The conundrum of kids at church

One of my Facebook friends recently posted a rant about mothers who show up late to and leave early from Mass.  He stated that he has more respect for people who don’t bother coming at all: “Either be all in or all out.”  Others chimed in with “Amens” and further complaints about the entertainment and food that parents bring to church for their children nowadays.  Having arrived 10 minutes late to Mass that morning, library tote full of Dora books slung over one shoulder and a diaper bag with emergency snacks hanging on the other, I felt at once embarrassed and defensive.


Part of me wanted to dismiss his vent outright: clearly, this was the naïve and uncompassionate perspective of someone who’s not yet a parent. He just doesn’t understand the monolithic venture that is Getting Out the Door with Little Ones, I thought to myself. After all, I had spent my entire morning trying to get to Mass on time… but two blowout diapers and a child who is absolutely determined to put her shoes on all by herself had conspired to neutralize my good intentions. Let’s see him do it any better, was my rather un-Christian reaction.

Still, his words gnawed at me, probably because I have wrestled with the conundrum of kids at church since my daughter was born two and a half years ago.

The fact is, children at Mass are distracting – to those around them and, most especially, to their parents.  Prayerful reverence is not easily practiced with a fussy baby in your lap and a squirmy preschooler at your side.  There have been multiple occasions in which, nerves frayed and feeling far less peaceful than I did before the start of Mass, I wonder if it was even worth it to attend.

Yet something inside me always answers “Yes!”  I believe there is value in attending Mass with kids… Even when it means enduring the walk of shame up to the only open pew (at the very front of the church, naturally) during the Gospel Alleluia, or spending the entire hour shushing and chasing my two-year-old, or willing myself not to engage in a glaring war with a man who disapproves of nursing in church.

We as a family are rarely (if ever) “all in” when it comes to Mass: we are late or agitated or exhausted or impatient or poopy or hungry or a catastrophic mix of all these – but I have to believe that God appreciates our presence there despite -indeed because of – our very conspicuous deficiencies in piety.  We are the Body of Christ: messy, flawed, unfocused… and beloved.

My daughters may not be able to understand or participate fully in the Eucharistic celebration, and their lack of volume/impulse control may detract from others’ ability to pray as they would prefer.  Still, they are vessels of a special kind of grace, and I believe that the Mass as a whole is better, not worse, because my girls are present.  Their faith cannot be anything but childlike, and so it ministers in a way no polished homily can.  Once, as we shuffled in line to receive Eucharist, my daughter proclaimed loudly “Mama, there’s Jesus on the cross, and Jesus in Comoonin [Communion], and Jesus in my heart!”  I know I’m not the only adult whose mind, in that moment, was called away from wandering thoughts and into reflection upon the sacred Mystery of Christ.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”  I’m pretty sure He knew exactly what that implied for parents, and so on Sundays like this last one, I presume an addendum to Christ’s directive:  “. . .even if they are ten minutes late and their shoes don’t match.”

Nicole Steele Wooldridge attends Mass with her daughters in the Seattle, Wash. area; she apologizes if, while doing so, her baby has recently spit up on your rosary or her two-year-old has scribbled in your prayer book.  If it makes you feel any better, she probably hasn’t had a shower in a few days.


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  1. Such a beautiful article. I’ve had a similar experience with my 3-1/2 year-old daughter, as she slowly begins to absorb more of her surroundings at church. (She even started reenacting the Eucharist with our priest and a bowl of goldfish crackers…he quickly picked up on what she was doing and encouraged the reenactment.)

    This is, of course, the same kid who announces it loudly when she breaks wind in church.

  2. I am a Lutheran and my kids are long time grown and off on their own adventures. A wise Pastor told us when we were young with a 6 year old and a squirmy, busy 2 year old to sit up front. If the children were too loud he would just speak louder . He had two points, up front is where the kids are going to see the essential action and maybe just maybe that will be enough to hold their attention and imprint a few things. The other was this, in a few years those people who wanted to keep the young ones out were going off to the next mansion. If we’ve told the little ones to stay away, the church is going to be more quiet than we ever wanted. Stay the course.

  3. One morning in an hour silent Quaker meeting there was a rather loud burbling baby. During meeting people speak out of the silence to share their leadings. A woman began to speak and said, ” I am happy to speak after our first message, Thank you to our young friend for sharing his joy and wisdom.” Ever since then I have always thought that the noises children make in church is most certainly part of how God speaks to us.

  4. When our new church was built, people complained that there was no “crying room”. I am glad. Babies cry in all sorts of places. All are welcome in our new space. I just pray that we welcome all and confirm the struggle it takes to bring a young family to worship. Reaching out to these new parents takes courage and it challenges us all to welcome All to the table.

  5. This is beautiful. Once, after the service, one of the choir members approached me and said, “My God sighting for today was when your little boy, at the altar for communion, pointed up at the cross and said, ‘It’s a big cross so I have to cross my whole body, not just my head and shoulders!!’ and then turn around, shouted, ‘Hurray!’ and jumped off the altar.”

    I have another son who likes to do the boogie in the aisle during the Sanctus. It’s difficult to teach him the solemnity of that part of the service, since he’s only four, and forcing him to stop results in screams and cries. Not worth it.

    I frequently breastfeed my nursling daughter right there in the pew, and I don’t always cover up, gasp! (Hey, His Holiness Pope Francis encourages it, so who am I to feel ashamed, right?) So we endure the glares. It’s all worth it when we approach the altar as a family, receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, and are nourished and fed and strengthened–together. This is how Christ intended his church to worship, I’m convinced of it.

  6. While a “cry room” might not be necessary, I think it is nice when there is a reserved pew (preferably in the back) that the ushers can keep free for someone with a small child who may need some attention or perhaps be in a position for a temporary exit if s(he) becomes hysterical.

  7. Absolutely you should bring your little ones to church! And if the disapproving looks are too much to bear, visit other churches until you find one that can accept and welcome your family as is. There are many out there. My church has “children’s church” which is a short teaching on that Sunday’s Gospel and a simple craft for little ones. They come into church with their parents, and during the Sequence Hymn, a crucifer leads all the children to a different room, and then brings them back after the sermon. They are happy, the parents get to hear the sermon without distraction, and the snarky people are silenced.
    I love seeing children at church. It reminds me of when I was in the hot seat of parenting little ones. And, forgive me, I say a little prayer of gratitude that it’s you now and not me! I also love seeing families worship together. This is good for everyone to witness, and it seals the discipline of regular worship into the brains and hearts of your children so that, even if they turn away from church as teens, they will come back to it. God bless you for taking them, despite the lateness, mess and frustration. I am sure that your family’s presence is a blessing to many.

  8. My Mom dragged her six daughters to church every Sunday. I was the youngest. I think it was the foundation of who we were as people. The walk to church was many blocks and we all talked about stuff, like our new hat, the neighbors color TV or the Beatles new song. The walk back was about whatever the priest talked about . Even if, as the youngest squirming daughter I did not listen to the priest during mass because I had ants in my pants, I heard the discussion of the priests sermon all the way home while I mindlessly skipped and made sure I did not step on a crack in the sidewalk. I still heard it all and learned to be a better person then I was an hour earlier. But some day when you see someone in church who has pain or worry deep in their heart who needs to hear every word of the pastor or priest without distraction and maybe needs a bit of calm and quiet it would be polite to take the REALLY noisy, screaming and fussing child to the back corner of the church.

    1. It’s that age-old problem between the spiritual needs of the young and the spiritual needs of the old. I think if both sides keep the needs of the other in mind we can avoid problems. If there is a separate service designed mainly for older members, then if an older person needs undistracted time for prayer and worship, they should attend that service. Also, if a child is being loud or disruptive, the parent should take that child out, to teach the child that such behavior is not appropriate for church. If there is a separate area of the church where people can participate in quiet healing prayer, away from the regular congregation, older folks who need quiet should sit in that area. The bottom line is that the church is for everyone, and we must each take responsibility for our own needs and not expect others to meet them.

      Sent from my iPhone


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