Most of us have not been to church in a while. But while we miss being there and hope in anticipation for when it will be possible, this might be a good time to ponder about how we approach the littlest of our spiritual family.
Kids. They belong in Church!
Anyone who knows me, knows how much I stand by this. And I can cry on church tops and have a very passionate yet reasonable discussion with anyone who questions this right.
That’s right, I called it a RIGHT. The RIGHT to be in church. ‘Coz that’s what it is. A right that children have which is no less or more than the right an adult has. The right that comes from being children of God our Father. This right comes as a direct result of our Catholic Church providing for infant baptism and not waiting till after they reach a reasonable age.
As God’s children we are all messy, dirty, struggling, trying. As we grow up, we just learn to disguise it with our sophisticated maturity. Kids, on the other hand, untouched by social polishing show up in their raw, honest most authentic sense. Maybe something that we need to learn from when we come to our Father’s house.
If you know Jesus, then you know that He used to teach, preach and tell stories anywhere and everywhere. On mountaintops, seashores, lakesides, places of worship and people’s homes. As popular as he was, he obviously didn’t have access to a microphone or speakers. And he addressed sometimes, hundreds and even thousands at a time. People followed him from place to place.
Can you imagine what that meant? A crowd of men, women and children and that means even babies. They definitely didn’t have places to leave them behind and even if they did those people would most probably not want to miss out on Jesus’ teachings either.
So, they all came along and when the apostles all too protectively tried to keep the kids at bay, Jesus himself called them forward saying, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19:14
Is our church, our place of worship any more holy than these open spaces that Jesus used? If the Son of God himself did not rebuke the little ones and their mothers when for sure they might be crying, running and playing while He spoke, who are we?
Don’t get me wrong, but if a child is evidently howling, misbehaving and disrupting decorum then I believe the parents as adults will have the discretion to step out for a bit. Not for our sake, mind you, but with due respect for the child and his need for privacy while he emotionally recuperates. But that is a decision that the parents should have the liberty to take and not because they are being embarrassed or gazed down by righteous others, who in the first place should actually be focusing on the Eucharist rather than on an already self-conscious family. Believe me, I’ve been there.
It takes a lot of effort to get little ones ready and on time for mass. A lot of preparation and multitasking and thinking ahead. It’s also taken a choice and a decision to be there, with their kids. And not with the intention of being ‘outstanding’. There is a value they place in being there and that’s the value they want to give to their kids, rain or shine.
Fear and anger make kids respond instantly, love takes patience so extend a little bit of rope while they engage cooperation with their child. If it isn’t working, trust them to do what they need to do. Maybe they are actually trying to teach their child that they need to stay in church rather than be able to get out and play at the drop of a hat. Kids learn these things fairly quickly.
The average attention time of an adult is 20 minutes. A child’s is much less. Our Sunday Mass is no less than 55min. Some of us actually survive fully present for half the Mass. Are you shocked or does it make you smile in agreement? Which is why the Mass isn’t for us to sit and watch as an audience but to be involved in and bring ourselves back to attention as we transition between standing, folding hands, kneeling, bowing, singing.
These are instances we can get our attention back if we really want to. Unfortunately, children aren’t old enough to conceal this tendency to fall out of attention. It requires constant effort to get their attention back gently and subtly. And that isn’t as easy as it seems.
Some days are just bad. In spite of the parents’ best endeavor, the kid might be in no mood to collaborate. That should be ok. We all have our bad days. Imagine someone telling us to snap out of it. As an extended family, we should be able to accept and acknowledge this with empathy and understanding.
‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Here are some handy ways in which you can help:
- If you’re sitting too far to help, ignore the commotion. Don’t try to strain your neck to figure out what’s happening. Say a little prayer for the parent and child and focus on what is actually important; the Eucharist. Trust me, that is a big help in times on distress in church.
- If you’re nearby but not too close to give a helping hand, look at the parent or child with understanding and compassion. If you know how it feels to be in their position, your look will let them know you’ve been there. If not, a little smile, a slight nod or a small thumbs up will give them the message ‘you’ve got this’, ‘you’re doing good’ and ‘this too shall pass.’ This reassurance goes a long way in settling the parent and in turn calming the child.
- If you’re sitting in the pews just in front or behind them turn, just enough to check if there’s anything tangible you can do which might help. Sometimes just a little distraction or attention from a stranger can help give a breather.
- Offer a pen or something small that isn’t of extreme value to you and you don’t mind parting with for a bit, or forever.
- Do not offer sweets or eatable items without permission from the parent. This not only shows courtesy but a respect for the parent who knows best for their child. We never know if the child is allergic to something or a sugar high at that time might just be counterintuitive.
- If you know the child and the family and all of you (this includes the child) are comfortable taking the child with you for sometime. Do it. Take permission before you intervene. Most kids behave better when not with parents. If parents say ‘No’ even with the best of your intention, step back and trust them with their decision.
- Be wary of your help making the situation worse, in which case, jump to the first point..
– If you notice someone who eventually had to take their rambunctious toddler or child out either briefly or for the rest of the service, reach out to them later. They will appreciate your concern and it might help them feel a little less flustered.
- Most importantly, be grateful and whenever possible thank them for getting themselves and their kids for mass. It might just be the encouragement they need to keep coming.
Tips for parents:
- Prepare your kids for Mass. Tell them in advance when you are going for mass and what that means. To meet Jesus and celebrate with the angels, saints, and Mother Mary. Let it be something to look forward to. Your excitement will definitely be observed and absorbed by them.
- Share with them what you would want them to do. Eg. ‘We will talk in whispers, only when needed’, ‘watch what the priest/altar boys are doing’, ‘sing with the choir.’ Instead of what you don’t want them to do. So avoid, ‘don’t talk’, ‘don’t run around’, ‘don’t be fidgety’ and ‘don’t ask for food loudly.’
- Whenever possible go through the readings in advance. This is to avoid the annoyance of straining/being unable to listen to the readings in case your little one needs your attention specifically during those times. You will be kinder towards your child because of this advance preparation from your side.
- Carry a kid’s bible and refer to the relevant pages during Mass. Ok, so theirs is an abridged version and will not have everything. Improvise, if it’s the readings about the Exodus you can always turn to the page with baby Moses and say ‘this baby grew up and that’s who we’re reading about today, listen.’ If it’s absolutely impossible to connect the readings, you can definitely go to where the angels sing gloria, people sing hosanna and the last supper during offertory. This teaches them the relevance of different parts of the mass in relation to the Bible.
- For little ones, always carry snacks and drink, not with the intention of feeding them during mass but as backup when necessary. You know how they always get hungry at odd times and starve when they see/smell some other kid getting a bite on the other end of the church.
- Reflect on the love of God the Father. You will notice how patient, gentle and kind he is in spite of the number of times we have outright disobeyed, acted on impulse and annoyed him. Even though we are adults, He has looked away from our mistakes and forgiven our numerous sins. It is through us that our child experiences God’s everlasting love. This is crucial to their experience at church. You know how we always remember the feelings behind memories. Our kids might not remember the masses they attended with us, but the feeling will stay for a long time to come. If coming for mass, week after week, is a stressful time of being corrected and rebuked and feeling like they were the cause of embarrassment, judgment and annoyance, that’s what they will associate it with later. Maybe one of the reasons why youth find any reference to church as boring and rigid.
- Be aware of your mental state and disposition. Are you stressed, angry, hungry, sleep deprived, sad? This will definitely affect your level of patience and understanding towards your little ones. Be forgiving and loving towards yourself. Maybe even opt for a later mass if it will help or ask your spouse for a little bit more support than usual.
- For times like these when you’re just not up to it, keep some simple things in hand, paper/notebook, colors, favorite book, small toy (not the ones that squeak or make sounds). These might not be ideal times of instruction but definitely times you need to let go and avoid snapping at your kids unnecessarily and teaching them essential life skills like not trying to fill another’s cup when yours is empty and that you as a parent need God too, to comfort you. You will give them a lesson to treasure.
- Strive to not take them out till you’ve tried everything. Be patient and consistent. If they learn that a slightest sound from them will embolden you to step out of the building they will do it sooner and sooner during mass and every time you get them back in.
- Use discretion and step out when needed. If either of you is having a rough time and have exhausted the tricks in your sack, then step out. It’s better than having a fowl mood and a sulking kid for the rest of Mass.
- Support other parents who you see struggling. Just an acknowledging smile while you sit with your ‘better behaved kid of the day’ will give them hope for the next time and know that you understand the tussle.
- Educate and enlighten others when you get a chance or it comes up in conversations. Standing up for the weak and voiceless is a moral responsibility.