" would describe him very nicely.

    It is very tempting to leave him with someone else while I go to Mass. He is not baptized (I must get permission from one of his parents and they haven't provided that). It would make my life a lot easier. But how can I live up to MY baptism if I don't teach my grandson as much as I can while he is living with me? And so we go to Mass together most of the time.

    Sometimes it is a battle from minute one. I do take him out when he gets loud, but taking him out is disruptive too. If you're not early enough to have an aisle seat, then you have to bother all those people beside you. One week I got so frustrated that I not only left the Nave, I left Church completely before communion. I was in tears, and there was no one scowling at me.

    When I was a Jehovah's Witness (most of my life, and all of my young mothering life), I endured the scowling old ladies and old men constantly. The Witnesses have no nurseries, their meetings are LONG (minimum 2 hours), and everyone is expected to be silent. It is demeaning and humiliating to be upbraided for the behavior of your children when you are doing everything in your power to teach them to behave.

    We have beautiful large families at Holy Family, and they all seem to behave beautifully. But those children have been coming to Mass from infancy, most of them attend the Catholic school as well.

    The young families with the squirmy children may indeed be new to Catholicism families, or families that do not come to church so often. They need to be there!! If they are called down, they will disappear. And everyone will wonder where they went.

    Why do we require courteous behavior from 3 year olds but seek to justify judgmental and nasty behavior from people who have all the reasons to know better?

    And one more thing. I have a dear Catholic friend who converted from Evangelical Protestantism so that her family would be united in worshipping God. Except that her mother-in-law complained about her young children's behavior at Mass one too many times. So now this mother goes to one Mass alone with her children while her husband drives his mother to Mass at another Church. This is terrible!! Where is the Christian love for which my friend left her Church and became Catholic? As far as I can see, the Church is in some respect failing her because the pandering to old ladies has divided her family.

    So there. I guess that about says it.

    Can you tell you touched a nerve?

    ps: I think an announcement to take unruly children out would be offensive to some, and make others so nervous that they wouldn't hear a word of the service.

    Nana Ruth

  6. I've noticed that the larger families may have occasions of noisy squirminess in Mass, but usually the kids from big families are better behaved than those from smaller families. And, there seems to be some responsibility for someone else with older kids helping with the younger ones. That said, we only have 2 now grown kids. My son once crawled under the pews and over the kneelers and ended up about 4 rows behind me during Mass, so I can appreciate the parents' efforts. AnneG
    PS The same kid could also recite the Creed at 3.

  7. My husband and I took two children (3 1/2 and 11/2 to church daily for a period of time. They had been abandoned by their mother and their father gave them to us to take care of them while he went to work. When they became loud, my husband would take out the boy and tell him people were praying to God and he should not interrupt. He would keep him out as long as the child was loud and tell him he would not be allowed in until he kept quiet. When it was the girl's turn, I would take her out and do the same. After a few weeks they got the message. They were allowed to whisper to us any questions about what was going on, and we would answer. The questions were hilarious, but great. As time went on, we got them books about the story of Jesus in pictures, and urged them to look at them while we were handling our Missal. We never brought any food or busy time activities. We tried to teach them that they were there to be with Jesus and talk to Him. They realized they could not have their way and abided by our rules. Once the boy thought the priest was God because we had told him we were going to church to see God. He went straight to the priest and said: God, I came to see you. Teresa Livoti

  8. If you hear babies crying at the Ho=ass. It just means your Church has a future.

  9. Room for improvement on both sides, indeed. Best post I've seen on the subject.

  10. Thanks for the post! I recently blogged about bringing young kids to Mass too. Seems to be a struggle for all of us young mothers- thanks for giving the encouragement!

  11. You know... We have always taken our kids our of church before the loud noises came. People told us that we didn't need to take our kids out because they were so good. Parents know what is coming...

    Any way, my husband took one of our boys out of Mass one Sunday. Said kid didn't want to be held or consoled so my husband put him in the van and walked around the van until said kid cooled off. While my husband was doing this a lady came up to my husband and told my husband how horrible he was to have said kid cry in the car by himself. You can not make anyone happy so you just have to do what you know is good for the child.

    About a month later, this lady apologized to my husband...

    Now my youngest is 6 and now it is the teens that are acting like babies...

    We must be kind to everyone. You don't know what the parents have told the kids at home. God gave each person a freewill and sometimes you can do everything right and it doesn't work.

  12. A friend of mine calls it the 'walk of shame' when you have to take a crying kid out, walking all the way down the aisle (kids behave better when they sit up front where they can see).
    However, that might be fine for a sort of noisy Sunday Mass, but what if you dare take your kids to daily Mass (oh, the horror!) A few fidgets then break the silence and disturbs everyone’s precious silence. After all, Mass is a private devotional and no one should disturb that spiritual ambiance that we try so hard to create. Oh, wait, the Liturgy is a formal public work performed by those who participate to worship and adore God. I never really understood this until I attend a Byzantine Mass several times. In that liturgy there is no pause for silence and you are constantly doing something. I guess what I am saying is that some noise at Mass is one thing, impeding other’s ability to perform their part of the Liturgy is another. We go to Mass to do something, not to have a pseudo mystical experience, and kids can participate in that to different degrees. What really needs to change is people’s understanding of just what Mass is all about. Unruly children should not be taken out because they disturb the silence, the way one might remove a child from a movie or a lecture, but because it is in appropriate to act that way during a formal public act of worship – because it is offensive to God, not those around you.

  13. Very true words there. I also think that a part of the problem, at least in my parish, is the tendency of parents with young children to sit in the back of the church, presumably out of fear that their children will start fidgetting and they won't be able to leave soon enough.

    Well, I think that sitting in the back of the church, far away from the sights, sounds and smells of the sanctuary, will guarantee that young children will get fidgety. Of course they well, because it's boring in the back! They can't see anything, they may vaguely hear some talking, but that's it.

    No, allow kids to see the Mass. It's no guarantee, of course, but I would not be surprised if it will make some kids less prone to being annoying.

  14. I am guilty of being both a scowler and one who has been scowled upon. One Christmas,at the morning Mass, I was the non-mom doing my best to will a woman's children from the chapel. I thought many things in disgust and was so annoyed that her children, 4 of them, were disrupting Christmas Mass of all things! And she did nothing about it. Suddenly, about halfway through the Mass, Christ hit me upside the head and gave me his eyes to look at her. She was tired (you know the look), she had four kids by herself at Mass on Christmas morning. She was doing her best to listen to Mass and I felt at that moment, that she needed to hear and be part of Mass in such a bad way. I didn't know her, so I don't know if she was single, widowed, if her husband was working or just not a believer. And suddenly, Christ made me see how great it was that she bothered to come to worship with her kids. Probably would have been a lot easier to stay home and drink coffee around the tree. I was shamed and shed my scowl (unfortunately not the first one I had ever directed at a parent) for good.

    I received a "verbal scowl" from the mouth of a priest at another Christmas morning Mass when my then 2 and 1/2 year old son kept saying (quietly to me) "gorilla, giraffe," etc. as he named his new animal toys. He didn't wiggle, throw toys or a fit. There was only one other toddler in the chapel, and she was also quietly talking intermittently. The pastor, who had not given the homily, stood up after the homily and announced "would the parents of the kids who keep making all the 'cute' baby noises please remove them from the chapel." It was not asked in a nice tone, but was filled with contempt. Against my nature, I complied. But I did meet him outside after Mass and offer to pray for him for treating us in such an un-Christian manner. Boy how the shoe was on the other foot!

    I do agree that we need to try to limit the disruptiveness of our kids, but we also need our fellow Catholics to cut us some slack. If they only see the chaos of the cry room or nursery, how can we expect them to learn to behave properly in the pew?

    I have 2 year old twins now and was recently scowled at by an older parishioner before Mass even started. In fact, we had just come in the door. She tried to be polite as she informed me that there was a TV downstairs to watch Mass on. I smiled and thanked her and sat my kids down beside me and prayed for patience for both of us.

  15. I have 4 kids ages 10,7,6 & 2. Some tactics that I've used in the past are splitting them up - wife goes with a couple in the am Mass & I take 1 later. We bring things to occupy them. When possible, we stay in the kids room.

  16. Just piping in to point something out: It's not just "old ladies" that scowl. Plenty of men and people of all ages scowl. I've even seen priests scowl.

    I personally attend a parish where there are many young children. It's rare that I see a parent just ignoring their child's noisy behavior. Most really do try. Actually, I think sometimes it's easier in parishes with lots of young children because mom's and dad's take cues from other mom's and dad's... when a more experrienced parent takes cranky Johnny out to settle down, a younger parent often feels more comfortable in doing the same.

  17. When my first child was about 9 months old (and I thought he was behaving marvelously) the priest himself came down during the reading of the gospel and told us that he was very distracting and we should sit in the back. I'm sorry to say that we got up and left- and then joined a different church (still Catholic of course). Now, I wish we would have handled that better but I was so shocked at the time. I later found out that a parishoner had balled him out after Mass saying that "we should be thankful to have little children in a parish that is dwindling in numbers every year." I pray for this priest still to this day,three children later. Now, we have a priest (Fr. Bertrand God Bless Him) who adores children and although he gets distracted himself by them he always smiles and greets them all after Mass. He even frequently comments how joyous it is to have all of the children present.

    I have to say though, even as a mother of three children under 4, that I have been judgemental of others with small children too so I can sympathize with the critics. Sometimes parents let their children get away with too much but I say "if they aren't your children be thankful that you aren't the one that has to deal with them and do your best to ignore them!" :)

  18. I have a little bit different question. Should little children be in Mass at all--for their sakes?

    I converted as an adult to Catholicism--from atheism. Through the years, I have begun to wonder if Mass for those under 6 is the best idea. I know so many adult Catholics--including my husband in his young adult years--who still check out during their time in Mass. Is that because that is what they learned to do when they were young and really didn't understand and had to be still for an eternity when there was nothing to engage them?

    Possibly in the pre-Vatican II era when churches were more beautiful and Mass had more ritual (incense, etc.), when music was more pleasing to the ears, etc., the children may have stayed focused, but now?

    Part of me wonders if we wouldn't do a lot for our youth if we had a place--Sunday school, baby-sitters, etc. at Mass for them when they are young. Then when they got a year or so away from First Communion they could be brought into Mass with the idea that it is a great privilege because they are now big enough to participate in this grown up activity.

    Personally I love to see the children at Mass and appreciate their vocalizing but I'm just not sure if it is the most edifying thing for them--especially boys.

  19. We were parishoners in a wonderful parish in Houston, where the pastor loved not just our children, but all of them in the parish. His baptisms were absolutely beautiful. We had a "cry room" where you could hardly hear the mass. He closed that, made it a perpetual adoration chapel, and always made a point of saying how beautiful it was to have children at mass. (Especially up front, where they can pay attention!) Because of HIS support we were better able to handle when we had to take that long walk to the back of the church when our children got a little too distracting! Our deacon wrote in the bulliten about walking around in the back of the church if need be, and gave other suggestions for keeping children happy during mass. I think they also enjoyed help from families like ours who would take their advise, and not be afraid to "be on display" so to speak as an example to new comers. Having moved out of state, we now realized how truly blessed we were there, as we haven't changed our parenting style, but have encountered numerous scowls, usually before mass, as our children are *usually* pretty well behaved.
    The priests in the parish are intrumental in creating the happy medium we are all looking for. I hate to put one more thing on their shoulders, but if they scowl at children, the "scowlers" will get more and more petty. If they welcome the children and encourage a true community of support for young parents and children, I think we can expect a true sense of parish family.

  20. If you go to Mass and do not hear a baby crying or a young child, that church is dying.

  21. I think part of the problem is the architecture of many suburban parishes. Our church is semi-"in-the-round" which presumably was a misbegotten 60's VII deal. The structure itself focuses attention on the congregation and de-emphasizes the altar, so of course, any fidgety kid will be seen by all. In churches that are more traditional -- where all the pews face forward toward the altar at the front -- it is almost impossible to observe other people's kids unless they are directly in front of you, next to you, or unless you are a busybody looking around the church instead of facing forward (!).

    Also, it is a bit hypocritical for all of us to be constantly preaching a prolife message while scowling at the new life in our midst.

  22. This couldn't be more timely. My wife and I have recently been scolded by a certain senior citizen gentlemen in our Church because he feels our kids are disruptive at Mass. Funny thing is, we have repeatedly gotten comments from other parishioners complimenting us on how well behaved our kids are. This is at daily Mass, and there are generally a fair number of open seats. We generally sit in the front because there are 8 of us, and that's the only place with a whole row left open. This older man invariably sits in the row behind us, despite the fact there are many open seats. He told my wife and I we should split up, one of us should go to the other daily Mass (at 6 am!!!) and the other at 8:30, and we shouldn't bring the kids to Mass because "they're too young."

    Sorry, not going to happen. We do our best to keep our kids quiet and still, and they almost invariably are. I think this guy has a deeper problem - he doesn't like the fact that we're very traditional. Still, it's frustrating. He chose to express his displeasure in a very public manner, rather than quietly talking to us individually after Mass.

    I think most parents, especially parents who take their kids to Mass every week and on weekdays, are trying very hard to raise their children as well as possible. There are those parents who just don't discipline their kids much, but I think in general giving parents of young children wide latitude is a great practice of Christian virtues.

  23. 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."
    Wow!That is some statement.
    I choose to pray for the children and parents instead of having my head explode. I also do the same for the parishioners with a mental disability when they become vocal during the mass. To me, the mass is about us all coming together as a community to share in the Eucharist. It's not about ME and my personal prayer time (adoration is available). Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross for us, the least I can do is lovingly tolerate my brothers and sisters in Christ for a hour and a half each week. I would never think to deny a child the opportunity to be in the true presence of God.
    "Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
    & Matthew 18:1-10

  24. The sour-puss old people who scowl at the young families are often the same ones who jump in with their responses before the priests and deacons have finished speaking. They rush through the responses and prayers as if it was a race and spoil the beautiful rhythms of the Mass. Are they in a contest to prove that they know the responses better than anyone else?

    I guess my point is that we all find ways to annoy and be annoyed by each other, even in Mass.

  25. It seems to me this is more a cultural issue than a "religious" one (or whatever).

    In latino countries noisy children (an noisiness for that matter) are part of life.

    I attended for years TLM, and noisy kids were there and it was never a big deal... I can't remember ANYBODY complaining or feeling insulted by small children being small children.


  26. My daughter lived in South America for a few months as a teen and commented that in the little villages, the children would wander around the church and even come to sit and talk with her during Mass. She would try to quiet them but they seemed quite accustomed to pretty much doing whatever they wanted!

    If we in this country had more of that attitude, Mass would probably be quite a lot more beneficial to children than it is now. But, would that change in attitude not have to begin with the priest? If priests are asking parents to leave or quiet their children, then the parishioners will also feel justified in doing the same. I think either we have to have a change in attitude or provide another place for young children so they are not so stifled at church.

  27. Well stated Pat:

    Would you please comment on why parishes such as yours (I won't mention the name) and parishes that offer the Extraordinary Form, despite a large number of children, never seem to need those sound proof quiet rooms so popular in newer churches.

  28. Idahogramma...

    I just had to pipe in when I saw your question about little children in Mass. I say absolutely they should be there! It is in these early years they pick up so much more than we realize and begin to identify sitting through Mass as "normal" and good. Case in point: My nephew has been "playing Mass" since he could walk. You wouldn't always know based on his squirmy behavior how much he is absorbing during Mass, but throughout the week it becomes obvious. It began with putting on daddy's big shirts as a "robe," processing around the house with candles and children's bibles.

    As he grew, he began giving "homilies" from a step stool (in pretend Latin no less... our Mass is "new" but incorporates Latin into the liturgy), "baptizing" stuffed animals, and "consecrating" chips and bread (although he informed me recently not to be fooled... that his hosts are not "real" like the priest's are). Bear in mind, his parents are "normal"... they do not force any of their beliefs or request any of this behavior.

    How old is my nephew today? Only 5. His little faith has strengthened all of ours! His first five years of life attending Mass are a treasure we would never want to take from him (or from us!). His little sister, now 2, is following big brother's example.

  29. Thanks to everyone's comments in defense of children at mass. I suffer a lot of dirty looks and comments about my daughter at mass. I too attend Sunday and daily mass. I was told by one person at mass (whose both a lector and Eucharistic Minister) that I shouldn't push religion too much, otherwise she will rebel. Another person said I will turn her into a nun because we attended all of the special masses during holy week - like that's so bad! I'm really tired of people's comments. My daughter is usually good in mass but does start fussing or screaming at times - we take her out. She's 22 months old. One time I took her to adoration and she walked in a little ahead of me and knelt down in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

  30. As a father of these sometimes distracting little ones I find myself with a different spin on this issue. When I come to mass I very much want to participate and listen to every part of the mass especially the homily. Because of my own children and the surrounding children I often am so distracted I miss the message. I sure wish I could later in the day or week download the very same homily as a podcast so that I could hear the message I am suppose to hear at mass. I am in no way of trying to justify letting the children be a distraction. As Father John Riccardo once said we need to allow the rototiller to work on our hearts so that the seeds will grow.